Assertiveness: 6 Steps to Empowered Communication

assertiveness quadrant with bigger assertiveness box

Assertiveness is a style of communication as well as a specific approach to interpersonal relationships that relies on clear and direct communication, self-respect, and respect for others.

assertiveness infographic with overview of assertiveness comared to other communication styles

INTRO

Most social skills and communication resources present assertiveness as the sweet spot between submission and aggression.

And they all encourage to adopt assertive communication.

The Power Moves mostly supports that advice, and adds a few twists:

Assertive Boost #1: Learn ALL styles of Communication

Social effectiveness is all about calibrating to people and situations.

To maximize your chances of success in life, you need to learn and master the whole communication spectrum, including submission and aggression.

Why?

  1. To better understand others: learning to read people empowers you to better socialize, influence, and possibly, to also help people grow
  2. To adapt and strategize: different environments and different situations call for different styles of communication

Because each style has its strategic use in socialization.
Sometimes acting submissive, and letting others have -or feel– higher power is strategically the best option.
And some other times, you might have to act more aggressively to meet aggression with aggression.

So in the next lessons, we will learn when and how to use each one.

Assertive Boost #2: Assertive AND Persuasive

Most assertiveness resources define assertiveness along these lines:

State your needs, wants, and feelings, without trying to influence or persuade others.

The Power Moves does not embrace the second part.
Persuasion and influence are at the core of personal power and efficacy.

There is no added value or glory in “not trying to influence others”.

Positive persuasion comes naturally to high-quality individuals, and if you use it well, it’s a good thing.

So this is assertiveness defined within a high-quality, high-power perspective:

To state your needs, wants, feelings, and opinions clearly and directly, to respect yourself as well as others, and to influence the world around you, including other people, to reach certain goals

How Often You Should Be Assertive

There is no rule carved in stone. 
How frequently you should be assertive depends on a number of factors, including:

  • Where you’re at in your life and career: it might pay off to say “yes” to your boss even when you’d want to say “no”, sometimes (Caldwell, 2018)
  • Where you’re at in the mastery curve: beginners might learn quicker if they just accept and do what the teacher says
  • Your culture: different cultures expect more or less assertion, depending on your status, gender, and role
  • Your goals and chosen strategies: sometimes it pays off to be strategically more submissive, or more aggressive
  • Gender (more later)
  • Who you’re dealing with: Calibrating is a good idea (Cruz, 2018). Be softer with those who are more on the submissive side.

But as a big rule of thumb, you should probably be using assertion the majority of your time, between 50 to 95%. 
And the rest either submission or aggression, with a (very!) rare dip into passive-aggression.

Assertiveness: An Overview

To become assertive, we first need to learn what assertive is.

And it’s especially useful to compare assertiveness with the other styles of communication.
Here is an overview:

Assertiveness includes:

  • Boundaries: Having, maintaining, and enforcing personal boundaries of:
    • Basic respect: expecting and demanding respectful behavior
    • Privacy: declining to answer or discuss questions and topics that feel too personal or nosy 
    • Time: choosing what and when to do, not allowing others to “task” you without your full consent
    • Personal freedoms: freedom of choice, of holding different opinions, etc.
  • Timely and honest communication: assertive communication is timely, honest, precise, and often direct. It includes the communication of wants, needs, emotions, feelings, goals, and boundaries.
  • Expecting and encouraging honest and direct communication: expecting, demanding, and/or encouraging direct and honest communication from others
  • Standing behind one’s choices, opinions, & feelings: the assertive communicator acknowledges and stands behind his choices, opinions, and feelings

Assertiveness & Power

There is an overlap between “assertive” and “high-power”.

People who master assertion tend to come across as confident, high-power, and generally high-quality individuals who get things done.

And since assertive individuals don’t overpower others, they also tend to develop strong long-term relationships (see “basic strategies of power“).
That enables assertives to develop win-win far more than aggressive individuals can.

Assertiveness & Vulnerability

One of the biggest secrets of marrying assertiveness with power is this:

High-power assertion includes high-power vulnerability, such as admitting one’s own negative or antisocial feelings.
Attention: not all vulnerability is good.
We’re talking about high-power vulnerability here. This is the “accepting one’s own dark side” we talk about on this website.

If you don’t accept your dark side, you can be high power, and still act unassertive.
See an example here:

Rossi was high-power, but he didn’t add the high-power vulnerability of admitting his negative feelings.

Compare now to this other approach:

Interviewer: So in the past 2 years you’ve been like two old friends again 


Lorenzo
: No, I don’t think we are friends 

This is “high-power assertive”.

