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Tips for Being Assertive

Being assertive is hard for a lot of people. We worry about conflict, about being viewed as aggressive, or we just don’t want to put in the effort. But regardless of how we feel, learning to assert yourself is important for developing healthy relationships.

Think of communication as a continuum with passive on one end, assertive in the middle, and aggressive on the other end, like this:


Passive                                                    Assertive                                                      Aggressive


Being passive. When we are passive, we ignore our own wants and needs and cater to everyone else. Although its fine to be passive about things that don’t matter a whole lot to you (like having pizza or pasta for dinner), it can become a problem when things are important (like your partner going out for dinner and a movie with their ex). When we don’t assert what we want, we can become resentful. And if we allow that resentment to build, we quickly become aggressive, causing confusion in the relationship and can push away the person we care about.


Being Aggressive. On the other hand, when we’re aggressive we demand that someone else meet our needs and wants, and don’t respect other people’s boundaries. This kind of communication style typically makes others very uncomfortable and defensive. Although you may get what you want, its at the expense of others and can be extremely damaging to a relationship. Being aggressive can be appropriate in certain situations (like being attacked in an alley), but its often not the best choice for meaningful and mutually beneficial relationships.


Being Assertive. When we are assertive, we respect ourselves by expressing our wants and needs without crossing other people’s boundaries. It is a communication style that allows us to be respectful without being walked all over or being unkind to someone else. Here are some tips on how to be assertive:


  1. Determine what you want. Be specific and clear about what you want. For example, if you want your roommate to do more dishes, come up with a schedule: “I would like it if you could do the dinner dishes every other day”. This shows confidence and helps avoid any confusion for the other person.
  2. Use “I” Statements. Using I statements avoids placing blame on the other person. Saying something like, “When you don’t do the dishes, I feel annoyed” is far more effective than saying, “You make me so irritated when you don’t do the dishes!”. Defensiveness is a normal response to feeling blamed, so try to not put the other person on guard.
  3. Express underlying emotions. When we’re angry, its easy to yell at the other person and tell them how ticked off we are. While screaming at someone might help us blow off some steam, it does very little to solve the problem and the other person will become defensive and may withdraw. Typically, there are underlying emotions below our initial feeling of anger. What else are you feeling? By expressing deeper emotions like sadness, hurt, or fear, we are more likely to receive a supportive and collaborative response than if we share anger.
  4. Focus on the person’s behaviour, not their personality. Try to avoid personally attacking the other person. Behaviour is something that we can change but altering our personality is a much more daunting task. People feel attacked when you target their personality and will probably respond with anger. So avoid saying, “You’re such a jerk!” and say something like, “When you said that you didn’t want to spend the evening with me, I felt hurt”.
  5. Avoid using words like “always” and “never”. Most of us are guilty of saying something like, “you never do the dishes!”. This is a counter-productive statement and will immediately put someone on guard. By avoiding these definitive words, the conflict stays on track instead of becoming an argument of who said this or did that.
  6. Empathize with the other person. Being assertive isn’t a free card to be a jerk to someone. Remember that the other person also has valid feelings, thoughts, and opinions. Put yourself in their shoes, try to understand where they are coming from, and reflect this understanding back to them. A solution is always easier to find when everyone feels heard.
  7. Watch your body language and tone. As human beings, we communicate a lot of information non-verbally. Try to stand tall, face the person when you speak, and make eye contact. Use a calm, clear tone and avoid mumbling.


It would be great if our needs and wants were always met when we were assertive, but that’s not always the case. You can be the most assertive person in the world and the other person may not want or be able to give you what you need. Being assertive is less about getting your needs met and more about learning to express yourself in a way that is respectful and kind to others. By simply sharing what you want, you can help avoid that uncomfortable feeling of resentment, honor yours and others’ feelings, and build healthy relationships.


Allison Crosby is a Certified Counsellor with the Canadian Counselling Association and specializes in the areas of anxiety, depression, self-esteem as well as many others. For more information on Allison, her work, or other articles she’s written for Living Well click here to link to her full bio page.