Using assertiveness to handle people and situations

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Communication Skills



Essentially, assertiveness has several aspects; it involves:

  • being honest with yourself and with others

  • being able to say what you want, need and feel but not at the expense of other people’s feelings

  • understanding the other person’s point of view

  • behaving in a logical, rational (not emotional) manner.

Self-assertion is partly an attitude of mind in how you feel about yourself and others and partly a set of techniques which can be practised. The techniques reinforce the attitude of mind. The benefits of being assertive are that you are able to:

  • handle others with confidence and courtesy

  • handle any encounter with efficiency, no matter how difficult

  • leave other people with a positive impression of you and your organisation

  • say the right thing in the right way

  • feel satisfied with the outcome of a situation.

Developing assertive techniques is worthwhile but like anything else worth having, it will warrant investing some time to develop assertion techniques.


It is important to be able to identify the symptoms of submissive, aggressive and assertive behaviour in yourself and in others. Submissive people are usually able to recognise this weakness in themselves only too easily. However, those who are over-dominant are rarely aware that they are behaving aggressively until they start checking through a list of characteristics.


Submissiveness means constantly trying to avoid hurting or upsetting other people or letting other people have their own way in order that you can gain their approval or avoid their displeasure.
Submissive people will:

  • feel manipulated

  • keep quiet even when other people’s behaviour upsets them

  • find themselves lumbered with unwanted tasks

  • will adopt the majority viewpoint/stance

  • give in to other people

  • not volunteer their own ideas or feelings

  • always agree, even when they know it is wrong to do so

  • be apologetic for their attitudes or behaviour

  • believe in “anything for a quiet life”.

You can recognise a submissive person because they:

  • are hesitant

  • precede sentences with apologies “I’m terribly sorry...”

  • speak very quietly

  • allow sentences to trail off

  • use “er” and “um” a lot

  • always qualify statements and frequently use “possibly”, “perhaps”

  • maintain very little eye contact with the other person

  • use nervous jerky movements or fiddle with hair, rings, pens, cuffs, etc

  • hunch their shoulders, shuffle their feet

  • cross their arms for protection

  • look worried and do not smile

  • back away.


Being aggressive or dominant is a behaviour used by some to achieve personal goals regardless of how this might affect others. Encounters with other people are regarded as contests in which you must win or come out “on top”. Aggressive people will:

  • speak their mind openly even if it means giving offence

  • ignore the right of others to speak their mind

  • attempt to ridicule or belittle others and their ideas

  • insist that they are right

  • be patronising

  • believe “attack is the best form of defence”.

You can recognise aggressive behaviour in individuals because they

  • make use of the word “I”

  • sound loud and strident

  • use rapid speech so that others have difficulty interrupting or use deliberate slow sarcasm

  • use imperative words such as “you must”, “it is essential” or derogatory statements such as “that is ridiculous”

  • use very direct eye contact (staring)

  • have a very firm set to their jaw

  • gesticulate a lot when talking, particularly a jabbing or pointing finger or thump the table to reinforce their words

  • lean over people when talking and generally encroach on the other person’s personal space.

It is easy for an aggressive person to dominate the submissive and make the latter give way. “Success” often leaves the aggressive person with a feeling of self-satisfaction. How does the submissive person feel?

A submissive person is likely to feel unhappy about their own behaviour but they are also likely to feel resentful towards the person causing that feeling and, in turn, that may lead to a revenge psychology. Submissive people can often scheme to find subtle ways of getting back at an aggressive individual. It is therefore important to work towards assertiveness in our behaviour both socially and at work.
Assertive people will:

  • express their ideas and feelings openly but accord others the same right

  • acknowledge the right of another person to a different point of view

  • keep their emotions under control

  • deal with a problem rather than avoiding it or creating conflict

  • believe “everyone has a right to a point of view or opinion”.

Assertive people usually:

  • sound calm

  • have a firm steady voice

  • use language which shows they are listening to the other person

  • ask questions to find out the other person’s needs

  • avoid words that are imperatives, incite conflict or are apologetic

  • use frequent but friendly eye contact

  • have a relaxed but upright posture

  • use open palm gestures

  • use facial expressions to reinforce words.



