The basics of assertiveness, techniques for (not only) beginners

Assertive behaviour is based on expressing our feelings and needs honestly and openly

The basics of assertiveness, techniques for (not only) beginners

The notion of assertiveness is something you will come across in almost all business or communication training. And for good reason: assertive people are able to stand up for their own (or others', as the case may be) interests without becoming aggressive or accepting things that are not in their favour. 

The article explains what assertiveness is, how it differs from aggressive and passive behaviour patterns and the benefits of assertive behaviour. We will also review the basics of assertive communication. 

What is assertiveness?

The essence of assertiveness is the ability to stand up for ourselves even in difficult situations: to express our thoughts, feelings and beliefs honestly and directly. But we also respect the other party's interests as well as our own. 

Assertiveness is not just in our communication, but also in our patterns of thinking and behaviour.

The benefits of assertiveness: 

  • Improving our private and professional relationships
  • More often we can find a solution that satisfies both parties
  • Increasing our self-confidence
  • More time and energy

Passivity, aggressiveness and assertiveness

Assertiveness can be seen as a kind of balance between passive and aggressive behaviour patterns. This is reflected in the definition in the textbook Cognitive Therapy (O'Donohue and Fisher 2008): 

"Assertive communication is the golden mean for communicating personal opinions, needs and boundaries, as opposed to less effective aggressive and passive methods."

To understand the essence of assertiveness even better, let's first get acquainted with passive and aggressive behaviour patterns. 

Passive behaviour

Passivity means that our responses are not self-enforcing, that is, we put the wishes of others before our own interests. In addition to undermining our self-confidence, such behaviour can also violate our rights. 

Passivity is usually the result of low self-esteem, and we behave in this way to please others and be liked. At the same time, it leads us to do things we don't really want to do and to take control and decision-making out of our hands. 

It's important to know that by constantly being passive, we are implying that everything can be done to us, and the other party will eventually feel superior to us. Moreover, by not standing up for ourselves, our self-esteem and self-confidence will be further eroded. 

Example of passive behaviour: 

Request: Can you take the linen to the laundry today? 

Passive response: Wow, well, yes, I have a phone call to make, then I have to pick up the kids from kindergarten, then I'll make them dinner and then breakfast tomorrow. Once the kids are in bed, I'll manage! 

Assertive response: No, sorry, I have a lot of things to do today. 


When our behaviour is aggressive, we undermine the other person's self-esteem and often violate their rights. We don't take into account the other person's feelings and interests, we only care about our own benefit, so we try to push them down. Aggressive behaviour also forces the other party to react either aggressively or passively.

There are many forms of aggressive behaviour, some of which may not be obvious to us. For example:

  • If we rush someone for no reason
  • We issue instructions without asking
  • Someone we ignore
  • Not taking into account the other party's feelings

Manipulative behaviour is a passive form of aggression, when we do not express our thoughts and feelings clearly, but at the same time we arrange things in a way that our interests prevail. 

Aggressive behaviours are harmful in the long term, as they can be particularly frustrating or frightening for the other party. They can make it impossible to make positive progress at all, and may even end the relationship.

assertive communication improves human relations

Assertive behaviour

Assertive behaviour is a kind of balance between the two behavioural patterns outlined above. It means taking into account the rights, wishes, needs and desires of both yourself and the other party.

Assertive behaviour means that: 

  • We are open and honest in expressing our desires, thoughts and feelings and encourage others to do the same
  • We are able to listen to others' views and respond appropriately even when we disagree with them
  • We are able to take responsibility for our lives
  • We are able to delegate our tasks when needed
  • We regularly praise others for what they have done or are doing
  • We can admit our mistakes and apologise
  • We are capable of advanced self-control
  • We consider ourselves equal to others and behave accordingly

Basics of assertive communication

How we communicate with others is a very important part of assertiveness. Assertive communication is respectful of the boundaries of all parties involved, and seeks cooperation to create a win-win situation. 

There are a number of practical techniques for doing this, some of which we would like to present here without wishing to be exhaustive. 

