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Understanding Assertiveness

by Stuart Sorensen – RMN

This handout is an introduction to the concept of assertiveness. It is not intended to replace assertiveness training. What it will do is provide some information about the nature of assertiveness and how it differs from other methods of dealing with people.

Most people confuse assertiveness with aggression or ‘getting my own way’. True assertiveness, however, is much more than that. Assertiveness considers the rights and needs of everybody. It assumes that everyone is equal. Because of this assertiveness can be thought of as a method of increasing choices for everyone.

When we are unhappy with a situation we have at least four choices. We can:

  • Accept the situation
  • Be aggressive
  • Be passive
  • Be Assertive


If we are happy to accept the situation then all well and good. If not then we must choose one of the other three options. Let’s look at these more closely.


The aim of aggression is to get our own way – to win whatever the cost to other people. Aggression is not interested in the rights, wants or needs of others. Aggression is usually destructive, either physically or psychologically. It’s true that people who behave aggressively often get what they want but aggression has other results as well.

I Aggression often breeds aggression. This means that once people start behaving aggressively with each other it can be very hard to stop. People start looking for new ways to hurt each other and before you know it they’re lifelong enemies.

II Aggression can make us unpopular. Once we get a reputation for being aggressive people start avoiding us. This may be because they’re frightened we might turn on them or because they think we’ll embarrass them by behaving aggressively to other people. They may also be worried that they’ll lose friends or influence as people might assume that they are just as aggressive. In the end, the only friends aggressive people have are people who are just as aggressive themselves or people who are frightened of them. They lose out on a lot of friendships because of their hostility.

III Aggression discourages people from helping us in the future. If we force people to do what we want by using aggression they will probably feel bad about us. This often means they refuse to help us when we really need them.

IV Some people believe that behaving aggressively makes others respect us. It doesn’t, it simply makes them fear us. Frightened people only do what we want for as long as we are watching. As soon as our backs are turned they tend to do their own thing. This makes our aggression a waste of time.

V Aggression can make us feel good for a short while but is it worth it?


This means behaving as though other people’s rights matter more than our own.

Passive people behave as though they don’t have the right to:

Have an opinion. This means that they never take the opportunity to say what they really think and may end up missing out on things or going along with others when they don’t really want to.

Contribute. Passive people often don’t dare to join in with other people or voice their opinions. They’re frightened of looking stupid in front of other people they consider to be more important.

Be valued. Passive people often act as though they have no value. As though they are completely worthless. Sometimes people start treating them as if they really are worthless which only makes it harder for the passive person to change.

Let’s look at the effects of passivity. Passivity usually results in:

I Not getting what we want or need. If we don’t join in and tell others what we actually want we probably won’t get it. This often results in real unhappiness and may even be the cause of a much more difficult situation.

II Less respect from others. If we let people treat us like doormats they quickly learn to do just that. It’s as though we actually invite them to treat us in this way. In this situation people tend not to respect us at all. Most people think more highly of people who are prepared to stand up for themselves.

III Reduced stress in the short term. It is easier to let people have their own way. In this way we can avoid conflict. But is it worth it?



The aim of assertiveness is to find the best possible solution for all people. It’s about finding ‘win:win’ solutions. Assertiveness sees everyone as equal with equal rights and equal responsibilities.    

Assertiveness increases the chances of our needs being met. If we are able to tell people what we want without becoming aggressive they will be more likely to help us. Also, if they can’t help us and we are able to accept that without becoming aggressive they will remain friends.

II Assertiveness allows us to remain in control. We can decide for ourselves what we want to do and then seek out opportunities to do it – or to do something similar. It puts us back in the driving seat.

III Assertiveness brings greater self-confidence. As we learn to take control and see what we can achieve our confidence increases. This in turn increases our feelings of self worth and self esteem. We begin to feel better – more effective.

IV Assertiveness lets us have greater confidence in others. This is because it also helps others to state their needs and wants. By dealing honestly and fairly with them we encourage them to do the same with us.

V Assertive people have more friends. As we begin to treat people more fairly they begin to trust us, to like us and to want to spend more time with us. We make friends who truly respect us instead of walking all over us (passivity) or fearing us (aggression).

VI Reduced stress. The more in control we feel the less stressed we feel. We don’t need to worry about doing things we’d rather not. We don’t have to let other people control us. Nor do we have to worry about trying to control other people. We have the power to choose our own destiny.

It’s difficult to learn assertiveness from a book or handout. The best way is to join a group or talk to a professional person who specializes in this sort of training. However here are a few pointers which may help.

Remember that there are many ways to interact with others. We can inform, explain, discuss or simply have a relaxed conversation. It’s often useful to know in advance precisely how you intend to interact. For example if you intend to inform another person of a decision you have made that’s one thing. You don’t necessarily need to explain it and you certainly don’t need to discuss it with them unless you choose to. Having a clear idea of the boundaries which you have set beforehand is extremely useful especially when dealing with aggression. Most people have absolutely no idea what you are feeling inside. They only get what you give them. If you look and sound confident people will believe you are confident. Knowing this makes assertive interactions much easier. Try it and see for yourself.

Below are listed some basic human rights. If you work at maintaining these rights for yourself and for others you will be behaving assertively. Incidentally the more assertively you behave the more assertive you become. What you see is what you get.

I have the right to say "No".

I have the right not to understand.

I have the right to make mistakes.

I have the right to be listened to.

I have the right to have my needs met.

I have the right to contribute.

I have the right to dignity.

I have the right to make my own decisions.

I have the right to consideration from others.

Remember that alongside rights come responsibilities. These are also part of the assertiveness ethic. For example:

I am responsible for treating others fairly, honestly and with respect for their dignity.

I am responsible for my own actions and their consequences.

I am responsible for upholding the rights of others whenever I can.

I am responsible for my own decisions.

I accept responsibility for my own life. What happens to me is generally as a result of my own decisions.

I hope that this brief handout has been useful. There are many organizations and individuals who would be happy to train you in assertiveness. Why not contact one of them?



Back K. & Back K. (1982)

Assertiveness at Work

McGraw-Hill Book Company


Compliments of Stuart Sorensen – RMN

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Related Books

Managing Assertively: How to Improve Your People Skills: A Self-Teaching Guide, 2nd Edition

The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships

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