To be assertive you should be honest about your own problems. Consider the characteristics of the behaviour styles discussed and decide which is most typical of your general behaviour. This should help you to know whether you need to assert your own rights more actively or whether you need to tone down your own needs and be more accommodating to others.
Think hard about particular situations or people who create assertiveness problems for you. Some typical situations which present difficulties for submissive people at work are:
- meeting new people for the first time, e.g. visitors

- making a complaint to a manager

- being able to say “no” when you think you should

- asking others for help

- dealing with persistent people who attempt to wear you down, e.g. salespeople.
If you recognise the need to be more assertive you should consider the information detailed below.
MAKE A COMMITMENT: In order to be assertive, you must first of all WANT to be assertive. This means making a commitment to yourself about changing your attitude and your behaviour. It is the same as the commitment you make when dieting or giving up smoking.
BELIEVE IN YOUR RIGHTS: You must accept some fundamental beliefs. The first is your right to speak out for what you want and how you feel. The second is that you will accept that other people have the same right.
When making a commitment or accepting your beliefs, it is useful to put something down on paper. For example, to help you stick to your commitment, make a list of all the benefits to you and to your organisation, of being more assertive.
Place this list of benefits and a statement of rights where you see them frequently, e.g. in your personal drawer at work or on the fridge door at home. It is sometimes a good idea to pin them up where others can see them too. Your partner, colleagues or boss may think it a bit of a joke at first but a public commitment does focus the mind - and not just yours!


If you approach a situation feeling negative, you can be forgiven for anticipating the worst case scenario. Before difficult situations - possibly events like appraisal or job interviews, handling awkward clients - give yourself a positive mental “talking to”. Tell yourself you can handle the situation, that you know the techniques and that this is a good opportunity to practise them.

Recognise that everybody experiences failure at some time. The difference is that people you regard as self-assured are assertive with themselves as well as others. When things go wrong, instead of feeling sorry for themselves and resentful, they analyse why the outcome was poor and attempt to put the matter right. Self-assured individuals usually learn from their mistakes.
Tip - Follow a standard procedure
Try the following basic steps in any encounter which is proving difficult.

  • Listen to what the other person has to say. Show you are listening by asking suitable questions to elicit information and by displaying appropriate body language.

  • Demonstrate that you understand their position. Use phrases such as, “I can see that....”, I appreciate...”, “I can see why you think...”(“I understand your position”.)

This is more positive than attacking their point of view or vehemently defending your own.

  • State your own ideas/feelings calmly and with control. Explain what you would like to happen. Present your ideas as logical suggestions rather than as brash statements. For example, “I think.... would you agree?” “I would like to... How do you feel about this suggestion?” “I could... would that help?”

If you find yourself in a difficult situation, e.g. refusing to stay late at work, you might try:

“I appreciate that you need this report urgently; however, I do have an appointment tonight that I cannot cancel at short notice. I could come in early tomorrow morning. Would that help?”
Remember to avoid words which will incite and try to avoid using “but” - it is a short, sharp signal that a counter argument is to follow!
Practise assertive behaviour
Use the assertive language, the appropriate tone and pace and the appropriate body language. Practise expressions and gestures in front of a mirror and check you have:

  • a calm, firm clear voice

  • good eye contact

  • a relaxed posture

  • a smile (if appropriate to the situation)

When you are satisfied with the language, tone, facial expressions, then try to practice these techniques. Practice some typical problem situations with a friend until the procedure, words and gestures come naturally to you.

First impressions count! If individuals appear apprehensive at a first encounter, it will be recognised that by exerting only a little pressure an individual might agree to anything. By appearing to be too aggressive, future encounters may be regarded as a “contest”. To establish the right atmosphere at a first meeting:

  • establish eye contact and smile

  • move towards the ‘new people’ and take the initiative to offer a handshake as a greeting

  • give a firm handshake with the palms side by side

  • introduce yourself

  • ask an open question to start the conversation, e.g. about their journey

  • continue the conversation through a sequence of questions, answers or comments, attempt to include all members of the party and concentrate so that you don’t unwittingly interrupt or show inattention.


For some this may not seem like a difficult situation but it is surprising how difficult some individuals find it to make a request of others. Most individuals are afraid of rejection they either sound terribly apologetic or request something virtually as an order. The basic art of making a request with the maximum chance of a “yes” answer is:

  • establish good eye contact and smile

  • use clear, simple direct language so that you do not have to repeat yourself

  • use a pleasant tone

  • remember to say “please”.

If you present requests in this way, it is more difficult for the other person to say “no”.


There are times when individuals will want/need to refuse a request. We are not advocating that being able to say “no” is automatically the sign of an assertive person because there are times when the request is for something within your scope of responsibilities. However, we all receive unreasonable requests or are asked to do things which are outside our capabilities/responsibilities or may even be illegal. You may need to say “no” immediately.

