Why Bother to Become Assertive

You will probably be aware of the many disadvantages of being unassertive but you may well be less aware of the advantages of assertiveness. The first thing to do is to look at the disadvantages of being unassertive. If we are unassertive we risk:

  • being exploited and treated as a “pushover”
  • not getting the respect that you deserve and hating yourself for it
  • resenting people who ask you to do things when you agree unwillingly spending time on other people's priorities and responsibilities rather than your own
  • personal exhaustion and despair at being unable to succeed at being all things to all people
  • depression as the backlog of resentment gets turned inwards on yourself
  • loss of own identity

How many of these do you recognise about your own situation? So what are the advantages of being assertive?

  • we are able to communicate our needs more openly and honestly
  • we come away from situations knowing that we have done our best even if we haven't got what we wanted
  • we become more self-confident and relaxed and are happy to be ourselves
  • we are aware of both our strenghts and weaknesses and are not afraid of taking risks
  • we will be able to view mistakes positively and see them as an opportunity to learn
  • we develop the ability to know when we are being treated unjustly or being exploited and will be able to deal with the situation effectively
  • finally we learn to use our assertiveness skills appropriately, knowing when it's best to take a back seat and when to stand our ground and fight

Remember that being assertive is not about “winning” or “gettlng what you want” all the time. It is not about being selfish. It Is about being able to express yourself freely end to stand up for your rights, but without violating the rights of others. It Is about negotiation and compromise.

Aggressive,Passive or Assertive — What's The Difference?

Many people are confused about the differences between aggressive, passive and assertive behaviour. Very often assertiveness is seen as being “selfish” or “greedy”. This may well originate from the belief that we should always put other people before ourselves.

Being selfish entails getting what you want without due regard to others and if necessary by violating their rights as human beings. If we are assertive we treat others as equals and we not only acknowledge and stand up for our rights but for their's as well.

Frequently being assertive is seen as being aggressive. Being aggressive may well sometimes get us what we want but it will also make the people that we deal with feel “put-down”, a loser and that they are not being shown the respect they deserve as a fellow human being. It may also result in people being aggressive in return.

The advantage of being assertive Is that you can go Into a situation where you may lose eventually, you're not given the job you want or you may find that people renege on a contract they've made with you, but you feel better about yourself If you say what you feel and If you're clear about expressing that. It's about increasing self-confidence and self-respect rather than winning every time.

(Anne Dickson - author of “A Woman In Your Own Right”)

By bringing our wants, needs and feelings into the open, and making others aware of them, we can often avoid much of the confusion and unstated anger and frustration that often exists in relation- ships. Being assertive means:

  • deciding what we want
  • deciding if it is fair
  • asking for it clearly
  • not being afraid to take risks
  • being calm and relaxed
  • expressing our feelings openly
  • giving and taking compliments easily
  • giving and taking fair criticism

It does not mean:

  • beating about the bush
  • going behind people's backs
  • bullying
  • calling people names
  • bottling up our feelings

Aggressive and Passive Behaviour

Aggressive Behaviour

Hostile or coercive words or actions that communicate disrespect towards others constitutes aggressive behaviour. It involves standing up for one's rights and expressing one's thoughts, feelings and beliefs in a way which is usually inappropriate and always violates the rights of the other person. Superiority is maintained by putting others down.

Aggressive behaviour is maintained through the belief that the person has more rights, but fewer responsibilities, and more personal worth than others.

Passive Behaviour

This involves failing to express our wants, needs or feelings or communicating them in an indirect or apologetic way. When we fail to communicate our concerns or wishes, or express them in a hesitant, joking or self-depreciating way, other people will not know how we feel or will misinterpret our actions. As passive responders we allow others to “walk over us” (the doormat syndrome). We allow our rights to be violated in the belief that we have fewer rights, or more responsibilities than others, and that we have less personal worth than they do.

When someone makes a request of us we respond by meeting their demands even thought we might feel angry at having to do so and possibly making a bad job of it on purpose. We do this rather than tell people our objections or simply saying “no”. Aggression, and passive or running away behaviour is often the result of the build up of feelings of frustration, anxiety and anger because we have been manipulated by others through our anxiety or guilt.

