Why People Are Not Assertive

See also: What is Assertiveness?

There are many reasons why people may act and respond in a non-assertive way and this pages examines some of the most common.

When people are not assertive they can suffer from a loss of confidence and self-esteem, which is more likely to make them 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.

Reasons People are Not Assertive

Low Self-Esteem and Self-Confidence

Feelings of low self-esteem or self-worth often lead to individuals dealing with other people in a passive way.

By not asserting their rights, expressing their feelings or stating clearly what they want, those with low self-esteem or self-confidence may invite others to treat them in the same way. Low self-esteem is reinforced in a vicious circle of passive response and reduced self-confidence.

See or pages on Building Confidence and Self-Esteem for more information.


Certain roles are associated with non-assertive behaviour, for example low status work roles or the traditional role of women. Stereotypically, women 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.

See our page: What is Counselling? for more information about the role of a professional counsellor.


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.

See our page: What is Stress? for an introduction to stress and stress management.

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

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.

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.

Remember that 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.

Advanced Communication Skills

Further Reading from Skills You Need

Our Communication Skills eBooks

Learn more about the key communication skills you need to be an effective communicator.

Our eBooks are ideal for anyone who wants to learn about or develop their communication skills, and are full of easy-to-follow practical information and exercises.

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.

See our section on negotiation, starting with What is Negotiation?