Most of us, if put under pressure, would probably admit that we prefer an outright refusal at the outset than to be let down later by half-hearted compliance or sloppy work.
In order to say no:

  • try to show understanding of the other person’s position who is making the request

  • speak in a firm, even pace

  • remain polite

  • do not allow the other person to get you emotional

  • persist in your refusal


Aggressive people use sarcasm and attack other people’s attitudes and ideas. All individuals have a right to their own ideas and opinions (even if they prove to be wrong!) and a right to express them. If someone infringes your rights, don’t accept it; tell them how it makes you feel. Do so politely and calmly. Never retaliate in kind.

“I don’t think your sarcasm will help us to resolve this problem. It makes me feel annoyed and uncooperative. Could we try working together rather than against one another? I think it may resolve the situation if we do”.


Within your organisation there are times when you must make requests of others that are reasonable and within the scope of your authority. If they refuse a reasonable request, it could eventually lead to disciplinary action. Of course, the first responsibility is on you not to make requests of others that are unreasonable or unlawful. However, if someone does refuse;

  • stay calm and polite

  • use a firm voice

  • give a reason for the request (the other person may appreciate its importance then)

  • be persistent and, if necessary, alter the tone of your voice if the request is not accepted, never lose your temper

  • explain what action you will take if the other person continues to refuse but give them a reasonable time-scale within which to comply with the request.


Remember that it is part of the job role of some people to be persistent, e.g. sales people, negotiators. They have been taught to repeat their message and not to listen to objections. You need to practise the same techniques. The technique is often referred to as “the broken record” technique because essentially you get “stuck in a groove”;

  • stay calm, polite and unemotional

  • decide on the key message you want to convey

  • bring the key phrase into the conversation in many different ways

  • show appreciation of the other person’s difficulties.

Here is a sample conversation you might use with someone who is hassling you to see your manager.

You Mr Wallis can’t see you today, Mr

Caudwell. His appointment book is full.

Visitor Go on, dear. He’ll see me.
You Mr Wallis has the rule that he cannot

see people without an appointment.

Can I make an appointment for you

later this week?

Visitor But I’m only here for the day. I’ve

come a distance you know. I’m sure

he’ll make an exception in my case.

Why don’t you ring through and see?

You I’m afraid he won’t make an exception,

Mr Caudwell. Can I make an appoint-

ment for Thursday?
Visitor He’s missing out on important business

if he doesn’t see me and it will be your

You I’ll have to risk that, Mr Caudwell but

Mr Wallis insists on seeing visitors by

appointment. I can pencil you in for

2.30 p.m. on Thursday. Can you manage

that. I can make it later if you prefer?
You will need to repeat the message until the person ultimately listens.


No one likes criticism. Our natural tendency is to resent the statement and the person who has made it and to give way emotionally by either defending yourself strongly or becoming tearful and over-apologetic. Sometimes there is a grain of truth behind the criticism but it is not the total picture. The best approach is:

  • listen carefully to the criticism and show you have understood the point that is being made

  • agree with any truth in the criticism or agree with the logic of their argument from their viewpoint

  • do not waste time on excuses

  • ask for specific examples of the offending behaviour if you can see no substance in it or it is too generalised

  • explain calmly how you feel if the criticism is delivered in a vindictive, destructive manner

  • present a possible solution to the dilemma.

Here’s a possible situation:

Your manager has complained about some errors in the calculations in a report you have produced. She asked you to produce the report at short notice so that you did not have time to check everything before the print off. You do not usually make mistakes and you usually double check figures. All right, it isn’t fair that she created the pressure or that she criticised you for a one-off situation when normally your work is sound. But don’t let your resentment get hold of you.
Instead try:

“Yes, what you are saying is probably true; I did make some errors in the report, now I have had time to check and I appreciate this can create a bad image. I don’t like producing work with errors and will certainly do all I can to ensure it doesn’t happen again. However, I feel we could avoid a repetition of this if we sit down for five minutes each day to discuss priorities in the workload so that I can give sufficient attention to the most important work. What do you think?”

You have not fallen into her trap of openly casting blame and you have suggested a solution to prevent the situation from re-occurring.


There is nothing like praise for a job well done or a “thank you” to build up morale. Remember that other people may be worrying whether they are doing a good job or not, whether their quality standards are appropriate. If you take the time to confirm that they are doing well, it builds their own self-esteem and helps them towards greater assertiveness.


Friends are people with whom we can relax and be ourselves. But, what about when a friend is experiencing difficulties? Have you been tempted to suddenly avoid a friend because you feel they will want to burden you with their problems or because you find their behaviour embarrassing? Or have you waded in and told them exactly what they should do to sort themselves out? This is another version of flight or fight.