Becoming Assertive

This involves standing up for our personal rights and expressing our thoughts, feelings and beliefs directly, honestly and spontaneously in a way that is respectful of the rights of other people. An assertive person evaluates a situation, decides how to act, and responds without undue anxiety or guilt. They respect themselves and other people and take responsibility for their actions and decisions. They are aware of what they want and ask for it in an open and direct manner. If refused, they feel appropriately disappointed but they do not suffer a blow to their self-esteem.

Assertive behaviour is based on the belief that the person have the same rights, responsibilities and personal self-worth as other people.

Assertive rights are those rights and expectations that any human being has by virtue of their existence. The important thing to remember is that everybody has these rights. As human beings we have:

  • The right to ask for what we want (realising that the other person has the right to say “No”).
  • The right to express our feelings, opinions and beliefs.
  • The right to make our own decisions and to cope with the consequences.
  • The right to say “yes” and “no” for ourselves.
  • The right to change our minds.
  • The right to say “I don't understand”
  • The right to choose whether or not to get involved in the problems of someone else.
  • The right to make mistakes.
  • The right to be alone and to be independent.
  • The right to privacy.
  • The right to be successful and to acknowledge it.
  • The right to change ourselves and be assertive people.

Its all too easy for us to forget that we have these rights and that makes it even more difficult to stand up and fight for them. The more aware we are of the rights we have, the more confident we will be about working towards them.

Read through the list of rights on a regular basis to remind yourself of them. If you have difficulty accepting any of them, then mark these on the list and spend some time thinking about how abusing these rights is stopping you from getting the most our of life. You might find it helpful to discuss them with someone who doesn't lack assertiveness.


Being assertive is not just about dealing with the negative and problematic aspects of our lives. It is also about being able to acknowledge our strengths and to recognize when we have done something well. It is also about improving our self-esteem and our self-confidence.

Respecting and valuing ourselves, having self-esteem, is one of the corner-stones of assertiveness. Often our experiences can lead us to have a diminished level of self-respect which is further diminished by our tendancy to compare ourselves with others, attempting to live up to their expectations, and negating our own strengths.

However, each one of us is unique. Each one of us is different, but equal. Our most helpful option is to accept ourselves for what we are as individuals in our own rights and not in comparison to others. Having strong self-esteem is not believing that we are perfect, but simply accepting ourselves for who we are.

Giving and Taking Compliments

One way of improving our self-esteem is to learn to accept our positive aspects, to acknowledge these with others by accepting compliments. Asking people to identify negative and positive aspects of themselves usually results in a long list of negatives with maybe a few positive points.

Our lack of self-confidence and self-esteem inhibits our ability to identify our strengths. When we do make, or acknowledge, a positive comment about ourselves we invariably follow it up with a negative remark: “Yes, I am a good player, but I should be, I've been playing for years”.

It is all too easy to reject compliments if our self-esteem is low and we believe that we don't deserve them. However, rejecting compliments simply feeds into the already poor view we have of ourselves. Learning to accept compliments comfortably can take some practice, but as we become more used to it we will find that is has a positive affect on how we view ourselves. We very soon begin to feel good about ourselves. To help you to accept compliments, which for many people is difficult, just agree with it in a simple and direct way. Ex: “Thank you, I think it looks nice on me too” “Thank you, I thought I did a good job as well!” Listen to what people tell you about yourself, and give them the benefit of the doubt. They may be right, but then you can still make your own judgement about it and do what you decide.

Expressing opinions is not always about standing up for our rights, sometimes it can be about saying that we like something, someone, or something that someone has done for us. Having learned to accept compliments and become aware of the positive effect they have on us, we can move on to giving them to other people. In doing so we need to be assertive stating our feelings or opinions in a clear and straightforward manner. There is no better way of improving our relationships with other people.

Taking Risks

Another way of improving our self-esteem is to start taking “risks” by starting to do things that we don't do because of our lack of assertiveness. Our level of self-esteem is affected by our everyday activities; the more risks we take, the more our self-esteem increases.