Lorenzo admits very candidly of not being friends with Rossi. All the while complimenting him and building him up.
High-power, and high-quality.

Assertiveness Beliefs

First, the beliefs holding you back from reaching assertiveness:

  • “Dark” feelings such as anger and will to power are bad to have an even worse to show

This is what we’ve just seen with the video example.

See an example from Ray Dalio, and read this good discussion on why some (some!) left-wing folks come across as hypocrites.

  • Assertiveness means getting your own way all the time 

No, that’s aggression. Assertiveness is meant to put you on an equal footing with other people.

  • Being assertive means being selfish

No, being assertive means being fair and high-power.
However, you can be “individualistic“.

  • Other people can’t handle my assertiveness

That’s actually demeaning, to think of others as weak.

  • People should be more considerate

“Shoulds” are usually weak positions to be in.

When you hold this belief, you either don’t believe that you should tell them to act differently since they should know, or you believe that you must yell at them because they should know better and you have to set them straight.

  • I’m afraid of being assertive and failing

You will fail.
And that’s great, failing is learning.

  • I have to convince others

As a rule of thumb:

All the “I have to” apply unneeded and often counterproductive pressure on you (Ellis, 1988).

When you hold this belief, you either never start sharing your opinion, or you get angry when you cannot change other people’s minds.

  • I must look good, strong, and happy

This is about emotional assertiveness.

And it includes all acts of “concealing” emotions in order to look better to others.

It might be one of the major causes of male aggression, female anger repression, passive-aggression, as well as general communication breakdown.

Many men feel it’s not OK to admit their personal struggles or request (emotional) help.
So they deny their true feelings to others and to themselves and seek to have their needs met with aggression or covert-aggression.

emotional assertion failure with family hiding their true feelings
Everyone tries to look “strong” and happy. Result: total communication breakdown, and destruction of true intimacy and connection

Again, this is not to say “parade your weakness”, or to wallow in self-pity, or to be always “vulnerable”.
But as a rule of thumb, many (most?) people can gain being more open and honest.

Assertive Beliefs to Install

And now the positive beliefs of assertiveness:

  • I am worthy of respectful behavior and communication, and so are others
assertion continuum with submission assertion and aggression
This is the central bellief of assertiveness: I am worthy of respect and proper ehavior, and I provide as much

If you’re not treated respectfully, then you have the right to protest or do something about it.

  • I’m in charge of my life

… And others are in charge of theirs

  • People can ask me whatever they want…
  • … And I can decline whatever they ask because this is my life

Attention: if you feel guilty when declining something, you probably don’t fully believe you can decline requests.

  • I make mistakes, but this doesn’t give others the right to control my life

This is a common pitfall for many.
Some people can be assertive, but then turn passive when they make a mistake.

It’s because they feel that a mistake shows them for “not being good enough”, and that gives others the right to treat them badly.

Growth mindset and antifragile ego help solve this issue.

  • I can be illogical with my decisions

Manipulators and bullies love to change your mind by showing that you are not being “logical” or “rational”.

And as long as you believe that you must be logical to enforce your boundaries and decision, they will find fertile ground.

Instead, avoid even getting into argument about rationality and logic: your boundaries are logical for the simple fact that you have chosen them.

  • I don’t know everything, and neither should I

You’re holding the belief that you must know everything if you find yourself answering to things you’re not sure about, or getting angry because you feel under pressure to answer.

  • I can ask for help or emotional support

Esepecially good for some men who “suffer in silence”.

  • I am not responsible for other people’s problems

This protects you against emotional manipulation.

  • Direct is usually better

Indirect can sound passive-aggressive even when you don’t want to.

  • I am my own judge, I don’t have to justify myself to others

This last one is especially important from a social power perspective.

When someone wants to gain control over you, they will try to make you justify your behavior:

Aggressor: Why did you do it that way?

If you don’t catch the implied frame and if you’re not aware of power dynamics, you automatically appoint them as the judges of your actions and thoughts, you give all your power away, and you’re more likely to give in.

Luckily, now you know better.

The high-power assertive stance is that, as long as you remain within the law, you can do and say as you please, and you don’t need to justify your actions.

Assertive Communication

A quick chart overview:

assertiveness communication infographic

While passive and passive-aggressive avoid communication, assertive individuals speak up.

