by University of Cambridge Counselling Service

Awkward situations are an inevitable part of all our lives: a flatmate leaves their dishes filling the kitchen sink; a friend is repeatedly late; a supervisor gives back work without any comments on it; we disagree with someone’s point of view… How do you respond? Can you say no when you want to? Can you be yourself in your relationships?

Assertiveness is an alternative to passive, manipulative or aggressive behaviour. It is strongly associated with a sense of self worth. It is a type of communication that expresses needs, feelings and preferences in a way that respects both ourselves and the other person. It involves stating clearly what you would like to happen, but not demanding that it does.

The four types of communication

Aggressive Communication – ‘The Bulldozer’

If you feel wary of assertiveness, you may be confusing it with aggression. Aggression is a defensive reaction where we try to overcome feelings of insecurity by puffing ourselves up and expressing our feelings, needs and ideas at the expense of others. The benefit is a temporary sense of power or control, but the downside is that aggressive behaviour distances us from other people and we can end up feeling isolated and bitter.

Passive Communication – ‘The Wet Rag’

The flip side of aggression is passive communication. Like aggressive communication it stems from similar feelings of insecurity and low self esteem, but when we behave passively we put ourselves down, rather than the other. We avoid expressing our feelings and needs, we ignore our own rights and allow others to infringe on our rights, perhaps by choosing for us. Passive behaviour is unclear and indirect, it may involve lying or making excuses. The benefit is that we avoid conflict, but at great cost, because we don’t usually get what we want and we can end up feeling even worse about ourselves.

Manipulative Communication – ‘Guilt Tripping’

Frequently, passivity and aggression combine and we find ourselves behaving in a passive aggressive or manipulative way. This is most likely to happen when we strongly need or want something, but feel particularly helpless about getting it. We can then behave in ways that are indirectly aggressive, controlling or unclear, which deny our feelings and those of others. We may use our feelings of victimhood or martyrdom to make the other person feel guilty. The benefit is that we avoid rejection and hurt and it can appear as though we care for the other person. The downside is that we are left feeling emotionally low and secretly resented by others who see through the facade of fake care.

Assertive Communication – ‘The Rock’

Fight (aggression) and flight (passivity) are instinctual responses when encountering a problem. Assertiveness is an alternative response more suited to the solving of the kind of relationship problems that we find ourselves in, in modern community living. It involves the use of more sophisticated brain and verbal skills such as listening, empathy, discussion and negotiation. Assertive behaviour is honest, direct, clear, expressive, self-enhancing, persistent and respectful. The benefit is that we get what we want at least some of the time and when we don’t we still feel good about ourselves because we have expressed ourselves clearly and honestly. Assertiveness builds confidence, self esteem and self respect. But of course we may meet conflict or confrontation, so need to develop new ways of dealing with these.

Rewriting the script

A useful step in working towards behaviour change is to consider where you are in relation to these four types of communication and how that has come to be. It is easier to give something up, if we can understand and accept that it may have served a useful purpose perhaps in our childhood, but now is preventing us from knowing what we feel, saying what we mean and getting what we want.

Of the four types of communication listed, which is most characteristic of you? Are you happy with this? If not, what changes would you like to make?

Remember that non-assertive behaviour: (2)

  • is something you have learnt to do
  • may have usefully prevented you from being hurt
  • may have helped you survive a difficult time
  • may have been encouraged in your family of origin
  • is something which you can change

Guidelines for assertive behaviour (3)

Here are some practical suggestions to help you make changes if you would like to be more assertive. There are a lot of possibilities here; we suggest that at first you just choose one or two to get you going:

Express feelings

  • Own your feelings – they are yours and you are entitled to them
  • Practice I-statements such as “I feel concerned”, “I feel happy”
  • State your feelings in a positive manner
  • Reflect back the other’s feelings if this seems appropriate – “it sounds like you feel disappointed about that”

Cultivate ‘two track listening’

  • Focus on feelings – your own and the other person’s
  • Stay with both tracks – the other’s feelings and your own, but try to distinguish whose feelings are whose
  • Empathise with the other person, but not at the expense of losing touch with your own feelings
  • Avoid taking on the other’s feelings without realising it – getting hooked in
  • See these hooks as invitations which you can choose to refuse

Describe behaviour

  • Direct yourself to the specific behaviour not the whole person
  • Give place and time of behaviour that upsets you
  • Avoid labels or always-statements such as “you are always out to get me”
  • Describe the action and not the motive
  • Use concrete terms

Specify the change desired

  • Be clear about what you would like
  • Request a small change
  • Request only one or two small changes at a time
  • Be specific and concrete in your requests
  • Ask yourself whether the other person can meet your request without a large loss
  • Specify what behaviour you will change to make the agreement
  • Make consequences explicit

Validate self and other

  • Validate what is good in the relationship
  • Sandwich the request for change between two positives
  • Be specific about what is good in the relationship
  • Be honest about what is good in the relationship


You and your lab partner are under pressure to finish an experiment by 6.00pm. It is not going well. Your partner tells you that s/he is leaving because s/he has other work to do and asks you to finish the experiment alone. You are not at all happy about this.