Jim's self-confidence was consistently being knocked by his workmates. He was allowing himself to be exploited at work, always ending up doing the boring, mundane jobs that no-one else wanted to do. As time went on he began to feel more and more worthless and his self-esteem diminished. Once he began to put into practice the techniques that he had learnt at assertiveness training, and started to take risks by standing up for himself and fulfilling some of this own needs, his self-esteem rose to a level where he began to tackle things that previously he had thought himself incapable of.

There are many ways of taking risks, some of them are even enjoyable! Here are a few ideas:

  • starting up a conversation with someone in a queue
  • going into the pub alone
  • taking up a new hobby
  • acknowledging your strengths to other people
  • making time for yourself
  • buying a different style of clothing
  • going to see a film you wouldn't normally see
  • asking for help and support when you need it
  • going to a disco
  • giving and taking compliments

Start by taking small risks and gradually build up your'risk taking', working towards taking the big chances in your life. Accepting and looking after ourselves is not entirely selfish. The quality of our relationships with other people is ultimately enhanced by our self-esteem. It is also vital when we learn to deal with criticism.

Personal Problem Profile

The next stage in any assertiveness training programme involves identifying which particular situations or activities we would like to be more assertive in. Possible problem areas: Giving compliments Making requests, eg. asking for favours/help Initiating and maintaining conversations Refusing requests Expressing personal opinions Expressing anger/displeasure Expressing affection Stating your rights and needs.

Using the above as a checklist, identify any difficulties you have in the following areas:

  • Friends of the same sex
  • Friends of the opposite sex
  • Intimate relations/spouse
  • Authority figures
  • Relatives/family members
  • Colleagues and subordinates
  • Strangers
  • Sales personnel/garage mechanics
  • Waiters
  • Neighbours

Once you have identified areas in which you would like to be more assertive, draw up a list of specific personal examples. Each item on this list then needs to be rated on a scale of O - 8 (where O represents no difficulty and 8 represents the most difficult), and arranged in order of difficulty, with the hardest at the top and the easiest at the bottom.

Now you can start to work on your difficulties in an ordered and graded way. By starting with the easiest situations we quickly gain skill and our confidence grows accordingly. This will have the effect of making the more difficult situations less daunting.

Broken Record

People usually lose in situations of conflict with other people because they give up, or take “no” for an answer too easily. The art of persistence is one of the most important aspects of being verbally assertive. Using the broken record technique allows us to repeat over and over what it is we want, in a calm and relaxed manner. In learning to be persistent we may also need to learn to Ignore the excess of “whys” or “reasons” or “logic” and guilt inducing statements from the other person.

The Goal:

To be clear about what it is you want to say and to repeat this over and over again, without getting angry, irritated or raising your voice, until the other person gives in or agrees to negotiate.

When it's useful:

  • dealing with situations where your rights are clearly in danger of being violated coping with situations where you are likely to be diverted by clever but irrelevant arguments
  • situations where you are likely to lose your self-confidence because you could be affected by “digs” or “put downs” to your self-esteem

For example: when saying 'no' or refusing unreasonable requests, especially when the other person is someone in authority or is not listening.

What to do:

Decide what it is you want to say and then speak as though you were a broken record - be persistent, stick to the point and keep repeating it, ignoring the side issues. Do not be detered by, or respond to, anything which is off the point you are trying to make. Just keep saying in a calm, repetitive voice what you want to say until the other persno hears what you are saying. Broken records eventually get listened to, it's uncomfortable to listen to them for too long.

Ex: 1 2

Decide on your goal- “I would like a refund” Repeat the message

“But the point is”

“The main issue is”

“I guess I'm not making myself clear ... ”

The advantage of this technique is that once you have decided what it is that you want to say its plain sailing from then on. You simply sit back and relax because you know exactly what you are going to say, regardless of how the other person reacts.


Negotiation often follows from the Broken Record and is essential when the other person doesn't give in or is being assertive back. Remember assertiveness is about standing up for your rights and not necessarily getting your own way.

There are some situations where no matter how assertive you are, you are not going to get what you want. There are no set of skills that can guarantee 100% success in every situation.

