Assertiveness - An Introduction

See also: Building Confidence

Assertiveness is a skill regularly referred to in social and communication skills training.

Being assertive means being able to stand up for your own or other people’s rights in a calm and positive way, without being either aggressive, or passively accepting ‘wrong’.

Assertive individuals are able to get their point across without upsetting others, or becoming upset themselves.

Although everyone acts in passive and aggressive ways from time to time, such ways of responding often result from a lack of self-confidence and are, therefore, inappropriate ways of interacting with others.

This page examines the rights and responsibilities of assertive behaviour and aims to show how assertiveness can benefit you. You may also be interested in our pages on Self-Esteem and Negotiation.

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.

Those who behave assertively always respect the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people as well as their own.

Assertiveness concerns being able to express feelings, wishes, wants and desires appropriately and is an important personal and interpersonal skill.  In all your interactions with other people, whether at home or at work, with employers, customers or colleagues, assertiveness can help you to express yourself in a clear, open and reasonable way, without undermining your own or others’ rights.

Assertiveness enables individuals 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.

Passive, Aggressive and Assertive

Assertiveness is often seen as the balance point between passive and aggressive behaviour, but it’s probably easier to think of the three as points of a triangle.

Being Assertive

Being assertive involves taking into consideration your own and other people’s rights, wishes, wants, needs and desires.

Assertiveness 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 and encouraging others to do likewise. See our page on Managing Emotions.
  • Listening to the views of others and responding appropriately, whether in agreement with those views or not. See our page on Active Listening.
  • Accepting responsibilities and being able to delegate to others. See our page on Delegation Skills for more.
  • Regularly expressing appreciation of others for what they have done or are doing. See our page on Gratitude and Being Grateful.
  • Being able to admit to mistakes and apologise.
  • Maintaining self-control. See our page on Self-Control for more.
  • Behaving as an equal to others. See our page on Justice and Fairness to explore further.

Those who struggle to behave assertively may find that they behave either aggressively or passively.

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. 

Many people adopt a passive response because they have a strong need to be 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.

See our Personal Presentation and Self-Esteem pages for tips on how to increase your personal confidence.

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 wash the car today?” 

A typical passive reply might be:

“Yes, I'll do it after I've done the shopping, made an important telephone call, finished the filing, cleaned the windows and made lunch for the kids!” 

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.” 

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.

Assertiveness is equally important at work as at home.

If you become known as a person who cannot say no, you will be loaded up with tasks by your colleagues and managers, and you could even make yourself ill.

When you respond passively, you present yourself in a less positive light or put yourself down in some way. If you constantly belittle yourself in this way, you will come to feel inferior to others.  While the underlying causes of passive behaviour are often poor self-confidence and self-esteem, in itself it can further reduce feelings of self-worth, creating a vicious circle.

See our pages on Building Confidence and What is Self-Esteem? for more information.

Being Aggressive

By being aggressive towards someone else, their rights and self-esteem are undermined.

Aggressive behaviour fails to consider the views or feelings of other individuals. Those behaving aggressively will rarely show praise or appreciation of others 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.

See our page on Transactional Analysis for more about this.

There is a wide range of aggressive behaviours, including rushing someone unnecessarily, telling rather than asking, ignoring someone, or not considering another's feelings.

Good interpersonal skills mean you need to be aware of the different ways of communicating and the different response each approach might provoke.  The use of either passive or aggressive behaviour in interpersonal relationships can have undesirable consequences for those you are communicating with and it may well hinder positive moves forward.

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.

See our page: Dealing with Aggression for more information.

Different Situations Call for Different Measures
– or do they?

You may find that you respond differently — whether passively, assertively or aggressively — 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. However, whether it is easy or not, an assertive response is always going to be better for you and for your relationship with the other person.