An assertive response might include some of the following:

  • “I’m finding that difficult to accept” (express feelings)
  • “I appreciate that you are worried because you have other work to do” (two track listening)
  • “I feel let down that you need to go off now when we agreed to do this together” (express feelings, describe behaviour)
  • “I’d like you to stay and work with me for an hour” (specify change desired)
  • “I think we are a good team; maybe we can do this more quickly than we thought; we’ve worked together well in the past” (validate self and other)

Assertiveness and Body Language

Of course it is not just the words we use, but also the way we say them, that makes us assertive. Tone of voice is crucial here. In the example above, “I feel let down that you need to go off now” can be said:

  • aggressively – brusque and clipped or strident and loud
  • passively – smiling to pacify, inviting the other to ignore us
  • manipulatively – dramatic gestures, conspiratorial closenesss
  • assertively – open gestures, appropriate warmth, steady pace

Practise speaking into a mirror until you find a pitch that is steady and firm, neither a whisper, nor too domineering. Try to make eye contact when you speak, holding your gaze calmly, but not for too long. Try to keep your body still.

Handling criticism (4)

No-one is invulnerable to criticism. When criticised, most of us react in one of three ways:

  • We take unfair criticism to heart
  • We react aggressively with a counter-attack
  • We avoid criticism by passive or ingratiating behaviour

The skills of negative assertion and negative enquiry are useful ways of handling criticism whether this criticism comes from our boss, our supervisor or (most likely) ourselves. The key is to become adept at judging the critic’s motivation. Is he or she trying to make you feel small or guilty, or is there a genuine attempt at constructive criticism?

Negative assertion means calmly agreeing with and accepting criticism if it is appropriate. It means thinking clearly about specifics and not agreeing with labels that generalise.

Negative enquiry follows on from this. By asking for clarification, it enables us to ask for constructive criticism. It allows the other person to express honest negative feelings directly and can lead to an improvement in communication. It shows up manipulative behaviour, as the manipulator is often thrown by this response, because their motive is to put us down; they won’t want to be specific.


  • Criticism: “You are selfish”
  • Negative assertion: “Yes, it is true that I am giving my own needs some priority right now”
  • Negative enquiry: “In what ways do you think I am selfish? Can you be specific?”

Taking it further – taking some risks

This leaflet is designed to get you thinking about your preferred style(s) of communication and how you might begin to change to become more assertive. That requires taking some risks – it is a brave thing to do! You may well feel quite uncomfortable as you start to leave the old habits behind. It may be a little while before the new ways of communicating feel normal and natural. You may want to experiment with different words and gestures; assertiveness is culturally defined, what works for one person in one culture will not necessarily do so for another.

There are useful self help books – for example:

  • Assertiveness at Work: a practical guide to handling awkward situations
    Ken & Kate Back, McGraw-Hill, 2005
    This is a practical guide for developing your own natural assertiveness. Lots of useful, well thought through examples.
  • Asserting Yourself: How to Feel Confident about Getting More from Life
    Cathy Birch, How to Books, 1999
    This book offers a variety of techniques to help transform unhealthy, defensive behaviours into productive and assertive ones.
  • A Woman In Your Own Right: Assertiveness and You
    Anne Dickson, Quartet, 1982
    Dickson defines assertiveness as the art of clear, honest and direct communication. An assertive approach builds self-esteem and strengthens our ability to make our own choices in life
  • Assertiveness Step by Step
    Windy Dryden and Daniel Constantinou, Sheldon Press, 2004
    Through clearly explained and thoughtfully presented examples, this book will support you in moving towards a more positive sense of who you are and help you to change your behaviour for the better.
  • Assert Yourself
    Gael Lindenfield, Harper Collins, 2001
    Shows readers how to improve their self-esteem and motivation, cope with unfair criticism and exploitation, and set goals for themselves.
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