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How to Be Assertive

April 24, 2013 by Dr. Jon Warner in Assertiveness

How to Be Assertive

Assertiveness is the ability to honestly express your opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights, without undue anxiety, in a way that doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.  It’s not aggressiveness -it’s a middle ground between being a bully and a doormat.  It’s dependent on a feeling of self-efficacy or self-worth, a sense that if you behave in a certain way, something predictable will occur.

Non-assertive behavior

So if assertive behavior is what we aspire to practice as much as we can, where does non-assertive behavior come from? Many of us were taught by our parents or coached in adult life to accept that that we should always please and/or defer to others, that it is not nice to consider our own needs above those of others, or that we shouldn’t “make waves”, and that if someone says or does something that we don’t like, we should just be quiet and even perhaps stay away from that person in the future. Unfortunately, all of this leads to “avoidant” behavior and does nothing to help us to communicate what we may want or need in clear ways to others-this is why we need to operate in an assertive fashion.

The benefits of being assertive

Although other communication styles can work at times, it is only the assertive style that most often leads to honest, effective and problem solving-focused communication. When you are being assertive you are more in control and fair to both yourself and the other party.

To practice being more assertive, individuals need to take small “risks” in their everyday conversations, or get out of their comfort zone from time-to-time. This is how you can practice more assertive behavior without undue risk.

When starting to take new, more assertive risks it is important to remember that every individual has rights (or treatment from others which can be reasonably expected). In being more assertive then, some of us need to learn to “turn down the volume” on how we come across to others (i.e. be less assertive or even aggressive).  However, most of us are simply not assertive enough in our interactions with others, either out of fear, lack of confidence in ourselves, or because we are easily intimidated.  We therefore need to learn how to use tools and skills that will help us be more personally powerful and broadly assertive without alienating others or trampling on their rights.

Using Different “Styles” of Communication

There are four different “styles” of communication we can consider using. These are Aggressive, Passive, Manipulative (or passive-aggressive) and Assertive.

  1. An aggressive style wants to win at any cost
  2. A passive style is happy to lose so as to avoid conflict or keep the peace
  3. A manipulative style is quietly hostile or unhelpful (i.e. passive aggressive)
  4. An assertive style looks for win/win outcomes for both communication parties

Everyone has and uses all four communication styles, but in varying amounts and at different times.  For example, you may be more assertive at home with your family than you are at work.  This is common and has to do with many factors, including trust, confidence and even love (i.e. family may “put up with” communication/behavior that peers will not).

To be effectively assertive, you need both process (i.e. HOW you communicate) and content (i.e. WHAT you say) communication skills. In this regard, preparation and anticipation ahead of a communication (using the 5W/1H as a method) can help in both process and content terms. Perhaps the best way to do this is to prepare what words you are going to use and then practice or rehearse your intended communication.

Practicing your assertiveness skills

A common problem for people who wish to become more assertive is that they don’t know how to do it in the right way; that is, they simply become more demanding or louder, rather than skillful in using behaviors and language that is more effective.  Deciding to be more assertive is not enough – you must learn to use tools that help you practice being more assertive in a way that is palatable to others.

In very practical terms, it is often helpful to have a specific script prepared in advance that you can use to help you find the right words, attitudes and behaviors to use in communicating more assertively.

Your script should have 3 elements of preparation:

  1. First, you need to think through the message you want to communicate.  Jot down the core message you want to deliver – not the exact words, but just the overall message.  For example, it might be that you plan to talk with a co-worker about getting information to you earlier in the production cycle.  Your message, then, might be that you want that information to come to you earlier so you have more time to do your part of the work.
  2. Next, you should plan your “room to move”, or your degree of flexibility.  Using our example, how much earlier would be acceptable to you if your co-worker does not agree to your proposal?  That is, are you willing to back down if you need to, and if not, how will you react and respond?
  3. Lastly, what are some of the actual words you can use in the interaction?  Scripting some of the key wording you will use in the interaction can be very helpful, particularly when the words you might normally use would be damaging to the relationship. Back to our example, you might decide to script wording that presents your case in neutral language rather than pointing the finger at delays that your co-worker has caused you in the past.

It is a good idea to try out, or rehearse, your assertiveness script or sequence with a friend or other neutral third party before you actually deliver it.  This way you can practice actually saying the words and making your message personal, natural-sounding and flowing.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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