Assertiveness: A Complete Guide on This Social & Communication Skill

In this article, we will learn about assertiveness – and how a simple word can have broad-spanning implications. Also, we will look at the differences between passiveness versus aggression compared to assertiveness. Plus, techniques and exercises to help you become more assertive in key situations or everyday interactions.

Imagine that you are living the following situations:

  • You lend a friend one of your books. She returns it with pages missing.
  • Your friend always asks to borrow a few dollars when you go out, but he never repays you.

How do you act? Do you say something to your friend? How exactly would you say it? Some people might end up saying nothing, and then resenting the person afterward (and even themselves). However, being assertive doesn’t mean you have to be unpleasant.

What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a social skill that involves being confident and self-assured without being confrontational. It means you can get your point across without upsetting others or becoming upset yourself.

A passive or aggressive response comes from a lack of self-confidence – something which every single person experiences from time to time. This is why assertiveness is often associated with self-esteem. However, assertiveness also respects the opinions and thoughts of others.

Another interesting thing is that there are actually two kinds:

  • Cognitive assertiveness: To not have many anxious thoughts, especially when under stress.
  • Behavioral assertiveness: Asking for what you want while still respecting others.

The Oxford Dictionary defines it as, “forthright, positive, insistence on the recognition of one’s rights”.

But the Dorland’s Medical Dictionary has more to say, “A form of behavior characterized by a confident declaration or affirmation of a statement without need of proof; this affirms the person’s rights or point of view without either aggressively threatening the rights of another (assuming a position of dominance) or submissively permitting another to ignore or deny one’s rights or point of view.”

Essentially, these definitions mean being able to stand up for yourself or someone else’s rights in a calm way.

A study done on female Taiwanese nurses split them into two groups.

One had assertiveness training while the other didn’t. Those who had the 4-week training found a strong connection between being assertive and treating stress and non-assertive behaviors.

Although the idea and act have existed for all of the time, assertiveness became a bigger phenomenon during the second half of the 20th century. It was taught as a behavioral skill by personal development experts and by (cognitive) behavioral therapists. It became popularized through books like Your Perfect Right: A Guide to Assertive Behavior (1970) and When I Say No, I Feel Guilty: How To Cope Using the Skills of Systematic Assertiveness Therapy (1975).

What Does Assertiveness Mean?

Assertiveness includes different types of behaviors and traits, and there’s a “sweet spot” that pretty much ensures success. If you’re above that sweet spot, you won’t get your way (passive). If you’re below, you won’t get along with others (aggressive).

Some behaviors and traits associated with assertiveness are:

  • Being open to your and others’ wishes, thoughts, and feelings
  • Listening to others and responding properly, whether you agree with them or not
  • Accepting responsibility and being able to empower others
  • Expressing appreciation and gratitude for what others have done
  • Behaving just, fair, and equal to others
  • Being able to maintain self-control
  • Admitting mistakes and apologizing

Assertiveness vs. Passive

To be passive means respecting others’ wishes but undermining your own rights and self-confidence. It means not being able to communicate your thoughts or feelings effectively in order to advocate for what you want.

Many people act passively because they want to be liked by others.

For example, your spouse asks you if you have time to pick up the kids from school. A passive response would be “Yes, but I will be quite late because I have a meeting until 5 pm.” An assertive response is “No, I can’t because I have a really important meeting with my boss until 5 pm.”

Assertiveness vs. Aggressive

It can be difficult to define assertive behavior because there is a fine and confusing line between assertiveness and aggression.

Assertiveness is based on balanced while aggression is based on winning.

Being assertive requires the consideration of the feelings of others while being aggressive means you disregard others’ opinions and emotions, etc. However, aggressive responses try to force the other person to interact in a non-assertive way (either passively or aggressively).

Sometimes when people react to a non-aggressive action in an aggressive way, it leaves the other person wondering what they did wrong and why they deserved the aggression in the first place.

But, if thoughts or feelings are not stated clearly manipulation can happen. Manipulation is a form of aggression, although humor can also be seen aggressively.

For example, your boss places a pile of work to be done right away on your desk right before you are set to go on vacation.

This is an aggressive act because your boss is disregarding your needs, feelings, and the fact you’re going on vacation. It’s possible to respond to your boss in an aggressive way by being hostile, angry, or rude. You could also respond with assertiveness by telling your boss that the work will get done, but after you come back from vacation. This is non-aggressively asserting your own rights while recognizing the fact that there is work to do.

Importance of Assertiveness

It often pays to be assertive. Assertiveness helps you become more self-confident and thus, helps you gain an understanding of who you are and your value, your worth. However, it is not necessary to always be assertive. It’s something that should be used when you feel it best.

Assertive people tend to:

  • Make great managers because they get things done while still being respected.
  • Be less anxious and stressed because they don’t feel threatened or victimized when things don’t go to plan.
  • Be good negotiators by finding “win-win” solutions to problems. They can find common ground with their opponent.
  • Be good problem solvers and are better do-ers because they feel empowered to do whatever needs to be done in order to find the best solutions to their problems.

What Skills Do We Need?

Not everyone is born assertive, but luckily there are some skills we can use to help us develop our assertiveness. Assertiveness can be learned. Some experts believe that the key is to first understand the context, assess your behavior and that of those around you, and then to make the right adjustments.  

Some examples of these skills include:

  • Seeing the value of yourself, your rights, and your beliefs. Assertive people have a good understanding of themselves and recognize the value of themselves, their rights, and their beliefs by having a strong basis of self-confidence.
  • Self-confidence will help them recognize that they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect, which leads them to be able to stick up for their wants, rights, and needs of themselves (or others). However, it’s important to not allow your self-confidence develop into self-importance or arrogance.
  • Voicing your wants and needs with confidence. Being able to work at your full potential, it’s important that your wants and needs are met.
  • Understanding that you can’t control other people’s behavior. People are in charge of how they react, not you.
  • Expressing themselves in a positive way.
  • Being open to both compliments and criticism.
  • Have the ability to say “no”. This is one of the most important skills needed in assertiveness because it’s vital to know your own limits in order to stand up for yourself.

Helpful Exercises


Helpful Techniques

  • Use “I” Statements. “I” Statements are statements that convey your feelings without imposing on the other person. For example, “I feel”, “I want”, and “I need” are all “I” Statements.
  • Being empathetic. Using empathy means you understand how the other person feels about and views the situation, and take their point of view into consideration.
  • Taking action. If your attempts at assertiveness aren’t successful, then you may need to become firmer while still being respectful.
  • Ask for more time. Sometimes we end up in situations that catch us off guard or we might not feel calm enough to respond respectfully. It’s okay to ask for time to compose your thoughts and to compose yourself.
  • Pay attention to the verbs you use. Some verbs “sugar-coat” a message to the point that sometimes the other person doesn’t realize what you are asking of them. Try using verbs like “will” instead of “could” and “should: “I will do this” rather than “I should do this”. Try using “want” instead of “need”: “I want you to be ready in five minutes” rather than “I need you to be ready in five minutes”. 
  • Repeat. It’s fine to be a broken record and advocate for yourself by repeating the message, in the same words, if people don’t realize your genuine intentions.
  • Think about what you will say prior. Prepare what you want to say in advance.
  • Forge relationships outside of work with your colleagues in order to feel more comfortable with speaking up and asserting yourself in the workplace.