Negotiation is about empathising with the other person and coming to a workable compromise that jeopardises neither your rights nor self-respect, or those of the other person.

Follow these guidelines for successful negotiation:


try to really understand what it feels like to be in the other person's shoes. If they are showing any feelings acknowledge that you are aware of them

ex: “I understand that :”

“I can see this is important to you:”


make sure that you fully understand the other persons reasoning, their position and their needs. If not, ASK.


if possible use anxiety management techniques to help prepare for difficult situations.

BE PREPARED: do your homework thoroughly and be aware of any facts and figures that support your case.

BE SPECIFIC: don't get side-tracked by irrelevant issues or fall for “red herrings”. Use the broken record to bring the discussion back to the main theme.

COMPROMISE: don't be stubborn and wait for the other person to “give in” first.

In most situations, it's better and healthier to cope with assertion together with a willingness to look for a workable compromise and there is usually something, somehow, somewhere that you can do make things more workable.

Preparing For Situations — Scripting

Sometimes it will appear that assertive people are able to deal with difficult situations without thinking, reacting spontaneously. However, this is often the result of pre-planning.

Before going into situations that we know might be difficult it is advisable to think objectively about all aspects of the problem. In this way we can plan what it is we want, what we want to say, how the other person might respond and how we would deal with any potential difficulties.

The basic idea behind scripting is that you can take a real life situation and view it as a scene from a play. It entails considering all aspects of the situation — the other person's feelings, wants and needs, their motivation and behaviour. From this we can prepare our lines so that we can start off on the right foot. ie. from an assertive standpoint. It will help us to ensure that we manage to get our message across without faultering or becoming lost for words. Often if we are unassertive we can quickly lose confidence in situations, become so flustered that we forget what we wanted to say, and leave without achievi~g anything except making ourselves feel even worse.

There are four main components to scripting:



— Explain the situation as you see it, as objectively as possible

— Keep to the point and don't bring in irrelevant issues

— Be factual - describe what is actually happening

— don't make assumptions

— Be brief - keep their attention


— Acknowledge your own feelings and take responsibility for them eg: “I'm angry” rather than “You make me angry”

— Empathize with the other persons feelings, try to understand how they feel eg: “I can see that you are irritated” or “I appreciate your predicament”

This is often a good way of dealing with someone who is angry as it shows them that you are also thinking of them. This too may have the effect of reducing their anger as it will be obvious that they have got their message across.


We need to make sure that the other person is aware of what we want out of the situation so that it can be resolved.

— Be selective — only make a few demands at a time

— Be realistic — make sure the other person is able to give you what you want — don't expect miracles

— Be prepared to compromise or negotiate unless it is a situation in which your basic human rights are being violated.


Finally, we must let the other person know what will happen as a result of their co-operation.

— Outline the benefits of your demands being met, even if these are relatively small, ego that you will feel happier, that you will continue to shop at their store.

Or, if they don't co-operate:

— Outline the drawbacks, again however small.

It's best to outline the positive consequences before the negative ones!

When we first start scripting it can be useful if we prepare our scripts on paper. This can often make things easier. Consider the following example and try a few of your own.


A store manager needs to confront a young sales assistant about his perpetual lateness.


“Jim, I'd like to talk to you about the fact that you've been late for work every morning for the last fortnight”


“I'm becoming irritated with your behaviour and I'm concerned that it is causing other people more work. I know that you live a long way from the shop ...”


“... if you could make an effort to arrive on time in the mornings ...”


“... it would save other people having to cover for you and I would be very grateful”

Coping With Criticism

Learning to handle criticism is one of the most positive aspects of assertiveness training. Constructive criticism is a valuable asset in understanding how our behaviour effects other people. Developing this awareness allows us to change our behaviour in response to this feedback and to have a positive effect on our relationships.

However, not all criticism is constructive. Much of it is inaccurate, to say the least, and is often used either to “put us down”, or to manipulate us into doing things for others.

Our automatic response tends to follow one of three courses:

a) Feeling as though we are “under attack” and denying it vehemently, even if It is constructive, and missing out on an opportunity to make positive changes to our behaviour.

b) Accepting it as completely true, without questioning it, and apologising.

c) Acknowledging that the criticism is untrue but saying nothing about it and “sulking”

Whichever one ot these responses we choose we end up feeling anxious or frustrated, and our self-esteem takes yet another knock.

