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Understanding assertive communication continued

Assertiveness techniques

Some approaches to improving assertive behaviour are heavily reliant on techniques. However, for me this is not that important. Most people behave assertively some of the time and do so quite naturally. This means that they have the basic skills. What is usually most challenging for them is to extend this behaviour into other areas of life or become assertive with certain types of people. To do this often means removing emotional or logical blockages. Examples of emotional blocks include not giving yourself permission to ask for help or say 'no' or worrying about being criticised by unreasonable people. Logical blocks are often about not thinking through the consequences of being unassertive. For example, often people think it is just easier to fit in whereas if they really think through the consequences of saying 'yes' they will realise that this is rarely true.

There are particular assertiveness skills which relate to specific situations such as saying ?no, making requests and giving and receiving criticism and compliments. Going through these specific techniques is outwith the remit of this chapter. Instead what I do is list a few general points which over the years participants on courses have found most helpful in becoming more assertive.

As you will see, all of these work well in some contexts but not necessarily others. I've indicated this where relevant.

1. Starting off by saying what you think/feel

Often the most difficult aspect of confronting a tricky situation with someone is how you get into the conversation. This can be so difficult that people often skirt round topics, hoping the other person 'gets the message', rather than openly saying what's on their mind. Generally the best way into an awkward conversation is to start by saying how you think or feel. There are two advantages to this approach: First you are immediately starting the communication on an assertive note. Remember the definition of assertiveness we are using here is 'clear honest and direct communication'. So by starting off on what is in your head you are behaving assertively. Secondly, often if we say how we feel, and what we say is congruent with what we are thinking and feeling, it helps us to relax and be ourselves. In my experience this is a great confidence booster as it gives a sense of personal integrity.

Here's a few examples of opening gambits:

'I've been putting off saying this to you as I don't know how you?re going to react but ..'
'This is really difficult for me to say, but...'
'I'm feeling quite nervous here...'

This approach is good in a variety of different situations as it makes you seem human and open to the other person. I've seen people say they were nervous at interviews and the interview panel warmed to them and it helped the candidate to pause for breath and then relax. It is an approach which can work well for older or younger people.

However, there are times when it is not in your interest to reveal something about yourself or your thoughts/feelings which another person may see as a weakness. This would apply to people who really don't like you and who can be very manipulative or aggressive. It may also be the case with young people who are unsure of your authority and who will take advantage of you if they see you as weak.

2. Don't give lots excuses or go into unnecessary detail

When people are asked to do things they don't want to do they often cover up their embarrassment by giving lots of detail on why they can't do what they are being asked. For example:

'I would love to come but I don't have a car that day.' followed by lots of detail about why the car isn't available. 

'I would really like to come along and take notes at the meeting but I've got lots and lots of marking to do.' Again often lots of detail on why this is the case.

The difficulty with this approach is that the more you say you want to do something but can't for a real, or imaginary reason, the more the other person is likely to start trying to fix the problem for you by offering you lifts or suggestions about marking. This means that saying 'no' becomes awkward rather than easy. Young people often get embroiled in these types of discussions. Whereas if the person simply says 'thanks for the invitation/offer but it isn't suitable.' that will usually be the end of it. You can then be friendly and add on that you hope they will have an interesting time, the meeting goes well or whatever but your reasons for not going are not the topic of discussion.

Clearly this approach will not work with close relations or friends who are involved in the detail of your life. Nor is it always appropriate if you are being asked to do something by your manager. In this instance, technique 7 below will be more appropriate.

3. Remember the power of body language and tone of voice

For reasons outlined earlier, it is very useful to become more aware in your communications of your body language and the tone/volume of your voice. If you have a tendency to be passive then try speaking a bit louder and in a more definite manner. Try to keep your head up and look more directly at the other person. If this is not how you usually behave, as well as changing your body language and tone, be prepared to use the broken record technique. What this means is repeating your point (again and again if necessary) until you are really being heard.

If you are often seen by others as too forceful or domineering then try to make your communication less clipped and definite. Speak more softly. Be careful not to use strong hand movements. Try to sit side on to the person so your communication seems less confrontational.

4. Ask for more time

Often people feel they have to respond there and then to something. This is often a request but it could be some kind of criticism of what they have done. Rather than being bounced into saying something that they might regret (like agreeing to do something or going along with an unfair criticism), it is often helpful to ask for time to consider what has been said. They should then agree a time, think about their views and get back to the person. This is particularly important for people who are not good at thinking on their feet and need to mull things over on their own. It is a very useful technique  for people who tend not to be very assertive as it can give them time to work out what they want to do and what to say.

5. Clarify what is being asked of you

It is also a good idea to get more clarification on requests. There is a world of a difference between agreeing to write up some informal notes from a half hour meeting or doing formal minutes from a two hour meeting. Before you agree to do things, it can make sense to check out what is at stake and then you can make a considered decision. It is really good to encourage young people to do this as it is very easy for them to get roped into things when they don't really know what is involved.

6. Don't get side-tracked

In many communications it is important that we make our point, get agreement from the other and move on. Let's suppose you are a head teacher and you are aware that a probationary teacher is regularly a few minutes late for class. You speak to her about it and she starts to go into detail about where she lives, the difficulties of public transport or whatever. None of this is relevant. She has to be in class on time. If you ignore what she is saying she will get frustrated and think you are not listening. If you engage in conversation about it you will waste your time and often make it more difficult for you to make your request. So what you need to do is acknowledge the difficulty, which shows that you have heard what is being said, but not get sidetracked into discussing it. In this instance, you may say, 'I know buses can be unreliable but you've got to ensure that you get to work on time.'