They speak:

  • Early: speak early to avoid stewing 
  • Directly: state your needs and wants clearly and directly
  • Respectfully: but with respect and consideration for others

Take this new mantra of assertive communication with you:

“Say what you mean, mean what you say, but don’t say it mean.”

-The assertiveness mantra

Assertive Template: DESOE

How to phrase an assertive statement?

Let’s introduce the “DESO” format (Bower & Bower, 2004), to which The Power Moves add one further step: “DESO-E”.

The goal of “DESOE” is to frame the situation, state your opinion about it, make your request, state the outcome, and reinforce as needed.
DESOE stands for:

  • Describe: define the situation and what’s going on

For example:

It’s me who takes out the trash most of the times

If you are describing someone else’s behavior, focus on the behavior, and avoid personality and motives.
Saying things like “you’re lazy and didn’t clean the kitchen” or “you are trying to make me do all the work here” are more likely to escalate and sidetrack the conversation.

Motivation and personality are open to debate, but behavior is more reality-based, which puts you in a stronger position to hold frame.

  • Express: State how you are feeling in the situation

For example:

I feel like I’m doing more than half of the housework around here

This can feel like an understatement when you’re actually thinking he’s a leecher.

But you will usually get better results with this approach.

  • Specify: Specify what you would like to happen or what is going to happen

For example:

I would like you to also take the trash out a couple of times a week or whenever you see it’s full and are on your way out

When you ask for changes to happen focus on the behavior you’d like to see.

Avoid telling people how they should become, or how they should feel.

Especially poor from a persuasion point of view are sentences like “stop being so stubborn”. One because they attack the person, and two because they use the negative form. 
Rare exceptions apply, for example, if you willingly want to jolt someone.

But the general rule is to use the positive form, and to address specific behavior -“two times a week” is better than “I want you to be more considerate”-.

  • Outcome: Describe what happens if the person goes along with what you want and, potentially, what will happen if they don’t

For example:

I’ll appreciate that a lot, and I think we get along much better

The outcomes can be rewards or consequences for not following through with your request. 
But, as you can see from the example above, can also be simple statements about you feeling better, or the relationship improving.

Same as before, seek to frame the outcomes positively.
A positive outcome format implies that chances are high he will not help with the trash.

  • Enforcement

Enforcement is what you do when you want to push someone, or when you need to defend against pushy folks.

It can mean to repeat the same message over and over (“broken record technique”), to refuse to budge, to walk away or, in extreme situations, to impose one’s frame.

DESOE Example

Handling the emotionally difficult moment of quitting:

Without copying the script word for word, this is the DESEO behind Peggy’s assertive communication:

  • Description: you have provided me with a great opportunity
  • Express: and for that, I am thankful to you
  • Specify: but I am handing my resignation
  • Outcome: I will stay here 2 more weeks, and be gone by X day
  • Enforce: my decision is final

Assertive Format For Personal Feedback

Robert Bolton (Bolton, 1979) condenses the assertive communication statement into three parts:

1. Nonjudgmental description of the behavior to be changed
2. Disclosure of the asserter’s feelings
3. Clarification of the concrete and tangible effect of the other person’s behavior on the asserter

The template:

“When you [state the behavior nonjudgmentally], I feel [disclose your feelings] because [clarify the effect on your life].”

Best approach for when you don’t have a clear outcome in mind.
You state your personal feeling as a way of starting the conversation, and then you can reach an outcome together.

Assertiveness Power Tips

woman writing an assertive sentence

Let’s now add some TPM special sauce to assertiveness:

  • Say “I don’t”, not “I can’t”

“I can’t” is inherently low-power. 

It implies that there are external constraints that stop you from doing what you would like to do.

And it also sounds like excuse-making.
If you have enough power to say it, why not just say “I don’t want to”.

This also applies to self-talk.
People who thought in terms of “I don’t” were far more likely to stick to their own boundaries (Patrick, 2011).

  • “No, because I’m taking some me time”

80% of people make up some excuses when they deny someone.

Great opportunity for the high-value guy you are!
Imagine how high-power and honest you’re going to be when you will tell people:

You: I can’t because I scheduled some me time for tonight and I’m just gonna eat my favorite meal, drink my favorite wine, and listen to my favorite music

It doesn’t have to be wine and food. 
For you, it might be playing a game. But whatever it is, the less urgent it sounds, the more power and credibility it gives you. 
It’s exactly the fact that is not urgent that shows you’re honest, frank, and don’t need to hide.

