How to be assertive

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How to be assertive

Assertiveness is the ability to communicate opinions, thoughts, needs, and feelings in a direct, honest, and appropriate manner.  It involves you standing up for your rights in a manner that does not offend others or deny the rights of others.  When you are being assertive, you have more control over your life and it makes it less likely that other people will take advantage of you.  So, how to be assertive?

It is important to understand your own style of relating to others before you work out how to be assertive.

The Three Styes

Passive Style

People with a passive style tend to put the needs of others before their own.  They believe they do not have the right to assert themselves and they are inferior (that their needs are not important enough to make a fuss about).  People like this tend to find it difficult to be assertive because it’s much easier to let others make all the decisions.  These people tend to believe that they are incompetent and weak and have difficulty looking after themselves or making their own decisions.  Passive people are not always happy with the decision made by others, but in order to avoid confrontation, they go along with it to keep the peace.  Passive people can start to resent the fact that their needs are overlooked and this can result in low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, anger and other emotional or physical complaints.  Passive people also tend to lose the respect of others if they fail to stand up for their rights.

Aggressive style

People with an aggressive style tend to stand up for their rights in a way that is pushy and inappropriate that can be construed as offensive to others.  This type of person usually has a strong competitive nature, they can feel that they deserve more respect and attention than other people.  Although people with an aggressive style may agree that other people have rights, they can lose sight of this when they feel their own rights have been infringed upon or violated.  People with this style tend to have poor communication skills and usually get their own way by treading on others, being rude, pushy and at times quite insulting. Their behaviour may not be intentional but it can be very hurtful.  They could also have trouble developing or keeping close and affectionate relationships.

Assertive style

People who are naturally assertive know they have rights but also remember that other people have rights and feelings as well.  Assertive people tend to care about other people’s feelings and will phrase their communications with others in a polite but firm manner. People with this style have a sense of `give and take’ and are cooperative at times of conflict.  Assertive people assess a situation first and then decide which action is most appropriate for that situation.  They can negotiate when necessary with difficult people calmly and effectively and stand up for their own rights and be strong at other times. Assertive people try to choose the most appropriate behaviour for the situation.  These people have control over their behaviour and have respect for themselves and others.

Which one are you?

Just by reading all of the different styles, you will recognise some or all of the traits in you.  Once you work out which one you want to be, then you can set goals on how to assert yourself.

How you can adapt yourself to becoming more assertive the right way

You have rights that are also relevant to others.  Being assertive means asserting the following rights for yourself but also acknowledging that others also have these rights.

Practise repeating your personal rights, especially those rights that seem hardest to accept. Remember this list is not exhaustive, it is just designed to give you an idea of your rights.

  • I have the right to be the judge of what I do and what I think.
  • I have the right to offer no reasons and excuses for my behaviour.
  • I have the right to refuse to be responsible for finding solutions to other people’s problems.
  • I have the right to change my mind.
  • I have the right to make mistakes.
  • I have the right to say “I don’t know”.
  • I have the right to make my own decisions.
  • I have the right to say “I don’t understand”.
  • I have the right to say “I don’t care”.
  • I have the right to say “no” – without feeling guilty.
  • I have the right to be miserable or cheerful.
  • I have the right to be illogical in making decisions.
  • I have the right to set my own priorities.
  • I have the right to be myself without having to act for other peoples benefit.

Strategies for saying no

There’s nothing wrong with saying yes, doing favours and taking on responsibilities that you are happy to take on.  Here are some things to keep in mind for those times when you want to say no without feeling uncomfortable:

Use assertive body posture

Use direct eye contact keeping your head up, shoulders back, gesturing normally with your hands relaxed.  Keep your voice calm but loud enough to be heard.

Wait for the question

Some people rush to agree before the person has finished asking the question.

Don’t answer straight away

If you are not sure whether you want to do this, ask the person to send you an email elaborating on what needs to be done so you can work out whether you physically have the time to do it.  If you know you don’t have the time or capacity, say so.

Decide on your wording

Be clear about your answer, if you don’t have the time or capacity say so.  Don’t leave your questioner wondering what you really mean.

Never apologise when it isn’t necessary

An apology tends to mean an acknowledgement of some kind of wrongdoing or that you feel uncomfortable about the situation.  This will put you in debt to the person to ask you to do something else another time.  You are allowing the person to feel that they are entitled to expect you to grant future favours.

Don’t make excuses or try to justify your actions

Offering excuses about why you can’t fulfil the request is unnecessary.  If you don’t want to do it, say so.  Using the word “can’t” gives the person options to suggest you find ways of getting around the situation so that you ultimately have to say yes (but maybe to a later date or time).

Remember, you have the right to say no.  If you ask permission, it gives the person the impression that they are in charge.