A friend has rights - a right to your support. First, it is important to be able to recognise the warning signals that a friend may be experiencing problems. These might include: changes in temperament, changes in behaviour and changes in appearance. If you want to help:

  • be a good listener

  • ask open questions, e.g. “what”, “when”, “how”, so that you begin to build up a factual picture of the situation

  • don’t make value judgements such as, “you shouldn’t have done that”

  • show sympathy with their feelings even if you consider they may have acted stupidly, e.g. “I can see why you’re angry/shocked/feeling sad...”

  • offer any support you can to minimise emotional or physical stress, e.g. offer to baby-sit, to go with them to a difficult meeting, to be available on the end of a phone if they want to chat

  • avoid offering your own solutions to the problem. Instead, try the counselling approach of allowing your friend to talk round their problem until they can arrive at an appropriate solution that is right for them. If you step in and tell them what they should do, you are lining yourself up for the blame if it goes wrong later! By all means, outline some alternative courses of action but the final choice must be theirs.


Angry or rude people are particularly difficult to handle because they arouse one of the two extremes in use - to argue back and get equally heated or to get away as quickly as possible. However, if the angry or rude person is a manager, customer or client, we must face up to the situation. To remain assertive in such a difficult encounter:

  • stay calm

  • do not take their anger or rudeness personally. In some cases it is part of their basic personality, in others it may be a tactic they use with everyone, etc

  • look and sound assertive, i.e. maintain eye contact, use open palm gestures, use facial expressions to support your words

  • allow them to let off steam (they like expressing their emotions)

  • ask questions which establish the facts

  • get on with dealing with the real situation/problem rather than their reaction to it (it is the quickest way to get them out of your hair).
Being Assertive Means:

* Being honest with yourself & others

* Being able to say what you want, need or feel BUT NOT at the expense of others

* Being able to negotiate and reach a workable compromise
* Having respect for yourself & others

* Saying the RIGHT THING In the RIGHT WAY At the RIGHT TIME.

* FEELING GOOD about the outcome.

Being Aggressive Means:

* Manipulating people.

* Getting your own way at the expense of others.
* Giving no consideration to others at all.
* Winning at all costs.

Being Passive Means:

* Not wanting to ‘rock the boat’.

* Holding back, not speaking up.

* Being a victim

* Having your rights neglected.
In order to be more Assertive:
* Confront the issue
* Ask for clarification
* Use “In my opinion....”
* State if you don’t know the answer
* Display empathy
* Stop stating, start asking
* Say ‘No’
* Say “Thank You” when praised. Instead of criticising ask for ideas

* Be honest and open

  • Point out any discrepancies

ASSERTIVE RIGHTS or Assertiveness Bill of Rights

One important key to assertiveness is remembering that you and anyone you deal with has rights as a person.

General rights:


I have the right to express myself provided I do not intend to hurt or put others down in the process.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to be treated with respect as an intelligent, capable and equal human being.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to state my own needs and priorities as a person whatever other people expect of me because of my roles in life.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to deal with people without having to make them like or approve of my actions.

So does everyone else.

Specific rights:


I have the right to express my opinions and values.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to express my emotions when I decide the time and place is right for me to do so.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to ask for what I want.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ for myself.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to be fallible.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to change my mind.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to say ‘I don’t understand’.

So does everyone else.


I have the right to decide if I am responsible for finding a solution to another person’s problem.

So does everyone else.


Standing up for your rights without violating those of other people




Stand up for your rights without violating their rights

Stand up for your rights but violate their rights

Fail to stand up for your rights

State your views whilst showing that you understand their views

Demand acceptance of your views. Show that you are not interested in theirs

Fail to express your views or do so in an apologetic or self-effacing way

Don’t blame; seek the right solution

Blame others

Blame yourself

Enhances you without diminishing them

Enhances you, diminishes them

Diminishes you, enhances them

You win, they don’t lose

You win, they lose

You lose, they win

Talk calmly

Use threats

Be humble and apologetic

Make brief statements

Use ‘I’ excessively

Make rambling statements

Ask open questions to find out what they want

Ignore or belittle what they want e.g. ‘That’s rubbish!’