This can be a useful technique at parents' meetings. Often parents can go on too long recounting anecdotes which are not that relevant and this can be very stressful if you see a long queue forming. Trying to get in early, but not abruptly, by acknowledging what they are saying briefly (e.g. 'yes I know this can be difficult') and then return swiftly to the points which you think must be discussed.

This technique is useful in specific situations namely where time is limited and where you are on strong ground in dictating the conversation. Clearly it will not go down well in cases where it is important for both parties to express their views. It is probably of less relevance to young people, unless they are prefects or in a supervisory role.

7. Think win/win

Much of the conflict between individuals is due to a clash of needs or wants. Individual x wants to do one thing and individual y wants x to do something else.  One of the best writers on how to resolve a clash of different desires is Steven Covey in his much acclaimed best-seller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

Covey argues that if we are in some type of relationship, in our outside of work, and our needs conflict with someone else's then there are four basic outcomes:


You don't get your own way and the other does. In other words, you lose and the other wins.


You get your needs met and the other doesn't. This means you win and the other loses.


You lose and so does the other person. 


You win and so does the other person.


This outcome corresponds with classic passive behaviour as you are putting the needs and opinions of the other before yourself. This can make sense with some decisions but it is obviously not in your interest long term to keep letting others get their needs met at your expense. Unless this is due to altruistic decision-making on your part, lose/win outcomes can lead to an erosion of self-respect and the respect of others as it can make you seem like a 'door mat'.


This could be classic aggressive behaviour as you are winning at the other's expense. You may gain short-term advantage from win/lose but if you have to keep dealing with the other person it can be disastrous long-term. The other is likely to feel aggrieved that you have disregarded his/her needs and acted in a purely selfish way. This may mean it is more difficult to work with them in the future, or they may be able to get their own back. Good negotiation skills courses caution against going for win/lose outcomes as you are likely to pay for it in loss of good will in the longer term.


This is the most interesting of the four quadrants. Lose/lose
sometimes happens when both parties want to reach an amicable solution to the problem. A compromise is agreed but this often falls short of what you both needed to achieve and so in a sense both parties 'lose'.


When both parties are able to talk openly about their needs and what they desire it is possible in many cases to reaach a win/win solution. This involves each party listening to the other?s needs and viewpoints and then seeing if there is another way of solving the problem which meets the needs of both parties. As the example below shoes, this often involves a different solution to the problem and so cannot be construed as a compromise.

In The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,  Stephen Covey points out that sometimes it is impossible to reach a win/win solution. In that case, he argues it is better to opt for 'no deal'. This is where you simply recognise that you have conflicting needs that cannot easily be reconciled. He rightly points out it is preferable to opt for this outcome when continued discussion would encourage us to resort to manipulative behaviour to get our own way or to persuade the other.

8. Give voice to the positive

From discussions at countless workshops I'm aware that people often have very positive feelings about others (e.g. how they look, the type of people they are, what they can achieve in life) but often only give voice to a tiny percentage of these positive thoughts. Not only does this mean that they lose out on the opportunity to enhance their relationship with the other but also they forego the chance to experience themselves as a generous, supportive person. In Scotland we often are not very comfortable with compliments and praise and often deflect any which comes our way. So when giving compliments to others try to stick to the following advice: be spontaneous (make the positive remark as natural as possible): don't go overboard by saying  'that was great' but 'I really liked the way you used humour in your presentation') and don't overwhelm people with compliments that are over the top. Keep the compliment fairly small.

If you are given a compliment remember that it is quite rude to deflect and that you should try to be gracious. The best thing to do is simply smile and say 'thank you'.

In the modern workplace, women are often quite touchy about compliments from men on their physical appearance so men have to be careful about giving women compliments on how they look unless they have a close friendship with them. It is better to stick to saying positive things about the nature of the work or other aspects of the person's character.

Concluding remarks

Human relationships are complex and it is difficult to set out hard and fast rules for communication as so much depends on the context, the specific individuals involved and the need to take an all-round balanced view.

That being said, assertiveness training can be a good way to build positive feelings about the self as well as good relationships. There are two main reasons for this:

A standard for behaviour

Most people (in Western culture at least) accept that there is something attractive, and fair, about assertive behaviour. It is mature, and respectful, to be honest and open in your dealings with others and positively beneficial to see people as equals.  However there are some difficult people in the world. I'm thinking here of people with a tendency to be aggressive or who feel bitter about the past or see themselves as victims. If you are assertive you have a better chance of getting on with them but there is no hard and fast guarantee. In fact it is useful to realise that you cannot control how others see the world or how they behave. All you can control is what you say and do. So behaving assertively does not mean that the other will behave this way back or that relationship issues with them will be resolved.

In my own life I am aware that I still run into difficulties with people (though much less than before) but that when I do I am able to get what is happening in perspective and I shrug it off much more quickly than before. What I find particularly helpful is to compare in my head what I have done with what I think is good behaviour. If I find myself wanting then I'll apologise and try to make it up to the person.  If I think my behaviour was reasonable then I have to accept that it is their problem and move on. In other words, assertiveness training can help give people a yardstick to judge their own and others' behaviour and this can be very liberating.

A balancing act

Many people find it only too easy to act passively and fit in with what others want for fear of being disliked or criticised. Others find it only too easy to express their opinions and to demand their rights even though this often means riding roughshod over others. What assertive behaviour requires of us is to balance these two extremes. When we act in an assertive way we are conscious of our own needs and rights as an individual but we do not seek to have these fulfilled at the expense of other people. This is why mature, well-judged assertive behaviour can lead to self-respect and confidence but at the same time better, more respectful relationships. 

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