Assertiveness is an attitude and a way of relating to the outside world backed up by a set of skills for effective communication. To be truly assertive you need to see yourself as a being of worth and as having a right to enjoy life. At the same time you value others equally respecting their right to an opinion and to enjoy themselves.

This view allows you to engage respectfully with other people whilst also respecting your own needs. Assertiveness ensures that you are not hurt, used or violated.

At certain times most people find it difficult to communicate honestly, directly and openly with other people. There are two other main ways of relating to others by being passive or being aggressive.

Assertiveness involves the following:

Being clear about what you feel, what you need and how it can be achieved

Saying “yes” when you want to say “no” when you mean “no” (rather than agreeing to do something just to please someone else)

Deciding on and sticking to clear boundaries, being happy to defend your position even if it provokes conflict

Being confident about handling conflict as it occurs

Being able to talk openly about yourself and being able to listen to others

Having confident open body language

Being able to give and receive positive and negative feedback

Having a positive optimistic outlook


When someone doesn’t know how to express him or herself assertively they tend to resort to passive modes of communication in an attempt to punish or undermine the other person without them knowing the real cause of the behavior. They may play games, use sarcasm, give in resentfully, or remain silent at their own cost.


One of the myths about assertive behavior is that it involves being aggressive. This isn’t true. Assertiveness involves clear, calm thinking and respectful negotiation within a space where each person is entitled to their own opinion. Aggression involves bottling up feelings which eventually explode leaving no room for communication.

While some people think that being assertive is about being selfish it is in fact the opposite. Assertiveness is about acknowledging all opinions as important. An assertive attitude says, “I matter and you do too”. Learning how to express yourself assertively can seem daunting at first but there are many things you can do to learn to become more assertive.


An important part of assertiveness is open, secure body language. The way that you hold yourself has an impact on how you are perceived and treated. Passive body language would be the classic “victim” stance of hunched shoulders and avoidance of eye contact whilst an aggressive stance is one with clenched fists, glaring eyes and intrusive body language.

Assertive people generally stand upright but in a relaxed manner looking people calmly in the eyes with open hands. A good first step to becoming more assertive is to consider your own body language through role-play.


It is easy to think that you are completely at the mercy of your feelings, but in fact your not. To some extent the way you feel is dictated by the way you think and the bad feelings are often the result of unhelpful patterns of thinking.

We all have negative thoughts and feelings from time to time. Problems with relationships, pressures at home or at work, worries about money or physical health can lead to feelings of stress anxiety or even in some people a sense of desperation and hopelessness.

By expressing your feelings openly promotes a sense of well being and freedom from tension. It helps us recover from hurtful experiences and also helps other people to understand what’s going on inside us. Of course there are times when displays of emotion aren’t helpful, but hiding or holding back our feelings can cause tensions that affect our physical and mental health.


You are thinking negatively when you fear the future, put yourself down, criticize yourself for errors, doubt your abilities or expect failure. Negative thinking damages confidence and harms performance. The problem with this is that negative thoughts tend to flit into our consciousness do their damage and flit back out again. Because we do not challenge them they can be completely incorrect and wrong however this does not diminish their harmful affect.


Self esteem means ‘appreciating your own worth and importance’ and this helps you cope better with the challenges of life.

Self-esteem means:

We have a positive attitude
We value ourselves highly
We’re convinced of our own abilities
We see ourselves as competent, in control of our own lives and able to do and feel how we want to
Low self-esteem can mean helplessness, powerlessness and sometimes even depression.

Our own self-esteem has huge implications for our own life’s paths. Our history of self-esteem begins as children and follows us throughout our lives and can affect all the decisions we make and they way we act.

Life isn’t always fair and even our best efforts aren’t always successful but high esteem can help and assist a person when ‘weathering the storm’ and help us get through life’s downturns.