Learning to deal assertively with criticism therefore, involves considering it objectively, deciding on the accuracy of it, and responding in a clear and honest fashion.

Step One: Listen to the Criticism

It is essential to listen carefully to what is being said and to give ourselves time to consider the criticism. This helps us to avoid the tendency to immediately jump to our own defence, or accepting it whole regardless of its truth or inaccuracy. Sometimes we are unsure about what people mean, and in these situations we need to ask for clarification. “Can you give me a specific example?”; “I'm not sure what you mean, could you be a bit clearer?”

Step Two: Decide on the truth

Not all criticism is true. We need to check its validity before deciding how to react. Criticism may be completely true, partly true, completely untrue or given in the form of a put-down; and the form that it takes will determine how we need to respond to it. When we first start to do this we may find it difficult to shift out of old ways of responding to criticism, ie. it is all too easy to continue accepting criticism as true simply because we have heard it before; similarly, it can be difficult to start accepting that our “critics”: may have a point.

Remember That If Criticism Is Constructive, Even In Part, It Is A Valuable Way For Us To Change Our Behaviour In A Way That Will Have A Positive Effect On Our Relationships With Others.

Step Three: Responding Assertively

If the criticism Is completely true we need to agree to it without being defensive or trying to justify it. However, we may feel that we want to add a statement about how we feel about it and any plans that we have to change; “You're right I am untidy and I feel uncomfortable about it, so I'm trying hard to change”. We can also find out more and enquire how our behaviour affects the other person; “You're right I am untidy, ifs not something that bothers me that much but how does it affect you?”

If the criticism Is partly true then we need to agree with this part but add a qualification; "I agree that I'm late at times, but I'm not late all the time". We can also add a self-disclosure and an enquiry; “Yes, I was late this morning and I'm sorry, but I'm not always late. Did it really mess things up for you?”, (It is important to remember that the apology is for being late on this occasion and not an apology, and therefore acceptance, for the whole of the criticism)

If the criticism Is completely untrue then we need to disagree with it and be clear about its rejection. It is useful to add a positive personal affirmation; “No, I don't agree, I'm not lazy. I've been very active”, Again we can add a self-disclosure and an enquiry; “No, I don't agree, I've been very active. I feel hurt by what you've said. What makes you think that I'm lazy?” This approach will help us determine how other people have formed this impression of us and whether the criticism was intended as a put-down or based on false information.

If It Is a put-down then it needs to be handled in a different manner. Put-downs are subtle forms of personal attack often disguised with humour which serves to confuse us about the real message being put across. “You're a good driver for a woman!”; “If you had brains you'd be dangerous!”; “That's pretty good for you!”; “You're very young to be a manager”, When coping with put-downs it is important that we:

  • Disclose our feelings: “I feel really hurt about that remark” “I'm very offended by what you said”
  • Ask them what they mean: “I don't understand your comment. What do you mean?” “I'm confused by what you said. Please explain”
  • If appropriate, make a positive personal statement: “I am a good driver. The fact that I'm a woman is irrelevant” “Yes, I am young to be a manager. I believe I've done well in my career”

By challenging the put-down we reveal the true intent. Either the person is making a malicious attack, in which case they will be unable to substantiate it , or they are failing to realise the insensitivity of their remark. In either situation we will, by challenging and not lying down and accepting what they say, feel better about ourselves and give our self-esteem a boost.


Suggested Further Reading

The books listed below are ones that you might find helpful to increase your understanding of assertiveness.

  • Alberti & Emmons. Your Perfect Right. Impact
  • Alberti & Emmons. Stand Up, Speak Out, Talk Backl Pocket Books Back. Ken & Kate. Assertiveness at Work. McGraw-Hill
  • Pam Butler. self-assertion for Women. Harper & Row Anne Dickson. A Woman In Your Own Right. Quartet Beverley Hare. Be Assertive. Optima
  • Manuel Smith. When I say No, I Feel Guilty. Bantam Books