Can You Be Nice and Assertive at the Same Time?


In thinking about distinguishing between assertive and nice behavior, I recall the famous line by Leo Durocher, the player and manager of several baseball teams,  “Nice guys finish last.”  In an earlier blog, I broke down the concept of assertiveness into four behaviors.  To briefly recapitulate: These behaviors consist of the following:  1) The ability to say No; 2) The ability to make positive or negative comments to anyone; 3) The ability to both initiate and terminate a conversation with a friend, acquaintance or stranger and 4) The ability to ask for a favor or a request of a relative, friend or acquaintance.

Nice is probably one of the most overused words in the English language and, consequently, it is a poor descriptor of human behavior.  I can relate to many of my clients who don’t want to hurt other people’s feelings and/or want to be liked by everyone.  Those that try and accomplish this impossible feat, and here, I confess to having these tendencies, represent the quintessence of what it means to be “nice.”  This high need of approval, craved by many, inhibits the expression of the above assertive behaviors in various situations.  Niceness, in this sense, can result in self-demeaning behavior that may lead to a not so pleasant life experience.  Frequently, I have had to oppose my natural instinct, to let things ride by not putting my foot down to draw the line, when others may be taking advantage of me.  One who regards others as more important than his or herself will have difficulty winning, and will more than likely, finish last in the game of life.

Assertive behavior is a right and not a privilege.  When I just had graduated college back in 1967, I attended a conference sponsored by the American Psychological Association, in Washington D.C.  The session that most vividly stands out in my mind was a film showing and exploring the relics Freud had kept in his office where he practiced before he died.  One of these was his pipe.  This was a time when smoking was not universally prohibited, as it is currently. There was a gentleman in his 50’s, who appeared quite erudite, sitting next to me in the packed theater.  In the front of the auditorium by the stage, one clearly could see a sign in bold red letters that read:  No Smoking.   After the lights were dimmed marking the start of the film, to my misfortune my scholarly friend pulled out a cigar and lit it, completely oblivious to the sign.  His age and his demeanor thwarted me such that I felt it inappropriate to interrupt the pleasure he appeared to be deriving from his cigar.  So, I sat through the movie (fortunately, it was quite short) having to breathe in and endure the obnoxious aroma and air permeated by the cigar’s smoke.

The above example illustrates the point that age and/or status do not preempt another’s right in asserting oneself.   Because no one else asked him not to smoke, it was apparent that I was not alone in having been intimidated by this individual.  Although it was within my right to confront him, I, like the others, remained silent.

About two years ago, I experienced another situation in which I chose not to assert myself.  I had been going to the same fitness club as another fellow, who I will call Jim for the sake of confidentiality.  Physically, he was quite muscular and much bigger than I was.  We often exercised at about the same time and, so over time, we maintained a cordial relationship and became friendly acquaintances.  However, after some months had passed by, I noticed that he had become distant and less friendly than previously.  Subsequently, on one occasion, I felt the butt of his intrusive manner, when he preempted a bench that I was about to use, despite the fact that his partner indicated I had been waiting to go next.  He acted as if I were invisible, saying “it’s no big deal,” and he took the bench without my confronting him.  I felt both surprised and nonplussed by his action and, in thinking there might have been negative repercussions if I had objected, decided not to risk incurring his wrath by asserting myself.

A few months later, while doing curls with a barbell, I was waiting for a female to finish using another bench.  When she got off the bench, Jim approached her and asked her if she was finished using it, and though she nodded yes, she pointed out to him that I had been waiting to get on it.  When he saw me pick up the barbell to complete my last set of curls, in defiance, he said: “You’re not using it now.  You can go use the other bench.”  In the past, whenever a situation like this would arise with someone else, either that person would let me use the bench or might ask how long I would be using it.  Jim did neither.  Nevertheless, feeling intimidated and fearful of an angry confrontation, I allowed Jim to preempt me and take the bench.

Afterwards, I did not feel good about my inability to stand up to Jim.  To reiterate, might and strength are not equal to right, although, I must say, it did not feel that way.  It weighed on my mind to such an extent that I knew, for my own sanity, I needed to approach Jim about it. Given my understanding of this man, I wanted to avoid an angry clash with him, so I decided to take the advice of a psychiatrist friend and employ a technique similar to what is known as disarming.  This strategy involved my inquiring whether or not I had done something wrong to alter what had begun as a rather congenial relationship.

When I saw alone him outside of the fitness room, I went over to him and employed my disarming technique but it had little effect on the interaction.  I made a point of giving him direct eye contact, and not looking away from him, due to feeling threatened or frightened. In essence, he said that I had not done anything to piss him off but “things change over time.”  I assumed he was referring to his own personal situation, and I wanted to stay away from that insofar as it had little bearing on what had happened between the two of us. Although he was semi-apologetic about the bench, there remained a combination of anger and defensiveness in his tone of voice.  Because Jim said he was beginning to feel uncomfortable after I had made my point, I decided not to pursue it any further.

Although I had wished my talk with Jim to have been more conciliatory, I did feel better about expressing myself in an assertive manner.    About a week later, when I entered the locker room, Jim, sitting alone, started to stare at me.  In refusing to allow fear to overwhelm me, I returned his stare, again looking directly in his eyes.  Neither of said a word to the other.  I said to myself: “Fine, if this is what he wants, I will let him have it.”  In asserting my right to be present was no less than his right, I realized that, for now, a cordial relationship between the two of us was not in the picture.  However, what was different for me now than in the past, was I could accept that as a fact of life, with little worry or further thought.  If I had been “nice,” I would have allowed Jim to not respect my space when lifting weights.  Regardless, of how he acts toward me in the future, I made it abundantly clear that my space in the gym is as important as his.


By docallegro

Consulting Psychologist
Specialties in: Cognitve-Behavioral Interventions, Conflict Resolution, Mediation, Stress Management, Relationship Expertise, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Fluent in Spanish

2 replies on “Can You Be Nice and Assertive at the Same Time?”

I really appreciate you point of view about assertiveness article as well as your article about the Serenity Prayer.

Glad both you recognized the positive comment about safely navigating the street as well as feeling better yourself of having done it. Keep up the good work

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