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Being Assertive

Communication. It’s the first thing we really learn in life. Funny thing is, once we grow up, learn our words and really start talking, the harder it becomes to know what to say. Or how to ask for what we really need.” – Meredith Grey

Assertiveness is a skill regularly referred to in social and communication skills training. Often wrongly confused with aggression, where people are told to ‘assert their authority’, assertive individuals aim to be neither passive nor aggressive in their interactions with other people. It is one of the foundation skills required of RESOLVE practitioners, and sits very comfortably behind The Blue Door.

Although many of us act in passive and aggressive ways from time to time, such ways of responding often result from a lack of understanding about the assertiveness process, or the lack of confidence to tackle difficult situations in a different way: consequently, the result is often inappropriate expressions of what such people really need or mean to say.

What is Assertiveness?

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines assertiveness as:

“Forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one’s rights”

In other words:

Assertiveness means standing up for your personal rights – expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways.

It is important to note also that:

By being assertive we should always respect the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people.

Assertiveness encompasses being able to express feelings, wishes, wants and desires appropriately, and is an important personal and interpersonal skill. Being assertive can help you to express yourself in a clear, open and reasonable way, without undermining the rights of yourself or others.

Assertiveness enables an individual to act in their own best interests, to stand up for themselves without undue anxiety, to express honest feelings comfortably and to express personal rights without denying the rights of others.

Assertiveness also means encouraging others to be open and honest about their views, wishes and feelings, so that both parties act appropriately.

Assertive behaviour includes:

  • Being open in expressing wishes, thoughts and feelings in a direct, honest and appropriate way and encouraging others to do likewise

  • Taking responsibility for myself and what I say,’ owning’ my needs, feelings, etc.

  • Owning my feelings means that I cannot be criticized for having them – they just are

  • Listening to the views of others and responding appropriately, whether in agreement with those views or not.

  • Conveying my own rights without violating the rights of others

  • Accepting responsibilities and being able to delegate to others

  • Regularly expressing appreciation of others for what they have done or are doing

  • Being able to admit to mistakes and apologise

  • Maintaining self-control

  • Behaving as an equal to others

Examples of assertive behaviour

If I say to someone, you have upset me, this is aggressive rather than assertive because I’m placing responsibility for the anger on that person rather than owning my own feelings of being upset, in contrast to I’m upset because…. Learning to say ‘no’ to others is showing competence in the art of caring for oneself.

Eva Ruiz, Spanish singer

Being Passive

Responding in a passive or non-assertive way tends to mean compliance with the wishes of others and can undermine individual rights and self-confidence.

People adopt a passive response for a variety of reasons. They may lack confidence, or they may have a need to be accepted or liked by others. Such people do not regard themselves as equals because they place greater weight on the rights, wishes and feelings of others. Being passive results in failure to communicate thoughts or feelings and results in people doing things they really do not want to do in the hope that they might please others. This also means that they allow others to take responsibility, to lead and make decisions for them.

A classic passive response is offered by those who say ‘yes’ to requests when they actually want to say ‘no’.

For example:

“Do you think you can find the time to do some shopping today?”

A typical passive reply might be:

“Well I have quite a lot to do today, such as the cleaning the car, paying some bills and clearing the window, but yes, I’ll do it later.

A far more appropriate response would have been:

“No, I can’t do it today as I’ve got lots of other things I need to do. Let’s discuss how to get the car cleaned later.”

It is obvious that the person responding passively really does not have the time, but their answer does not convey this message. The second response is assertive as the person has considered the implications of the request in the light of the other tasks they have to do.

By responding passively, individuals are more inclined to portray themselves in a negative light or put themselves down and, as a result, may actually come to feel inferior to others. Passive responding can encourage treatment that reinforces a passive role.

Being Aggressive

By responding in an aggressive way, the rights and self-esteem of the other person are undermined. Aggressive responses can include a wide range of behaviours, telling rather than asking, ignoring someone, or not considering another’s feelings.

Aggressive behaviour fails to consider the views or feelings of other individuals. Rarely will praise or appreciation of others be shown and an aggressive response tends to put others down.

Aggressive responses encourage the other person to respond in a non-assertive way, either aggressively or passively. It can be a frightening or distressing experience to be spoken to aggressively and the receiver can be left wondering what instigated such behaviour or what he or she has done to deserve the aggression.

If thoughts and feelings are not stated clearly, this can lead to individuals manipulating others into meeting their wishes and desires. Manipulation can be seen as a covert form of aggression whilst humour can also be used aggressively.