When the person doesn’t accept your refusal

State your position that you are unable to help and be ready for them to push again.  Do not get flustered, keep your voice calm and your body language steady.

Repeat if you need to and don’t keep explaining or justifying your answer

If the person keeps asking, you don’t have to quickly find a new phrase or response every time.  Just repeat the same message, the person will eventually hear it!  If you keep explaining your self every time they repeat the request, then you are saying that they have the ultimate power.

Accept whatever the consequences will be

Don’t worry about the consequences.  You have the right to say no but the other person also has the right not to like it!  When you say no, you may encounter unpleasant consequences in the way that the person reacts but that is ok.  Recognise and accept this.

Strategies when you need to give feedback

Many people find giving feedback even more difficult than getting it.  All of us need to give corrective feedback now and then, at work, in conversations with our families and with our children.  Some negative feedback is important in almost all relationships.

Negative and Positive Feedback

Negative and positive feedback is important to help maintain all relationships.  If you feel you are constantly giving negative feedback, maybe you are only noticing the negative and not the positive.  Keep an eye on this.

Think before you give it

It is easy to get off track when giving feedback.  Before you get started think through exactly what you want to say and how you will say it.

Say it privately

Avoid giving any feedback when there is more than one person present.  Most people find it humiliating to be criticised in front of others but ultimately it can cause other people to get upset if they see another person being positive feedback!

Time it well and be precise

If the person looks stressed, distracted or too rushed to pay close attention to what you have to say, they won’t be able to focus on it.  Set a time to sit down calmly with the person privately.  For feedback to be useful, the person has to know exactly what you’re talking about.  Be specific and give details.

Be positive when giving negative feedback

Start with the negative and turn it into a positive so that the person doesn’t feel attacked in any way.  Tell the person you value the relationship and want to make it work.  Give information not advice.  Direct advice is often resisted and rightly so.  People have the right to decide for themselves what they will do.  When giving negative feedback focus on giving information about the problem.  Let the other person decide what to do about it.

Focus on the behaviour and not on the person

If feedback is to have a purpose, the person will have to be able to change something.  If they can’t change it, the feedback is pointless.  Feedback should focus on the behaviour we don’t like – not our guess about the reason for the behaviour.

How to handle criticism

There are a variety of strategies for dealing with criticism.


No one likes criticism, it immediately causes you to tense up and place you in defence mode.  You may take on an aggressive body posture, fold your arms in front of you, change the emotional tone of your voice and make it harder to think of an effective response.

Avoid retaliation

Don’t immediately turn the focus onto the other person.  Listen to what is being said, tell yourself to calm down and take deep breaths.  The intention of some indirect criticisms is to get a rise out of you.  The person may want you to get upset about the remark so that they can deny any negative intentions.

Consider your safety

Some critical people can get physically violent.  This is especially a concern when you know the person has been violent in the past.

Listen and wait

Before you respond, allow critics to get their points out.  They will eventually slow down and be more prepared for an open exchange.  Listening to criticism does not mean that you have to buy it or believe it.

Narrow and specify or ask for clarification

People are often vague when they provide criticism.  Ask what the criticism is really about without jabbing them too hard for being imprecise.  Ask for clarification.  When you are given indirect or nonverbal criticism, it is fair to ask the person about it.  This forces the person to take responsibility for what they are saying.

Validate their emotions

If the person is upset, acknowledge this.  The person will usually feel that they have been heard and will immediately relax.

Acknowledge their perception if you know it is true

If you can see why they might think the way they do, say so.  This immediately defuses some of the frustration and makes a reasonable exchange more likely.  Admit your failings, if the other person is right, admit it.  It will open up the exchange to an honest discussion.

If you do not agree, say so…calmly.

If you are not in agreement with what they are saying, ask to sit down and have a thorough discussion about it.  Never agree if you feel it is not true.

Don’t try to change their mind

They have a right to their opinions even if they are mistaken.  If you try to force them to change you hand them power.

React to the manner in which the criticism is given

If the person is kind and obviously well-meaning, thank them for their openness.  If the criticism was given in an intentionally hurtful way, consider pointing this out to them and suggest an alternative way of communicating.

Ask for time

You may want time to ponder the possible truthfulness of the criticism and it may take you a while to figure out how to respond.  If so, consider asking to meet at a later date to clarify what has been said.

Recognise the difference between fair criticism and excessive or unreasonable criticism

Fair criticism is not demeaning or rejecting and is usually given with information that will show you how to get things back on track.  Excessive or unreasonable criticism makes you feel put down and undermines your confidence to assert yourself.  If in spite of being given every opportunity the other person persists in excessive or unreasonable criticism, you may want to consider ending the relationship.

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