Assertiveness – Stand up and be counted!



Assertiveness – Stand up and be counted!

What is it about being more assertive that is so appealing? Over the years of training this is one of my most popular courses, and the content really can make a difference, which is so rewarding.  Assertiveness is the holy grail of communication skills and is sought by women in the form of ‘confidence’ and by men in the form ‘feeling powerful’.  Different labels, same effect.  Gok Wan has much to be praised for in this area.

Defining it is easy.  It is about standing up for oneself, expressing an opinion or feeling or putting across ones point of view for example in a way that is direct and honest that does not compromise anyone rights to the same. Simples.  How does that happen though?

Assertive behaviour has two siblings, aggressive behaviour and passive behaviour.  If we think of a triangle, putting assertive behaviour at the top point, and passive and aggressive on the bottom two points, we can see that we could have another sibling which is passive/aggressive behaviour, which is generally recognise as not too healthy.  All that trying to mean and nasty but doing it with an apology at the start of sentences, eughhh!  If however we draw a straight horizontal line through the middle of the triangle and call everything above the line ‘more choice’ and everything below the line ‘limited choice’ then it is possible to identify a feeling that is associated with assertive behaviour and passive and aggressive behaviour.    To clarify, when we are feeling aggressive it could be said that we feel this way because we have been left in a situation with no choice but to get angry and aggressive.  When we are forced to back down and become passive we are left with no choice in that situation either.  However, when we feel that there are many choices on the table, it could be said that we feel more assertive, able to choose freely, and able to feel happy and confident in our choice, therefore more assertive.

There are other elements that are linked to assertive behaviour, for example when presenting, it is important to feel not only very assertive, but also assured and authoritative.

Assertiveness can be closely linked with negotiation skills too.  If we think about the classic win/win situation, well this could be argued, as being quite assertive, where as win/lose would be aggressive, a lose/win is passive and a lose/lose is passive aggressive.  Each one is based on whether someone’s rights count or not.  In negotiation it is important that all sides are heard, argued through, proposals put in place and resolutions where each one is mutually agreed and both parties are happy.

So when do we need to have this wonderful win/win feeling? Well usually in the following situations:

  • Giving or receiving bad news
  • Giving or receiving praise
  • Make some sort of request
  • Saying “no”
  • Disagreeing with something or someone

Whichever situation you find yourself in, if things are not going well, then you are likely to find your choices limited and a sense of aggression or passivity coming over you.

Think about these simple tips when in these situations.

Giving Bad News

  • When giving bad news, never apologise first, it puts you into a position of blame should the recipient choose.
  • Think about what the worse thing any person could possibly hear, and it is usually around loss, loss of life or loss of job or loss of livelihood.  In these situation people are trained to give the news directly, with no waffle leaving the recipient in no doubt as to the messages intent.  Your situation may not be as severe, so in that case be direct, be polite, hold eye contact and just say it.

Giving or Receiving Praise

  • When giving praise don’t gush or over do it, just be sincere and congratulatory
  • When giving praise don’t use sarcasm or humour, it lessens the intent
  • When receiving praise be gracious and say thank you
  • When receiving praise don’t then oversell it back, it will just sound like you are trying too hard

Saying ‘No’

  • Ask why you are saying no.  Is it due to you not wanting it, not able to do it, that someone else could do it, that it is not legal or fair or equitable?  Whichever it is, that must be in your reply, which is a request to say ‘No’
  • Don’t snap when saying no, also don’t be too waffley either. Just get to the point.


  • OK it happens and sometimes silence says more than saying something, bear this in mind.
  • You can disagree by asking for clarification or for the person involved to repeat what they have stated
  • Explain that you are not comfortable with their statement or comment; the important aspect is to say how it makes you ‘feel’.  No one can argue with that, as it is your right to feel a certain way, good or bad.

Making a Request

  • Always think what is the worst thing they can say? Hint: it’s ‘No’, so have a contingency plan
  • When making a request try to build in multiples that way you have something to negotiate with.
  • As before, do not apologise, you are not sorry, you are simple asking for something.

In each of these situations we often have feelings, values and beliefs attached to them, and we are god at putting ourselves into the worse case scenario and creating a self fulfilling prophecy to make it happen.  I know people who actually act out the scenario in many different ways, often talking to themselves, becoming each character in the scenario, to play it out.  Then after all that, still thinking the worse.  If this is you, well it is normal, I do it too.  However I do it with one difference, I do my absolute best to see it from the recipients perspective and try to anticipate the reasons why they will or won’t react well.  Anticipation is wonderful if you can master it, rather than letting it master you.