There are many techniques to develop assertive behavior. Most are based on ‘the three-line assertion message’, in which:

1. You understand and summarise the facts of the situation

2. You indicate your feelings towards the situation

3. You state your requirements, reasons and benefits to the other party if appropriate.

Assertion normally comprises this three line assertive message. This technique enables you to confront the other person with your concern without being personally aggressive but it is not easy and demands skilful conversation control.

1. “When you.………….” (State facts)

2. “I feel uncomfortable …..…..” (State feelings)

3. “I would like……….(state requirements)………….in this way we will be able to work together more productively because……………..” (Benefits to the other party)

Here the person relates the behavior that causes offence, says how he/she feels and then gives a reason. Note there are no such attributions as ‘You are deliberately annoying me’, there are no swear words, there are no put-downs of the other person. The emphasis is on indicating how you feel and thereby seeking to gain a positive rather than an aggressive response from the other person.

Here are some more guidelines for assertive delivery

Acknowledge and be honest about your own feelings to yourself
Adopt new positive inner dialogue for situations where you need to be more assertive
· Be clear, specific and direct in what you say
· If necessary, keep repeating your message if you encounter objections
· If necessary ask for clarification if you are uncertain about something
· If necessary acknowledge diversion tactics then again repeat your message
And always ask yourself these questions

How can I express my message more clearly?
How can I be more specific about what I have to say?
Am I likely to have to repeat my message? Will I feel comfortable doing this?
· Am I prepared to respond to their red herrings and at the same time stick to my message?
· What body language will I use to back up my message?


Comment on specific actions. For example, ‘You handled that awkward customer very well by listening to her argument instead of interrupting’ rather than, ‘you’re quite good with difficult people, aren’t you?’ The second comment was too general, it didn’t give the other person specific feedback about what she/he did well. Another example is ‘You missed the deadline for that report’ rather than ‘you’re absolutely hopeless at managing your time.’ Again the second statement is too general and subjective. ‘Absolutely hopeless’ is not a good starting point for developing specific time management behaviours.

Follow this up with reasons for your comments.  This is helpful whether the comments are positive or negative because we need to know what we are being praised for if we are to know how to use it as helpful feedback. ‘ you missed the deadline for that report, probably because you have been spending more time on the telephone sales than we planned.  Perhaps we should discuss how you should allocate your time in the future’.

Don’t use praise as a way of manipulating people into doing something for you, e.g. ‘you are the most hardworking member of the department and I really appreciate the effort you put in for the meeting this afternoon.  Perhaps you could just write up the minutes for me?’ This manipulation makes the praise insincere.

When giving criticism seek solutions rather than commenting on somebody’s personality.  ‘You’re getting far too many complaints from members of the public recently.  What the heck’s the matter with you?’ is very helpful.  Instead say ‘you seem to be getting complaints from members of the public in your section at the moment.  Do you know what the problem is?’

Above all avoid public put downs or criticism in situations which will cause embarrassment.


Consider typical situations at work, which require assertive behavior and practice your approach. Typical situations might include:

  • Giving criticism to a close colleague
  • Having to refuse to accept additional work
  • Asking help from a notoriously ‘difficult’ colleague.

1. Explain the situation to a friend or colleague, briefing him/her about whomever you will be talking to.

2. Use role-play to talk through the situation. Make your points clearly. In this conversation the other person will respond as the appropriate character.

3. Ask the other person what you did well and what you could improve. If it will help talk through the situation again.

4. Finally swap roles this will give you the opportunity of picking up other ideas from the other person. At the same time you will experience the other side of the assertive approach.


To test your assertiveness there are some typical situations below. Be completely honest with yourself and write down how you would naturally react in each situation.

On a piece of paper  number from 1 to 6. Write your choice a, b, or c after each number.

1. You are in a restaurant and order a steak medium-rare, but it is served to you well done.

You would:

a Accept it without comment because you sometimes like it well done anyway.

b Angrily refuse the steak and insist on seeing the manager to complain about the poor service.

c Call the waiter and indicate you ordered your steak medium-rare and would like another steak cooked to your requirements.

