Assertiveness quick guide: meaning and examples | Deep Breath

updated on 11 November 2021

Post by Thais Bogarin, Content Writer at Deep Breath

Assertive communication is standing up for our needs while respecting the other person
Assertive communication is standing up for our needs while respecting the other person

What is the meaning of assertive communication and behavior?

When we express ourselves and act in an assertive way, it means we manage to come across as confident and self-assured without being rude or inconsiderate. It can be hard to be assertive because we’re afraid of what people will think of us. In other cases, the prospect of having to confront other people to stand up for what we want may put us off. Whichever the reason may be, though, not allowing ourselves to be assertive can have a big impact on our lives.

Exploring what assertiveness is not can help to understand what it really means.

What being assertive is not

Assertiveness is not passiveness

Passive communication is when we avoid expressing our opinions, feelings or needs. While seemingly harmonious, this style allows negative emotions to build up inside us. Eventually, they become uncontrollable, and we snap at other people, leading us to feel guilt and shame afterwards. On the other hand, leaving all the decision-making to others rather than asserting what we genuinely want or need may leave us feeling like we don’t have any control over our lives.

Assertiveness is not aggressiveness

Aggressive communication means to express and defend ourselves in ways that ignore other people’s needs. This can escalate to verbal or physical abuse that makes us feel momentarily powerful. Putting others down, however, is only a mask that hides our deeper insecurities (are you reading, bullies?).

Assertiveness is not passive-aggressiveness

Passive aggressive communication happens when we do not express ourselves and that frustration comes out in subtle ways. Our aggression trickles out of us, usually verbally, and undermines other people. The problem with being passive-aggressive is that while it may feel a bit relieving in that moment, it also gives us the false sense of not having to deal with the consequences of our actions.

In other words, we are assertive when we openly express our opinions, feelings, and needs, while considering the needs and rights of others. Getting used to being assertive is as tricky as it sounds but using this communication style has a positive impact on your relationships and our feelings of self-worth. It is also proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression [1], which means feeling better about ourselves and around other people.

What are some examples of being assertive?

It doesn’t take a special occasion to make use of assertive communication and behavior. Being assertive is such a useful skill that we can apply it in our everyday lives, with all the people we interact with. Curious to find out what this looks like? We’ve got some examples that apply to business, friends and partners.

Being assertive at work

Sometimes we behave over-apologetically in the workplace because we’re afraid to rub someone the wrong way (especially if it’s our boss or someone in leadership). A typical case is saying “sorry” for misunderstanding in a meeting. We are all human, after all, so it’s completely normal to get lost in the details of a project. Rather than apologizing for not quite getting a grasp of the topic yet, it’s more assertive to thank the person for their explanation and simply ask if they could elaborate or repeat so you can fully understand. More often than not, they will be happy to rephrase so that everyone can be on the same page.

Another way to be assertive in a work environment is by saying “no”. Sounds simple enough and yet how many times have you put in extra hours to finish a task that you simply accepted without question? Helping colleagues is all good, but when it gets in the way of your work-life balance or takes you away from your actual job, it pays off to be assertive instead. So why not try first understanding why this colleague needs this from you and how does it bring value to the business? A polite, “I wish I could help, but I have to focus on the priorities of my role” will reassure them that you’re willing to collaborate, while keeping your work on track.

Being assertive in social situations

Feeling judged by our friends is something we usually try to avoid, especially if the relationship is fairly new, and we want to make a good impression. However, going with the flow of the group all the time can lead us to situations we don’t enjoy. This could be anything from eating or drinking something you don’t like to getting dragged into the same boring routine every time you get together. In cases like the first, unsurprisingly, saying “no, thank you” will signal your limits to others. For the second, think about what you’d actually like to do next time your friends are talking about seeing each other. Perhaps your group ends up doing the same old thing simply because nobody has suggested differently and a change would be welcomed!

Being assertive in relationships

Awkward as it may sound, being assertive when dating is a great way to ensure your expectations are met. Just think about how much heartbreak could be spared if we could all clearly establish what we want with that person we have a connection with. Trying to hide what we truly want to try to please the other person can lead to dating being a negative experience for all involved. For instance, if you expect nothing serious out of dating, let them know your feelings and needs without assuming they may be looking to commit. Having this type of open conversation when you’re getting to know each other makes it easier for everyone to figure out if seeing each other will make you happy.

Let’s not forget about how important it is to also be sexually assertive. Telling your partner (or partners!) what you like and don’t like in bed will make the experience all the more enjoyable for everyone… which is the whole point, isn’t it? While trying not to kill the mood by saying something that reinforces what you want may be possible in some situations (“It’d be really hot for me if you did...”), when something makes you uncomfortable you’re in your right to firmly ask them to stop.

Listing all the ways being assertive comes up in everyday life would be impossible, but these should shine some light on it. You can see a few more examples (and find out your levels of assertiveness on the way) by taking our confidence test.

Should women be assertive too?

Absolutely! Despite the fact that assertiveness in women has been traditionally cataloged as unfeminine, there is no actual reasoning behind this (nor an actual reason why women shouldn't be assertive, for that matter). Sadly, due to double standards and outdated notions of “what a proper lady” is like, women’s assertive voices have been shut down and silenced for far too long. This shouldn’t be the case anymore. Assertiveness in women is just as necessary and useful as for people of other genders, since it helps us own our value and strengthen our confidence. Assertiveness is key for women to take our fair share of influence in the world and to help us build healthy relationships with ourselves and others.

Learning to be assertive

Assertiveness is for everyone, regardless of age, gender, profession or life stage. It is certainly not easy, but we can all learn it. Some people may feel comfortable working on this skill in a class or reading books on the topic, while others might prefer therapy or even a more flexible hands-on approach like an online program. There are many options out there, so it’s just a matter of trying out what best suits your learning preferences and sticking with it. Like most skills, the key for assertiveness to come naturally is practice. Another way is to try out one of our group sessions - it really is up to you! 

At the end of the day, assertiveness is all about being honest with ourselves and others and acting accordingly. It can be overwhelming to think about all situations in which we should be assertive, so take it one step at a time. Every step gets you further in your journey, just remember that strengthening your confidence is worth the effort! If you’d like to learn more about building confidence, why not continue reading about how to tackle low self-esteem?

[1] Eslami et al (2016). The Effectiveness of Assertiveness Training on the Levels of Stress, Anxiety, and Depression of High School Students.

Medical disclaimer

The medical information in this article is provided as an information resource only, and is not to be used or relied on for any diagnostic or treatment purposes. Please consult your doctor for guidance about a specific medical condition.

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