Assertiveness in Specific Situations:
Demands, Criticism and Compliments

See also: Assertiveness Techniques

There are three particular situations where assertive behaviour is called for, but may be particularly difficult to use.

These are when you are called up to deal with demands, especially unreasonable ones, or criticism, and to give or receive a compliment.

All these situations may make you feel uncomfortable, often because you are dealing with a situation where your own and others’ wishes may be mutually exclusive. However, this is exactly the time at which assertiveness is most important.

Dealing with Demands

Dealing with unacceptable demands can be a daunting experience and having the courage to be assertive in such circumstances is not easy for some people. It must always be acknowledged that everyone has the right not to fulfil a demand.

When faced with a demand, consideration should be given to the following:

  • Most people are strongly influenced by stereotypes, for example those of the efficient manager or the selfless mother.

    Such generalisations can sometimes place unreasonable demands, expectations and unfair burdens upon those holding particular roles. Everyone has the right not to accept the demands associated with such roles.

  • When rejecting a demand, it is important to explain that it is the demand that is being rejected and not the person.

    See our page Giving and Receiving Feedback for more about how to do this.

  • People often feel that others have a right to their time and effort. You have a right to say “no” without having to justify yourself.

  • Having rejected a demand, it is important to keep to that decision. If you crumble under pressure, others will learn you can be swayed so be firm.

    You do of course have the right to change your mind if circumstances change.

  • In making demands, people often resort to passive or manipulative responses and may also assume a dependency upon the efforts of others.

    Apart from certain exceptions, for example dependent children, everyone is responsible for themselves and undue reliance should not be placed upon others.

Remember that you too have rights!

Assertiveness is quietly, non-aggressively, but firmly exerting those rights, one of which is to refuse demands that you consider to be unreasonable, or which you are unable to meet.

At the same time, you also need to recognise the rights of others to make requests of you, and receive a polite response.

Dealing with Criticism

When receiving criticism:

  • Take time to decide whether it is genuine criticism or whether there is some other reason for it, for example, that someone is angry or frustrated, and you are simply there in front of them.

  • Acknowledge the criticism by repeating or reflecting it. You might respond “So you feel that I...”. As with any feedback, it is important to thank the person providing it.

  • Acknowledge any truthful elements of the criticism, even if they are hard to hear.

  • If the criticism includes an element of truth, try to avoid the common response of lashing back with counter-criticism. Criticism with a hint of truth tends to be wounding, but it may be offered in the hope that it will be used constructively. After all, not everyone is skilled in giving feedback.

See our pages: Dealing with Criticism, Giving and Receiving Feedback, and Assertiveness Tips and Techniques for more.

Giving Criticism

If possible, avoid criticising others. Instead, try to think about it as ‘giving constructive, albeit negative, feedback to change their behaviour’. This will help you to remain calm, and give the feedback more effectively.

Criticism, or negative feedback, can be tempered or appear less brutal when it is given alongside support for the other person. Crucially, you must ensure that it is a criticism of the action rather than the person. Begin with a supportive comment such as “I appreciate all the work you've put in on this, but we have a problem with...”

Any sentence that begins 'You are' will cause offence and should be avoided at all cost, unless it ends with a compliment. Focus on the behaviour, not the personal attributes of the other individual.

Keep any criticism specific and avoid generalities, for example “It was late when you picked up the children today” rather than “You're always late”. Generalised statements may not reflect the reality of a situation and have a tendency to imply that the individual is at fault when the problem may have been caused by other difficulties or unforeseen circumstances.

It is preferable to avoid blaming someone else for causing your emotions, for example “You make me so angry when...” It is better to focus on yourself as the centre of your own emotions and, as an alternative to the statement above, you could say “I feel very angry when you...”

See our page: Giving and Receiving Feedback for more information.

Giving and Receiving Compliments

Some people find the giving and receiving of compliments difficult or embarrassing, and may feel the need to either shrug them off or return them.

Complimenting is a positive way of giving support, showing approval and increasing the other person's self-confidence. Learning to both give and accept them gracefully is an important life skill.

If a compliment is rejected, the person giving it may feel embarrassed or discounted and might be less likely to pay a compliment in the future.

When you are complimented, therefore, thank the person giving the compliment, and accept it, whether or not you actually agree with it. Useful phrases include ‘Thank you, that’s very kind of you to say that’, or ‘Thank you, it was a pleasure, but it’s always nice to hear that you appreciate it’.

See our page on Gratitude for more.

When giving a compliment:

  • Ensure it is genuine. Insincerity is easily detected, and will undermine your efforts to build up the person’s self-esteem.

  • Remember that positive reinforcement is more effective than negative reinforcement. Compliments will be remembered much more readily and happily than criticism.

If a compliment is not appropriate then find a way to say thank you or offer some praise instead.

See our page on Assertiveness Tips and Techniques for more ideas about handling compliments, especially the technique of Positive Enquiry.

And Finally…

Remember, assertiveness is always more appropriate than passive or aggressive behaviour, even if it is difficult. Try to treat others as you would like to be treated, with respect and politeness. This will help you to respond assertively to others, even in difficult situations.