you find it difficult to say No? Can you ask for
what you want? Do you often feel youre being treated
like a doormat? Do people sometimes say they find your reactions
aggressive? Do you feel guilty if you think you havent
been nice enough?
If you identify
with some or all of these statements, you may want to develop ways
to think, communicate and behave more assertively.
means respecting yourself and other people; seeing people as equal
to you, not better than you or less important than you. The goal
of assertive behaviour is to stand up for your rights in such a
way that you do not violate another persons rights. It is
achieved through open, direct and honest communication, valuing
others, listening, respecting, problem solving and negotiating with
assertive does not mean that you always get what you want,
but it can help you achieve a compromise. Remember you can
change yourself but you cant change other people. Even if
you dont get the outcome you want, you will have the satisfaction
of knowing that you handled the situation well.
It can be helpful
to distinguish between three sorts of behaviour: passive, aggressive
behaviour is often about pleasing other people and avoiding
conflict. A passive person behaves as if other peoples needs
are more important and other people have more rights and more to
A cant say No. He always lets people borrow
his lecture notes even if he needs them himself. A believes
that he should help other people, and worries that they wont
like him if he doesnt do what they want.
A gets tired of allowing himself to be treated like a doormat. He
thinks about how to say No and practises with a friend.
Next time someone wants to borrow his work he replies pleasantly,
but firmly: Im not going to lend my notes any more.
A is surprised to find that he doesnt feel as guilty as he
expected about refusing.
B finds it difficult to ask for what she wants. If she gets
stuck with an assignment she spends hours struggling, rather than
asking a friend for help. B thinks: I should be able to
do it myself. Hell think Im stupid. Anyway, I expect
hes too busy...
When B stops
to think she remembers that she has helped her friend in the past.
She realises that she doesnt have to do everything herself:
its OK to ask for help. B decides to ring her friend, and
says to herself: If hes busy today Ill ask if
we can meet later this week.
behaviour is often about winning: sometimes at other peoples
expense. An aggressive person behaves as if their needs are most
important and they have more rights and more to contribute than
Student C hates being criticised. When her flatmate points
out that Cs washing up has been in the sink for three days,
she reacts aggressively: Youre always picking on
me. Anyway, you havent cleaned the bath for ages, and I was
the last one to empty the bins, and... The conversation
escalates into a row and the ill-feeling lasts for days.
that being defensive hasnt helped the situation and thinks
about how she could respond differently. She decides that when criticism
is justified (as it was over the washing up) she could say something
like: Im really sorry. Is it OK if I sort it out
this evening? This acknowledges the criticism and suggests
a way to solve the problem as long as the washing up gets
is unfair, its easy to react defensively and aggressively.
An assertive response is to listen to the criticism and acknowledge
the other persons point of view before explaining how you
see the situation.)
responses in these scenarios are based on a belief that everyone
has the right to be treated with respect; to have and express feelings
and opinions; to be listened to and be taken seriously; to say no
without feeling guilty; to make mistakes; to ask for help; to change
their mind; to ask for what they want; to set their own priorities
and to choose not to assert themselves.
to become more assertive
assertiveness skills takes time and practice. Change isnt
easy, and sometimes it can feel risky especially when things
dont work out as well as you hoped. Some things to think about:
language. How you stand or sit, the gestures you use, how
you look at someone and your voice are important. They help convey
how you see yourself in relation to the person you are talking
to. If you are hunched and awkward, speak in a whisper and avoid
eye contact, you are suggesting that the other person is more
important than you are. If, on the other hand, you stand too close
to someone and shout in their face, they are likely to feel you
are being aggressive! Someone communicating assertively will stand
or sit in an upright, relaxed way, establish eye contact and have
an open expression. Speaking in a warm but firm voice, with an
even tone, will help you make your points clearly.
statements such as I feel... I think...
I would like... show that you are taking responsibility
for your own feelings, rather than blaming someone else (eg You
make me feel...) or taking responsibility for their feelings.
Its important to try when you feel ready. It may not be
a good idea to try when you are more stressed than usual; on the
other hand, its important not to put off making changes.
Learning to be more assertive takes practice. You can try out
assertive responses in front of a mirror, or get a friend to give
you feedback and suggestions. Its also important to think
about how the other person may react, and how you might cope with
If you have
decided that you would like to communicate assertively, it can help
to adopt a step by step approach like the one below.
- Start by
understanding your usual mode of communication. Are you passive,
aggressive or a mixture? What influences the way you behave: fear
of not being liked? feeling you have to be perfect? anxiety about
being criticised? Think about a situation. How could you deal
with it differently? What would you like to happen?
an opportunity to behave differently. Its best to start
with something fairly unimportant, rather than something you care
deeply about. (Remember, you cant change other people.)
- Ask yourself
what you want to achieve. Is it realistic? Will it help solve
what you want to say. Think about using I statements
and try to be as specific as you can. ( eg Id
like to go to the cinema rather than Shall
we go out tonight?) When you speak to the other person,
leave time for them to listen and respond.
what you are saying by how you say it. Think about your body language
and your voice. If what you are saying is serious, look serious
smiling may give the message that its not important.
- If the
other person doesnt seem to be listening, or tries to sidetrack
you, stick to your point. Repeat it calmly until you feel that
you are being heard.
to the other persons opinion and if necessary see if you
can negotiate a compromise.
on the conversation afterwards. Are you satisfied with the outcome?
Would you do anything differently next time?
At first, trying
to approach situations assertively may feel unnatural. Its
important not to give up because you feel awkward, or if a situation
doesnt turn out the way you hoped. Anticipating some of the
difficulties will help you feel more in control:
- Make time
to think about how you are feeling. For example, the first time
you say No, you may feel guilty. You may be tempted
to backtrack to make this guilty feeling go away. Try to put the
feeling into perspective, eg by thinking about what is likely
to happen (rather than what you fear will happen).
- Slow down
so that you dont react in a knee jerk way as
you have always done. For example, next time someone asks you
what you want to do, rather than saying I dont
mind... try taking a deep breath and giving yourself
space to think about what you really would like.
- Other people
may not always welcome your efforts to change. Think about how
you feel about this, then question them respectfully about their
response. If you feel that people are trying to put you down or
criticise you unfairly, try not to react by accepting the criticism
(passive) or counter-attacking (aggressive). Refuse to take the
bait and continue to stick to your point.
- Some situations
involve a power imbalance eg going to see a tutor, or attending
an interview. It can be useful to remember that however important
they are, the other people are human beings like you, and the
principles of mutual respect should still apply. That said, some
people use their authority disrespectfully and even the
most assertive people can sometimes feel intimidated.
- It is harder
to communicate clearly and effectively if you are stressed, tired
or unwell. Sometimes it can be helpful to let people know how
you are feeling, and perhaps postpone a difficult discussion until
a better time.
with assertiveness are often linked with a lack of confidence or
low self-esteem and problems with managing stressful situations.
If you would like to speak to someone about these issues in confidence,
the Counselling Service can be contacted on (48)4650, by calling
in at Student Services in the Helena Kennedy Student Centre on Headington
Campus, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
A counsellor is available on the Harcourt Hill campus and can be
contacted via the Student Services office in D2, tel: (48) 8250.
University Health Visitor, offers help with stress and anxiety management,
relaxation and problem-solving. She can be contacted via email (email@example.com)
or through the Medical Centre (48)3193.
A wide range
of books and internet resources is available to help with assertiveness
and effective communication. Different approaches suit different
people, so its worth browsing in a bookshop or on the web
to find something that works for you.
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