Just accept what they want

Separate fact and opinion e.g. ‘I agree that we must do it, but your approach isn’t the only way’

State own opinions as facts e.g. ‘That way is no good’

Opinions, if expressed are easy to ignore e.g. ‘It will be awkward for me, but that doesn’t really matter’

Avoid phrases like ‘You should’, ‘You ought’, ‘You must’, ‘You’ve got to’

Excessive use of phrases like ‘You should’, ‘You ought’, ‘You must’, ‘You’ve got to’

Don’t use that sort of phrase at all

Seek acceptable solutions e.g. ‘Let’s have a look at how we can resolve this’

Seek to blame others e.g. ‘It’s all your fault’

Seek to accept blame e.g. ‘I don’t seem to be much use at this’

Voice:- steady, sincere, calm

Voice:- harsh, loud, sometimes sarcastic

Voice:- quiet, sometimes dull, sometimes whining or singsong, maybe wobbly

Speech:- fluent, emphasis key words

Speech:- fluent, abrupt, emphasis blame

Speech:- hesitant, perhaps clears throat

Facial expression:- open, steady

Facial expression:- firm jaw, chin out, maybe scowling

Facial expression:- maybe false smile, perhaps eyebrows raised

Eye contact:- steady

Eye contact:- stares

Eye contact:- evasive

Other body language:- head up, hands open

Other body language:- fist thumps, finger points, perhaps strides around

Other body language:- nervous, defensive


  • You probably behave in each of these ways from time to time.


  • Conflict tends to bring out basic natural stand and fight (aggression) or turn and hide (submission).

  • Aggression can make us feel good and have a sense of power. But the long-term effects can be very detrimental.

  • Assertive behaviour can be better than both.



Greater self confidence

Assertive behaviour tends to produce success without heated arguments. This reduces the need for bristling aggression or docile submission.


Treat others as equals

Recognise their abilities and limitations rather than regarding them as superiors (submissive) or inferiors (aggressive).


Greater self responsibility

Instead of blaming others (aggressive) or constantly saying ‘sorry’ (submissive) you take responsibility for yourself and for achieving what you want to achieve.


Greater self control

Your mind is concentrated on achieving the behaviour you want. You aren’t submitting to control by others. And you haven’t given in to an emotional aggressive outburst.


It can produce a ‘win:win’ situation

Both people’s opinions are given a fair hearing. So both can feel they have won. Aggressive or submissive behaviour is likely to result in ‘win:lose’.


Can you recognise assertive, aggressive and submissive behaviour?




1) A colleague promised you an urgent and important report by 2.00 p.m. It’s already 2.30 p.m. and the report hasn’t arrived. You phone them and say:-

‘David, you promised me that report by 2.00 p.m. What happened?’

2) A customer praises the way you handled a difficult situation.

‘Well, thanks, that’s nice of you, but I didn’t really do much at all.’

A colleague has sent you a memo saying that whenever a customer complains they must be given their money back. You disagree with this policy.

‘We must treat customers well but I’m not happy about your memo. I feel we should treat each case individually. Can we discuss this please?’

4) A colleague is annoyed because the paperwork you promised hasn’t been done.

‘Look, I’ve got enough work of my own to do without being your nursemaid. If you ever broke into a sweat you’d be able to do the paperwork yourself!’

5) A client asks you to take on some extra work straightaway. You are overloaded as it is.

‘I’m behind with work I’m already committed to, so I can’t help you yet. But if it helps, I’ll be able to tackle it next Wednesday’.

6) Four of you are fixing the date for a meeting. The date suitable for the others isn’t suitable for you.

‘Oh, well, I guess I’ll be OK’.

7) You sell photocopiers. Your customer says they prefer the lowest priced model. You know it isn’t the best for their needs.

‘Yes, I guess that one will do. There’s not a lot to be gained from the more expensive ones, it there?’

8) A customer interrupts you when you are involved in an important discussion with another customer.

‘Mrs Smith, please excuse me, I’m in discussion with another customer. But I’ll be with you just as soon as we’ve done’.

Scripting was developed by Bower (Bower S. Asserting Yourself)
Scripting involves taking a situation that is causing you a problem and viewing it as though it was the scene from a play.
You then look at the ‘scene’ – its setting and characters and their roles, feelings, opinions, motivation and behaviour. You then ‘re’write’ the scene’s script so that the outcome is different. You normally do this by rewriting the script of your own character and through this influence what the other characters in the scene say or how they behave. Four component elements of ‘script re-writing’

  1. Explanation - explain the situation as you see it.

  2. Feelings - acknowledge your own feelings

- empathise with the other people’s feelings

        1. Needs -outline what you want but; be realistic, be prepared

to compromise

        1. Consequences - what will happen?

You can consider different ‘scripts’ for the same scene and have different consequences.

The author Lindenfield (Lindenfield G. Assert Yourself 1987) recommends the mnemonic “Even Fish Need Confidence” for remembering the four stages of rewriting a scene.

Centre For Lifelong Learning.

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