TogetherAll: Be Assertive

Do you find it hard to say ‘no’ or to ask for what you want? Or do you come across as aggressive, or feel guilty afterwards, when you do? Then you could probably do with learning some assertiveness skills, to help you think, act and communicate more effectively.

Being assertive is not about getting your own way, it’s about being able to say what you want, feel and think while respecting other people’s views and rights – and being able to compromise in difficult situations.

Assertiveness is not something you have to be born with, it can be learned. Here’s how.

Step 1 – Think about your own behaviour

How would you typically behave in these three situations?

  1. You’ve been looking forward to seeing a particular film all week, but the friend you’re going with wants to go to a different one.
  2. You’re in a shop waiting to be served when someone else jumps the queue and the shop assistant starts dealing with them first.
  3. A friend with a reputation for never returning books asks to borrow one of yours.

For each one write down what you would most likely say in each case. Be honest.

Step 2 – Find your behaviour style

Look at each of your answers and consider which one of the following behaviour styles it falls into.

Behaviour styles

Aggressive – you express yourself honestly and freely, but often at the expense of others. It comes across that you feel superior: that you’re right and they’re wrong. It might get you what you want in the short term, but ultimately it can backfire on you and you’ll probably make some enemies along the way.

Passive – you suppress your own opinions and needs so as to avoid conflict with someone else. This gives the message that the other person’s needs and rights are more important than yours. While it may minimise your responsibility for decisions, it can lower your self-esteem and you have to put up with the decisions that others make.

Assertive – you are able to express your opinions, while listening to, and respecting, the views of others. Even though you may have differences, you both feel equally entitled to express them and can agree a compromise.

How would you rate your own responses to these situations – mainly aggressive, passive or assertive? Try to be objective – it’s the only way to analyse your patterns of behaviour and find out where assertiveness training might help.

Step 3 – Decide where you want to be more assertive

Now think about different situations where you want to be more assertive. Make lists under the following headings:

  • When do I behave in a non-assertive way? e.g. when responding to undeserved criticism, asking out a potential date, stating a difference of opinion.
  • Who am I non-assertive with? e.g. boss, spouse, shop assistants.
  • What do I want to achieve through being assertive? e.g. request a salary rise, ask someone out, be more confident at work.
  • What’s stopping me from being assertive? e.g. I’m afraid that if I express my wishes, I might be seen as a trouble maker, selfish or uncooperative. Alternatively, I feel that if I don’t get my point over forcefully people will think I’m a soft touch.

Step 4 – Be assertive in what you say – and how you say it

Now you’ve worked out when you need to be more assertive, you are ready to start. Think of a situation where you have not been assertive and go through it again, considering whether any of the following techniques would have given a different outcome. Ideally practice them through role-play with a friend, and then, in real life.

Speaking assertively

  1. Define the issue to focus the discussion. Your chance to state your case – without attacking the other person, e.g. ‘I notice that you play your CDs very loudly in the early hours. The walls aren’t very soundproofed, so when one of us does that, it’s difficult for others to get to sleep’.
  2. Tell them how you feel. This helps the other person understand how important the issue is to you and to relate to you even if they disagree with your point. But don’t disguise an opinion as a feeling – and always link the way you’re feeling with a specific point, e.g. don’t say: ‘I feel you’re a layabout.’ Do say: ‘I feel frustrated when you leave your stuff all over the place, and annoyed about having to clear up all the time to keep the place looking good.’
  3. Say what you want to happen clearly and simply. Express this as a preference, not a command, e.g. ‘I’d like it if you would help wash up after we eat’. Set out positive consequences: ‘then we’ll have time to relax together.’ Or, if that doesn’t work, some negative ones: ‘or we won’t have any time to relax together.’

If the other person seems to be blocking, try the following:

  • The broken record – choose a statement that states your basic position that you can repeat over and over again, such as: ‘I want you to give me my money back as this x is faulty.’ Then, during the conversation, acknowledge that you’ve have heard the other person’s point of view and then repeat your broken record statement: ‘Yes, I know and my point is…’
  • Assertive delay – don’t rise to a challenging statement until you’re ready to do so. You could just say: ‘I’ll need more time to think about that.’
  • Assertive assertion – acknowledge any criticism you agree with, but don’t give an excuse or reason if you don’t want to. For example, ‘You’re right, I was late this morning…’
  • Fogging – if someone criticises you, find something you can acknowledge. Then rephrase it so you can honestly agree with it, at least in part, ignoring the rest. For example, someone calls you stupid, you could say: ‘Well, like everybody, I am stupid sometimes.’
  • Assertive inquiry – ask more. For example: ‘What was it about x that bothered you..?’

Step 5 – Watch your body language

Your posture, eye contact, the gestures you use and tone of voice are important when you’re talking to others. They convey messages about how you see yourself and the other person.

If you’re hunched up with your head down, talk in a whisper and avoid eye contact, then you can come across as subservient. If you stand too close and talk loudly right in someone’s face, they’re likely to find you aggressive.

So, support what you’re saying, with the right body language and tone of voice.

Assertive body talk

  1. Establish and maintain eye contact. But don’t stare the other person out.
  2. Sit or stand in upright and relaxed position. Not slouched or leaning forward.
  3. Speak in a calm, warm but firm voice. Not too fast, to help you make your points clearly. Don’t whinge, be apologetic or hostile.
  4. Try to keep an appropriate, open expression. If you smile too much when making a serious point, the other person may not take you seriously.
  5. Don’t finger jab. Resist emphasising your points by jabbing your finger at the other person.

Practice being assertive in your different scenarios with a friend, who can play the other person and give you some feedback or, if you feel self-conscious, in a mirror.

Step 6 – Assertive listening

Part of being assertive is respecting other people’s views and wishes and to do that you have to be receptive to what these are. So learn to become an assertive listener.

Lend an assertive ear

  1. Choose the right time. Are you ready to listen? And is the other person ready to speak? Make sure the time is right.
  2. Be attentive. Pay full attention to what the other person is saying and don’t be frightened of asking for clarification if necessary, e.g. ‘I’m not sure I understand what you mean…’ or ‘Can you tell me more about…’
  3. Confirm that you’ve understood. Let the person know that you’ve understood them, e.g. ‘I hear that you don’t want to …because…’
  4. Stick to your point. Of course, in real life, the other person may not be listening to you – in that case, you have to stick to your point, repeating it in a calm manner, until you feel that you’re being heard.

Practice the techniques above with a friend, or write out a dialogue between you and someone else.

Step 7 – Try to reach a compromise

If you and the other person are in direct conflict, you have to try and come up with an acceptable compromise. If one doesn’t arise naturally in the discussion, then you have to think of a list of alternatives or even ask what they would need from you to make them feel happy doing something your way (or vice versa).

Practice brainstorming alternative solutions in hypothetical situations with a friend.

Assertiveness takes practice, and you won’t necessarily get it right first time. But with perseverance, it’s a skill anyone can learn – and it can transform your relations with others.

This article is part of our new TogetherAll article series where we highlight content available on the TogetherAll platform. TogetherAll is FREE for all FFWPU-UK members. For more information, please visit:

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