2. You are a customer waiting in queue to be served in your busy lunch hour. Suddenly, a frail old lady steps in line ahead of you and claims that she is in a hurry.

You would:

a Let her stay in front of you since she is already in line and it would be rude to speak out.

b Pull her out of line and, in a loud and angry manner make her go to the back.

c Calmly indicate to her that you are also in a hurry and have queued, then point out where it begins.

3. After walking out of a store where you purchased some items you discover you were short-changed by £3. 

You would:

a Let it go since you are already out of the store and have no proof you were short-changed. After all it’s only £3.

b Go to the manager and argue that the assistant cheated you, then demand the proper change.

c Return to the clerk and inform him/her of the error.


4. You are in a group discussion at work, which includes your boss. A colleague asks you a question about your work, but you don’t know the answer.

You would:

a Give your colleague a false, but plausible answer so your boss will think you are on top of things.

b Do not answer, but attack your colleague by asking a question you know he/she could not answer.

c Indicate to your colleague you are unsure just now, but offer to give him/her the information later.


5. You are in the middle of watching your favourite television program when your partner comes in and asks you for a non-urgent favour, which could mean missing the rest of the show.

You would:

a Do the favour as quickly as possible, and then return to the program to finish watching what is left of it.

b Say, “No way, I’m not missing this. You should have asked me earlier.” then finish watching your program.

c. Ask if it can wait until the program is over and, if so, do it then.


6. A friend drops into your office to say hello and catch up on the latest office gossip, but is staying too long, preventing you from finishing an important project. Your friend is unaware that he is interrupting your work.

You would:

a Let him stay because you don’t want to upset him. Then you would finish your work at home that evening.

b Tell the person to stop bothering you and to get out.

c Explain your need to finish your work and request he/she visit another time.


In general, there are three broad styles of interpersonal behavior. These are: a) Passive, b) Aggressive, and c) Assertive.

The “a” choices in the quiz are representative of the Passive style. Thus, the more “a” choices you made, the more passive you are.

The “b” choices in the quiz are representative of the Aggressive style. Thus, the more “b” choices you made, the more aggressive you are.

The “c” choices in the quiz are representative of the Assertive style. Thus, the more “c” choices you made, the more assertive you are.

a) The Passive style of interpersonal behavior is characterized by inaction and indecision. People using this style tend to be easy to get along with and pleasant, but unwilling to stand up for their rights, for fear of offending others. They are very uncomfortable expressing anger and usually deny or suppress this feeling should it occur. As a result, resentment can easily build under the surface producing stress and tension.

b) The Aggressive style is characterized by intrusiveness. People who use this style tend to go after what they want, but are unconcerned about how this will affect others. Their angry, dominating manner tends to alienate people who, in time, may seek to oppose them. Aggressive individuals are usually suspicious of others and are often on the look out for infractions or violations of their rights. Thus, the Aggressive style produces stress and prohibits the development of close, trusting, and caring interpersonal relationships.

c) The Assertive style is characterized by both fairness and strength. Assertive individuals are able to stand up for their rights, but remain sensitive to the rights of others. People, who choose this style is usually relaxed and easy going, but are honest about their feelings.

This is the best style for minimizing stress and maintaining long-standing intimate relationships.

Assertiveness is one of the essential skills in the modern working environment. There are many benefits of being assertive such as; better time management, increased self-esteem and the ability to negotiate more effectively. Assertion means standing up for what you want. It means expressing opposition. It means confrontation. It takes courage. Some find it harder than others because of their natural easy-going style and therefore more practice is required. However, the aim should not be just to gain a win. The aim should be to solve the problem and get the best result.

Look at the “c” answers again. If you move your everyday behaviour closer to the “c” style of response, you will likely experience an increase in feelings of self-esteem and a decrease in feelings of stress.

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