Successful application of assertive communication techniques in business


The point of I-messages is to make our feelings, requests and positions known without judging or blaming the other party. We talk about how WE perceive the problem, what feelings it evokes in us and what solutions we propose. 

I-messages are usually composed of 2-3-4 or more steps. The best known of these is the DESC technique, which is structured as follows: observation + feeling + solution + consequence

Let's see how it works in practice! 

  • Observation: describe the situation as objectively as possible: 

"Zoli, for the last project I did all the presentation preparation and it took more than 2 hours."

  • Expression of emotion: Here we should concentrate on ourselves, not talk about the other person, because this can trigger an immediate defence

"It was quite exhausting, I felt quite tired and frustrated afterwards" 

  • Determining the solution: We propose exactly what we want

"I want us to prepare the next presentation together"

  • Consequences: Let's formulate the positive and negative consequences

"It would take less time to prepare, and we could go over the most important things before we present."


This technique should be used when someone is behaving in a manipulative or aggressive way. Instead of continuing the argument, just give a minimal, quiet response that is not defensive and does not accept the other person's terms. At the same time, it implies that if there are truthful statements to be made, we accept them.

By taking a non-passive and non-aggressive approach, the other party will sooner or later stop confronting you, because it does not have the desired effect. And when tempers have calmed down, it will be possible to discuss problems in a meaningful way. 

The term 'fogging', by the way, comes from the idea that the individual behaves like a 'fog' into which arguments are thrown but not reciprocated. 

Let's look at an example! 

Aggressive communication: "You're almost an hour late again! I'm so sick of waiting for you all the time!"

Response using the fogging technique: "Yes unfortunately, I was hoping to get here sooner and I understand that this is annoying for you"

An aggressive reaction: "Annoying?! Of course it is, I've been standing here for half an hour. Sometimes you should take better care of people!"

Response using the fogging technique: "Yes, I was worried that you would have to wait for me here"

Reaction: Well, there you go... why are you late?

The stuck tape technique

The stuck tape technique employs one of the pillars of assertive behaviour, the ability to "silently persevere". It means repeating your request over and over again, without raising your voice, getting angry, or allowing yourself to be distracted. 

The jammed tape technique looks like this in practice:

Request: "Hello! I bought these shoes from you last week and the heel has already fallen off. I would like a refund!"

Answer:  "I think this shoe was not used for its intended purpose. This shoe was made for casual use."

Reaction stuck tape technique: "I bought the shoes just a week ago and they are faulty. I would like a refund!"

Answer: "You can't expect me to return the money if you didn't use the shoes for their intended purpose!"

Reaction stuck tape technique: "I bought the shoes just a week ago and the heel fell off. I would like a refund!

The disadvantage of the stuck tape technique is that if the other party is not willing to give ground, the strength of your request will be lost. This is why it is worth considering some kind of sanction during the conversation. Taking the previous example as an example "Okay, I would like to ask for the customers' book and I would also like to ask for a consumer protection investigation!"

Handling negative criticism

Negative criticism is difficult to deal with, but never forget that a negative opinion is only a reflection of the other party's point of view. A good alternative to aggressive retaliation is to try to find out more about the reason for the opinion.


"Zoli, that presentation was unqualified. I can't remember the last time I heard such horror." 

"It wasn't the best, but please tell us what you didn't like about it."

Listening with understanding

Assertive communication also involves really listening to the other person. It's worth summarising what the other person has said in your own words to make sure you understand what they are trying to say. This is also a positive feedback to the other person that we have listened and cared. You can then ask questions to clarify what you want to say and how you feel about it.

Watch your body language! 

In assertive communication, non-verbal cues are at least as important as what we say. Your posture should be confident, stretch yourself and stand up straight. Maintain eye contact and listen openly and honestly. And our tone of voice should remain calm and warm throughout.

As mentioned, assertive communication can be learned, but we should not have unrealistic expectations of ourselves. Learning the right communication technique takes practice and attention, but don't give up! Persistence will eventually pay off! 


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