  • Use “I” statements and take responsibility for your feelings:

Don’t fall for the trap of blaming your feelings on others, for example saying “you make me feel”. That’s accusatory, and weak. You are in control of your feelings, so use “I” statements

  • Keep it about you. Avoid recruiting others, society, or appealing to external “norms”

It’s tempting to leverage social proof, for example:

Low power: Everyone else does it, you’re the only one who cannot clean after himself

But that’s manipulative and ineffective in inducing change since it gets under people’s skin and provokes an emotional reaction, not a positive behavioral change.

It’s also tempting to recruit imaginary social-proof support with something like:

Low power: Nobody could take this

But that’s very disempowering and sounds like a bitch making excuses -with all due respect for bitches-.

This is where high-power vulnerability can also be implemented. If you feel overwhelmed, say it: “I’m feeling overwhelmed, so I will stop the overtime for this week”.

The weakest way of doing it:

Low Power: Even my uncle / X person said so

And so?
Who cares about what X said?

Talk about yourself, not others.

  • Keep it cool, avoid drama

Between us, drama screams “out of control bitch“.

meme of submissive behavior fail
Unless it’s a dating technique, in which case… It often works wonder

It’s tempting for some to dramatize.

You know, talk up how desperate you are, how much you need their help, or how much you need them to stop doing something because “you’re going to die otherwise”.

That’s not how high-power folks behave.

Also see this forum entry.

  • Limit yourself to boundaries you can and want to enforce

It might be tempting to threaten consequences or offer rewards you can’t deliver.

And in a few cases, it’s a strategic risk worth taking.

But it’s a lie. 
And lies always ruin reputation.

Every time you make an empty threat or promise and someone finds out, you lose status and power, and you get a reputation for a big mouth who doesn’t follow up.

  • Don’t back down once you said “no”

For the same reason, it’s best to stick to your “no” and your boundaries.

Giving in at someone’s insistence, threats, manipulation, anger, or even physical assault will only weaken you in the long-term.

How To Become More Assertive

Let’s start with the basics:

1. Acquire assertive beliefs

Actions follow belief and emotional states, so work on your beliefs first and foremost.
You have all the beliefs here already, and “Ultimate Power” helps with installing those beliefs as well.

2. Acquire high-quality personal values

High-quality personal values include:

  • I tell the truth, and I expect to be told the truth
  • I don’t take advantage of others, and neither do I let others take advantage of me
  • I seek to add value to others, and I expect others to have the same attitude

And for busy folks:

  • I respect people’s time, and I expect others to respect my time

These are all personal values that almost automatically move you towards a more assertive stance in life.

Also see:

3. Know what you want

  1. What you want to achieve: when you know what you want to say “yes” to you will also know what to say “no” to. And the more convinced you are about what you want to do and achieve, the easier it will be to say “no”
  2. What you like and enjoy: when you know what you like, you will know what you are missing, and you will be able to ask for it
  3. Your values: what are you comfortable doing and not doing based on your values?

See an example here of my developer who assertively communicated to me he’d stop working on this website because of his religious belief:

assertive communication text example

I respected him a lot for his approach.
Read the full entry in the journal.

4. Learn assertive techniques

This article, plus this website in general helps you with that.

Also see other people who went throguh the journey:

4.2. Learn & adopt the body language of assertiveness

Many resources describe assertiveness as a “communication style”.

The reason why I add that assertiveness is “an interpersonal approach to relating with others” is that “communication” conjures up words alone.
But assertiveness is obviously also tonality and body language as well and, as we have seen, also personal beliefs and mental empowerment.

For more on body language:

5. Push yourself to be more assertive

 As simple as that.

Some ideas:

  1. Voice your concerns: especially when you’re not sure if you should speak up
  2. Dare to be contrarian: especially useful if you never rebelled in your teens
  3. Do something assertive that scares you: ask for a pay rise, or have that difficult conversation 

Rinse, and repeat.

5.2. Stick through the changes

People get used to a certain baseline behavior.

If you’ve been always passive and start being assertive, they might over-interpret your new resolve.

And if you’ve always been aggressive, they might feel like you’re not really 100% behind what you say.

But it’s them who have to re-adapt, not you, you’re upgrading yourself, so keep going steadfast.

5.3 Consider starting with one person / environment at a time 

Going from passive to assertive will change some relationships and create some pushback.

For some people, that change might be overwhelming, so it can make strategic sense to change one relationship at a time.

If you’re struggling mightily, start with the easiest relationship.

And if you’ve been passive across the board, including family, spouse, workplace, friends, and strangers pick the environment that is most critical for you and start with that.

Then, strong on the initial victory, let the domino effect carry you to assertive victory.

