Career Advice

Building confidence: 3 language essentials to sound assertive instead of aggressive

Dolon Gupta
Dolon Gupta
Posted on 24 May 2022
15:48 PM
A confident person does not hesitate to listen to opposing points of view.

A confident person does not hesitate to listen to opposing points of view. Shutterstock

A confident person usually talks less, appears compassionate and listens attentively to others
Confidence can look humble, fragile and diminutive like Mahatma Gandhi

Have you watched Ratan Tata’s interviews? He speaks softly, slowly, almost gently caressing his words as he utters them. While watching one of his interviews, my reaction was – ‘Wow! That’s what a confident man sounds like!’ He exudes complete faith in himself.

Ratan Tata may be a renowned figure, but even within family and friends, the person who comes across as the most confident one in the room is not the one who shouts the loudest, cracks the funniest joke or has the wittiest comeback. It’s usually the one who talks less, appears compassionate and listens attentively to others. There is something quiet about confidence.

The Dalai Lama is known for his infectious laugh. Pleasant demeanour and good humour are also markers of confidence. A person who has a situation under control doesn’t get upset. For us ordinary mortals, it would be impossible to stay calm all the time, but at such moments, “fake it till you make it” works pretty well.


In his famous book Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman says, “…being amused makes you smile, and smiling tends to make you feel amused… simple, common gestures can also unconsciously influence our thoughts and gestures.” This basically means that we can control behaviour and use it as a tool to influence our minds.

Behavioural coaches talk of self-worth — one of the foundational components of confidence. A way to measure self-worth is to catch ourselves at self-talk. “I won’t be able to do it”, “Others think I’m no good” — phrases like these are obviously indicative of low levels of self-worth.

On the contrary, repeated self-talk like “Whatever others may say, I know I’m worth a lot” and “I have it in me to overcome difficulties” reinforces ourselves from within. The building blocks of self-confidence lie within, not without.

Here are three essentials that we need in our language toolkit to build confidence:

Am vs Have: Lack of self-worth is associated with not “being” good enough. We tend to compensate for this by using what we “have”. Possessions become props that help bolster confidence. But what we have — money, status, family name, looks, position — are temporary. Ancient Greek philosophy noted that where the Wheel of Fortune was concerned, “What goes up, must come down’. What we possess or inherit can vanish into thin air very quickly.

A stronger foundation of confidence can be achieved by developing intrinsic qualities rather than possessing extrinsic assets. “I am” rather than “I have” builds a stronger core. Just like consistent weight training builds muscle, consistent training can build confidence.

Pace, Volume and Pitch: Pace and volume don’t need to be turned up a notch. On the contrary, turning it down a notch demonstrates confidence. Raising one’s voice, speaking rapidly or a high pitch demonstrate anger, frenzy or lack of control over situations. An average person speaks about 125–150 words per minute. The closer one stays to 125 words per minute, the more confident one sounds. We are always transmitting information via non-verbal and paraverbal signals. Interlocutors pick up such signals instinctively.

Assertive vs Aggressive: Instilling fear in the adversary should not be confused with confident behaviour. “How dare you say I’m lying? Just say it again and see what I do to you!”, “You need some sense knocked into your thick brain before good ideas come out”. Aggressive sentences, bordering on the abusive, are framed by angry people who just want to unload venom.

The following sentences carry the same message but also demonstrate confidence — “The accusation is unacceptable and unfounded. Please take it back”, “When you shout, I react. That will not help me complete the work. Please can you tell me calmly what you expect from me”. Assertive sentences show that one is capable of defending oneself and, moreover, capable of taking control of a situation.

Chest-thumping moves and arrogant statements don’t mean confidence. Aggressive people win battles, while confident people win wars. A confident person is someone who does not hesitate to listen to points of view opposed to their own and if required, acknowledge, accept and even adopt them. Saying “I stand corrected” or “I’m sorry, that was a mistake” does not dent a confident person’s pride. Confidence can look humble, fragile and diminutive like Mahatma Gandhi.

Dolon Gupta is a consultant specialising in Communication, Culture and Soft Skills. She is the co-founder of Business Communication Facilitators Association of India (BCFAI

Last updated on 24 May 2022
15:48 PM
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