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8. Assertive body language

There is more to you than a brain! Communication is not just the words you say: Your whole body communicates your feelings and state of mind. This is known as body language and it plays a part in assertiveness. You might be saying “no” but your tone of voice and your body language is saying that you can be persuaded to change your mind.

Body language connects us back to our primitive past, where physical violence was much more part of everyday life. Our ancestors made themselves look big and threatening, or curled up to make a smaller target as a form of defence. All the worry or anger you feel is part of your biological “fight or flight” system. Unfortunately this system is not helpful for some of our modern problems like doorstep sales or supermarket tantrums.

Type of behaviourBody languageStyle of communication
Aggressive Clenched fists or pointing finger. Glaring eyes. Leaning in, intrusive, invading personal space, staring down, red face. Shouting, insulting, sarcastic, mocking, accusing, threatening, not giving space for replies. Violent and exaggerated statements like “You always…” or “You never…” or “I’ll kill you if…”. Trying to get you to put yourself down like “You’re useless. What are you?”. Saying hurtful things that aren’t really meant.
Passive Looking down, hunched or sitting, taking up a small space, little or no eye contact. Fidgeting, wanting to get be somewhere else. Quiet, apologetic, as if their statements are questions that you can disagree with. Hesitant, with lots of “um… er… if it’s not too much trouble” and similar. Leaving important facts unsaid.
Manipulative Manipulative people may appear to have either assertive or passive body language. They will often agree and try to get away quickly and seem distracted or not really interested. Doing something else like looking at a phone or reading. Hasty and dismissive, as if they’re not really listening. Agreeing quickly.
Assertive Standing upright in a relaxed manner. Maintaining eye contact but not in an intimidating way. Open hands. Looking interested. Calm, interested, not interrupting, asking for more information, not instantly agreeing or disagreeing. Leaving time to think.

You can use body language in the opposite direction too. Your posture and how you speak can change how you feel and make it easier or harder to say certain things. Try the following:

  • If you have to make a difficult phone call, try standing up rather than sitting or walking. It may help you feel and sound more confident and assertive.
  • Make more eye contact and make it clear that you’re listening fully. Remember you’re allowed to say no even after listening fully. You don’t need to try to escape!
  • Be aware of you posture. Are you trying to curl up to avoid being attacked, or clenching your fists as if you’re ready for a fight? Try some of the assertive body language and see how it feels.

Next: 9. NegotiationBack: 7. Saying “no” in your life

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