It is during the periods when we are aggressive that that we tend to forget that ‘what goes around comes around’. Sadly, the relevance of this concept applies equally to not only kind words, but those words that are less kind, the ones spoken in the heat of the moment, the ones that come back to haunt you, and you live to regret.


Passive aggressive behaviour takes many forms but can generally be described as a non-verbal aggression that manifests in negative behaviour. It is where you are angry with someone but do not or cannot tell them.

Instead of communicating honestly when you feel upset, annoyed, irritated or disappointed you may instead bottle the feelings up, shut off verbally, give angry looks, make obvious changes in behaviour, be obstructive, sulky or put up a stone wall. It may also involve indirectly resisting requests from others by evading or creating confusion around the issue. Not going along with things. It can either be covert (concealed and hidden) or overt (blatant and obvious).

A passive aggressive person might not always show that they are angry or resentful. They might appear in agreement, polite, friendly, down-to-earth, kind and well-meaning. However, underneath there may be manipulation going on – hence the term “Passive-Aggressive”.

Passive, Aggressive, Assertive

You may find that you respond passively, aggressively or assertively when you are communicating in different situations. It is important to remember that any interaction is always a two-way process and therefore your reactions may differ, depending upon your relationship with the other person in the communication. You may for example find it easier to be assertive to your partner than to your boss or vice-versa.

Reasons for a lack of Assertiveness

There are many reasons why people may act and respond in a non-assertive way which may include a lack of confidence, uncertainty about situations both of which can undermine a person’s self-esteem. Any of these reasons are likely to make a person less assertive in the future.

It is therefore important to break the cycle and learn to be more assertive, whilst at the same time respecting the views and opinions of other people. We all have a right to express our feelings, values and opinions.


Certain roles are associated with non-assertive behaviour, for example low status work roles or the traditional role of women. In some cultures, women, stereotypically, are seen as passive, while men are expected to be more aggressive.

There can be great pressure on people to conform to the roles that are placed upon them. You may be less likely to be assertive to your boss at work than you would be to a colleague or co-worker who you considered to be at an equal or lower level than you in the organisation.

Past Experience

Many people learn to respond in a non-assertive way through experience or through modelling their behaviour on that of parents or other role models. Learnt behaviour can be difficult to unlearn and the help of a counsellor may be needed.


When people are stressed, they often feel like they have little or no control over the events their lives.

People who are stressed or anxious can often resort to passive or aggressive behaviour when expressing their thoughts and feelings. This is likely to increase the feelings of stress and potentially make others feel stressed or anxious as a result.

Personality Traits

Some people believe they are either passive or aggressive by nature, in other words that they were born with certain traits and that there is little they can do to change their form of response.

This is very nearly always an incorrect assumption since everybody can learn to be more assertive even if their natural tendencies are passive or aggressive.

Assertiveness Rights and Responsibilities

Steven Covey’s 2nd habit, “begin with the end in mind”, is no less relevant to the issue of communication than it is to any other aspect of personal development, as emphasised by one of Mother Theresa’s many valuable quotes:

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

To be assertive is to understand that everyone has basic human rights that should be respected and upheld.

Responding passively can allow such rights to be neglected or ignored. In contrast, when behaving aggressively the rights of others can be abused.

Rights that are considered ‘personal rights’ will vary from person to person and will differ from culture to culture.

An individual’s assertive rights should always include:

  • The right to express feelings, opinions, values and beliefs.

  • The right to change one’s mind.

  • The right to make decisions.

  • The right to say “I don’t know” and/or “I don’t understand“.

  • The right to say “no” without feeling bad or guilty.

  • The right to be non-assertive.

  • The right to personal freedom, to be one’s self.

  • The right to privacy, to be alone and independent.

Getting the balance right

It is often necessary to balance the needs of others against our own. Consideration needs to be given as to when it is appropriate to assert personal rights and when it is not. The list of assertive rights applies equally to other people as well as to yourself. Therefore, every individual has the responsibility to uphold and respect the rights of others.

Negotiation and Co-operation

Being assertive does not mean that individual wishes are automatically granted: you will not always get what you want.

Assertive behaviour allows other people to state what they want and, of course, they might desire a different outcome. To overcome a conflict, assertiveness requires

co-operation and negotiation. Co-operation and negotiation allow all parties to feel that their views have been recognised and that any decisions or outcomes have been reached through mutual understanding and negotiation.

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