The Assertive Apologist and the Cat Flap

Have you ever met people who apologise a lot? you know the type, they make their point by saying sorry before making it, or when actually describing something they believe in or have carried out, they say sorry.  In fact they seem they say sorry for just two things really, everything they say and everything they do! whilst on the surface you may be mistaken into thinking you are dealing with someone who is really rather polite and really quite soft.  You’re not.  You are actually dealing with a someone who is not sorry at all.  On the face of it, their behaviour is quite assertive.  In reality it is passive aggressive.  The thing is, they don’t think they are being passive aggressive.  They do not identify with this behaviour trait and believe it is OK, almost believing it’s acceptable to be this way. Often they feel that by saying sorry that this is how they can be assertive, and some start using sorry as an entry point into being assertive, when actually it is not.  Meanwhile people around them allow them to make their point and carry out their actions, all dressed up in this mythical ‘sorry’ because they are so nice about it. However, somewhere deep in their past someone has beaten them down, or told them that their points have no worth, or they are not confident in some way.  When I have coached people who demonstrate this behaviour, they are often surprised to find that it is an issue.  Even more so, when it is documented on a 360 feedback form, or if they have been told outright to “stop apologising”.  When challenged about it, most people can identify with a time when their confidence has been knocked by by criticism, or being told that they are not good at something and this behaviour is often deeply embedded and difficult to change. I have used anchoring techniques found in NLP to help people move from the place of ‘sorry’ to a more positive place. One employee was coached to always here the word ‘catflap’ and associate it with saying sorry.  You see, he found the word ‘catflap’ highly amusing and would break into fits of laughter thinking about it. Definitely not the behaviour congruent with someone who is sorry.  So it stuck, and as such, he now makes his point in a much healthier way, with a smile on his face and a bit of a chuckle.  People now respond to him very well, especially when he is in a meeting and making a point, or speaking up.  Of course they don’t know that inside he is trying to hold it together as he cannot help but think of…well, cat-flaps.  He doesn’t say sorry anymore, well, only for that which he regrets, not just for being assertive.  It is a shame, that the word sorry his so overused these days, almost to the point where its true meaning is diluted.  I suppose it is a bit like saying ‘I love you’ too much, it can lose its lustre.  This type of behaviour needs to made more conscious to the individual, therefore correcting can be applied easier. Remember that by telling someone “stop apologising, all the time” what you are actually doing is critiquing them, therefore reinforcing their need to apologise. So tread carefully.

Assertive SIlence

How can not saying anything be assertive? well, often there are situations, where silence can speak volumes, sales for example. Sales people are some of the most talented communicators on this planet.  The can weave and manipulate data and information into an amazing sales story convincing buyers that their product is better than anyone else’s out there. You may not like it, but it is what the competitive commercial world is built upon.  Oh and let’s not make any mistakes here, we are all salespeople in some way shape or form.  Kids are masters at the one of the hardest sales tool to master; negotiation. “if I eat all my tea Mummy, can I watch TV longer tonight?” the classic “If I do XXXX will you do YYYY” technique” if a child doesn’t get their own way, then they will always follow it with a “Why?” although it comes across more whiny, “whhhyyyyyyyyy?” Business spend £/$0000’s training people to do this, yet we all have it in us, wired into the DNA!!  Anyway silence.  In sales when closing or asking for the business, when a quote is given to a client, the most assertive thing a salesperson can do, it to shut up and stay quiet. Again, this is once the price is given.  The silence that follows allows the client to digest the information and woe betide the salesperson if they speak before the client, as everything that then roles out of their mouth will just sound a like a  justification, therefore weakening the value of what they are offering.  Instead the client must be first to speak, and this will be either a confirmation that they agree and therefore the sale is made, or it will be in the form of an objection, which the sales person can then deal with.  The key factor here is the ‘silence’.  This can be very uncomfortable to experiment with at first, as the need to fill the silence with chatter is overwhelming, but used well it can usually get the business. So button it!  In life generally when proposing something as a solution to another person, for example if you are proposing a certain restaurant to visit or movie to see always use the ‘silence’ once you have made the recommendation, it is a very assertive thing to do. Who would have thought silence could be so ‘assertive’.

Technical Assertiveness

This is something that many people can identify with, and often the classic ‘tech geek’ is a really example.  You know these people, they live in a world of computer code, and generally inhabit quiet offices where you could here a pin drop, not wanting to spend time with people, they simply get on with their jobs, headphones on, absorbed in their genius. BUT. when they do speak, people listen, and people listen good. Why? because when they talk about their world they are technically very authoritative, very assured and very assertive.  It is these three ‘A’ words that create ‘technical assertiveness’.  Anyone who is really absorbed, fascinated, or involved in a subject or skill they are passionate about will have this. Whether it be technology, cooking, sports, music, dancing whatever, it applies. It is brilliant. For those people wanting to be more assertive, and have found traditional methods of assertiveness building do not work, the solution can often be found here.  Think about how well you know the subject, are you an authority? does your knowledge enable you to be more self-assured when talking about it in terms of making a point, disagreeing with someone, giving feedback, good or bad, or justifying why you should say ‘no’? if you can answer yes, then the chances are you automatically will come over as assertive.  It is about anchoring that feeling of confidence you associate with your specialisation and applying it to the areas you those that are not. It just takes practice and recognition.

Technical Assertiveness, Silent Assertiveness and the Assertive Apologists all exist and can be found easily, and in conclusion; before I add more updates to this, being more assertive can be very challenging, and the word itself can be ‘too big’ for some people to deal with, and small steps need to be taken to give themselves a chance to be comfortable. I appreciate that this might sound all very ideal world, and often some of these things may not be as effective for you, every time.  It is the good old Pareto 80/20 rule. Practice is the key, and pull on some stores of ‘bravery’.  Look to model behaviour around you. Those people who you see as assertive, not who other people tell you are assertive. The reason for this is it is easier to adopt behaviours you see in other people, when you witness them working for yourself, that way you can identify with them better and make steps to make them your own.  So for those of you reading this, wanting to be a bit braver, a bit more confident, become more assured, then the first step is to look at those around you just a little bit closer.  You’ll get there, and I hope one day to shake your hand.

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