6. Reward yourself for assertiveness

The best way to make your new assertiveness stick is to take pride in being more assertive.

Every time you act more assertively, self-congratulate yourself.

Techniques For Saying No

Saying “no” is one of the most important aspects of assertiveness.

It’s the first and most critical step for those who are “too nice”.

Here are techniques for saying “no”:

1. Wait for the question: collect your social credits

Some sly folks seek to get your help and commitment without even asking for it.

They might talk up their desperate situation, or they might emphatically ask “how am I even going to reach the end of the month now, I won’t even be able to feed myself…. “.

And then wait for you to jump in and offer some money (that they might spend on everything but food).

Or slightly more direct:

Him: I have to reach the airport by 6am but I’m afraid of the night buses. Gosh, how am I even going to get there… 

This is “covert asking”.

It’s a manipulative technique of getting something, without incurring any debt and without giving you any credit for it.

If you jump in, you are making it too easy for them. And, from a social exchange point of view, you are not collecting your due credit.

So you have three options here: 

  1. Don’t offer any help
  2. “Uncover” the request
  3. Go assertive

For the first one, just resist the silences.
A bit like uncle Ben in “How I Met Your Mother”:

Uncle Ben almost got $50 for a few seconds of silence :). It’s a sitcom, but the concept holds

I like the last option best though, because it’s high-value and very leaderlike. It also “shames” them into behaving more assertively.
So your answer would be something:

Him: I have to reach the airport by 6am, but…

You: Are you by any chance asking me to drive you to the airport? 

Whatever they reply, then you say:

You: Then tell me straight, speak up. I like direct and honest conversation, let’s not play any hiding games with each other

And don’t feel forced to say “yes” just because you uncovered them.
You can still say no. 

2. Keep your “no” lean: avoid increasing your debt

As a rule of thumb:

The more you say “sorry”, the more you make it seem like your “no” was unfair. And the more your social debt increases.

Things like:

Low Power: I’m sorry, but I really can’t… Sorry man. Really, it sucks I can’t help, but..

Or:

Low Power: I know that I really should, but…

If you really should, then maybe you should indeed.
But if you decided you won’t, then quit shoulding all over yourself.

Speaking of “shoulding”:

PRO Tip: less “sorry”, more actions

From a power perspective, avoid too many “sorry” even when a “sorry” was called for.

Not because you should not make it up to someone, but because too many “sorry”, either spoken or with body language, are weak.

I remember one guy in my first working experience in Infosys.
His name was Alejandro.
You’d look at Alejandro and talk to him a few minutes, and you knew he’d always remain stuck at the bottom of society.

Of the many power-sapping habits of Alejandro, one of them was to say “sorry” at any inconvenience someone might mention. And then he’d look at them with the face of a sad beaten dog. 
And then he’d sprinkle 4-5 more “sorry” after that.

When you need to make it up to someone, say sorry once, maybe add whatyou are going to do to make it up, and then let actions speak.

3. Say no, and quit the excuses

As a general rule:

The more reasons why you can’t you add, the weaker and slimier you look.

Also, “reasons why you can’t” often come across as dishonest excuse-making.

Furthermore, excuses embolden the pushiest individuals to find ways around your barriers.
“Oh, you can’t because your dog needs to go out? No problem, I’ll send my sister, she loves dogs!”

4. Broken record with pushy people: use the SAME sentence

The broken record consists of using the same sentence over and over again.

Why would you want to do that?
Because the pushiest people can find your rephrasing as the sign of a weakening defense, or as an opportunity to pry your defenses open.

Instead, repeat your “I can’t tonight because I chose to spend the evening relaxing”, and repeat it over and over.

5. Your “no” needs no acceptance

Keep this in mind:

You don’t need to convince them that your no is valid. 
Your no is valid simply because you chose it.

Pushy people want you to explain to them why your “no” is valid, but that only empowers them, and disempower you.
It makes you look like you’re making excuses, and that you could help, but don’t really want. And, again, sets them as the judges of your behavior.

Your no needs no explanation.
And least of all, it needs their acceptance.

Assertiveness & Attachment Styles

There is an important overlap between attachment styles and assertiveness (Hanks, 2016).

As an overview:

Based on Hanks, 2016

For more on attachment styles, see:

Summary

Assertiveness is a crucial skill to develop in life.

Assertive people, or at least people who have the capability for being assertive, tend to be more successfull both socially, and in life.

This article showed you how assertiveness looks like, and how to become more assertive.

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