Most of us have struggled with assertiveness at some time or another in our personal and/or professional roles. If you are introverted, or female, or from certain self-effacing cultures, there is a higher possibility of you being perceived as unassertive – which can be a serious impediment to your career.

What do we mean by ‘assertiveness’? According to an article in Psychology Today, assertiveness is the ability to express yourself with confidence, without having to resort to passive, aggressive or manipulative behaviour. It is characterised by clear communication – of your standpoint; requesting your demands and desires respectfully of others’ needs; defending your views and opinions, and having an ability to influence others.

Assertiveness helps us to:

  • Be more confident – Gain greater insights about yourself, your worth and the value and knowledge you bring to others.
  • Negotiate beyond your own needs – Gauge a situation and negotiate so that all parties feel satisfied with the outcome.
  • Feel less anxious and stressed –  Greater confidence, understanding of yourself, and calmness, enables you to feel less stressed about scenarios or situations that previously would have caused anxiety.
  • Feel empowered to solve problems – Taking control of your learning, understanding how to behave and using positive assertiveness empowers you in any situation.

In my professional coaching, assertiveness comes up time and time again (don’t forget to read my previous blog on one dimension of assertiveness). I have come across clients who struggle with showcasing their assertiveness in numerous ways. They may be:

  • reticent to ask for what they want…
  • aggressive, rather than assertive…
  • finding it hard to speak up or present; communicating with impact, influencing others, being seen and heard at events/meetings…
  • struggling to establish and impose boundaries – or to say ‘no’

Being assertive isn’t about being aggressive. Part of it is about using your reflective strengths to time interventions; standing your ground on things you care about; having confidence in your contribution to discussions, or teams, or fields. It’s using a toolkit to make yourself heard through the noise of extroverted personalities around you.

In an insightful article in HBR Andy Molinsky, a Professor of Organisational Behaviour, says, ‘In the end, speaking up is genuinely hard for many of us. And the results are far from guaranteed. The other person may respond in a positive way immediately; they might respond positively and productively but with a significant delay; or they might not change at all. But for you, getting up the courage to voice your frustrations in the first place can be a significant win.’

So how do we develop our assertiveness? From my own coaching experiences, here are some beneficial tips.

How to be more assertive:

1) Reflect and Visualise

How assertive do you reckon you are? How would other people rate your assertiveness? Assess where you are, now; then think about how you want to be. How would you like to come across? Visualise yourself, portraying the qualities and behaviour you need, and succeeding in what you’d like to achieve.

Some good coaching questions to help you:

  • How do you want to show up at x event/meeting?
  • Think of somebody you really respect and admire. How would they demonstrate assertiveness?
  • When your assertive self shines through, what’s it like?

2) Prepare

 To increase your assertiveness muscle, practise in general, and prepare in particular. How can you better prepare for situations in which you want/need to be more assertive? For a meeting/presentation/event – think about how you want to show up and behave during that event. For example, if you have an upcoming meeting with senior staff, a) How do you want to appear? b) What do you want to achieve during this meeting? c) How can you accomplish this? d) What will you do if someone stands in your way?

You could answer these questions and prepare a plan for the meeting.

  • What points do you want to make?
  • When others dominate, what tactics can you reasonably employ, to break in? What key phrases can you use? (e.g. ‘Are we still on the agenda?’ or ‘I think it’s time to review the alternatives, here’).

If you are wanting to negotiate a deal or make a point in an appraisal, make sure you have thought through your reason why you should get a specific outcome.

As Margaret Buj says, ‘When you are negotiating for a raise or asking for a promotion, have all the history and facts about your specific accomplishments and how they have impacted the business. Use benefit language that includes specific outcome and results rather than your effort involved.’

3) Positive language

Clear, concise, constructive vocabulary is important. Keep to the point and practise what you want to say, in advance. Phrasing things in a positive way should bring people along with you and make them less defensive.

Positive language and constructive comments keep the conversation adult-to-adult, minimising the risk of it escalating into an argument. Also, positive thinking requires positive language to translate ‘if onlys’ into positive action (Sue Bishop, 2010).

As Scott Edinger states in his HBR article, it’s about:

‘Communicating  effectively: Assertiveness adds power and conviction to a message and enables a leader’s voice to be heard. You can clearly tell the difference between a message communicated with passion and vigor as a leader asserts his or her point of view and one that lacks the energy of conviction. Assertive leaders also tend to communicate more often, as their passion leads them to capitalize on every opportunity they can find to deliver a message.’


4) Body language

 To communicate effectively, words, delivery and body language must be compatible. Assertive body language is often characterised by an upright, calm, open posture. Psychologist Amy Cuddy calls this ‘power posing’.

Facial muscles are relaxed and show sincerity, confidence and responsiveness. Movement is steady, regulated and relaxed, and gestures are appropriate to the conversation, with no excessive or intrusive mannerisms. Eye contact is direct and regular, showing attention and interest. The tone of voice will be appropriate to the situation – evenly pitched and steady, but easily heard.

5) Learn to say ‘NO’

“The difference between successful people and really successful people is that really successful people say no to almost everything.” ― Warren Buffett

Practise saying no when necessary. This is vital in situations when you know that your workload is too great and you can’t take on the next project or piece of work. Be prepared to compromise, but be comfortable saying what you want. It’s OK to explain why you won’t agree to a request, but avoid making excuses. Offering excuses opens up the opportunity for the person making the request to counter it or find a way around the excuse.


6) Set boundaries

Try setting some conditions – ‘I can’t help you right now, but I can make time for you later in the day’. Or ‘I cannot finish that today, but I can get it to you by the end of the week’.

Remember – you do not have to reply to every request right away! Try saying, ‘Let me get back to you on that’.

Consider whether requests are fair ones you want to meet, or ones you feel you should go along with. Maximise the former and minimise the latter.

What motivates you to do things for others? Is it guilt, duty, fear, or is it a positive choice?

How would you motive others to want to help you?


7) Use ‘I’ statements

Instead of using a passive, objective phrase, like saying that a project ‘needs to be done’ – personalise tasks or requests by using ‘I’ statements that direct attention to your need. For example, “I need some assistance with project x to meet the deadline we have discussed.”

8) Accept criticism and compliments with grace

If you receive a compliment, or even a criticism, try to respond with ‘thank you.’ Rather than jumping in when emotions are possibly running high, take a breath and respond with grace. Of course, it’s much easier to do this for a compliment! If it’s a critique, it may take some practice to be gracious, even if the comment is constructive – but practise until responding with grace is second nature.

9) Empathise

Learn to show empathy for other people. Put yourself in their shoes, appreciate how they might feel, and this will help you to understand the needs and wants of others, as well as your own.

Let your appreciation of this enable you to respond assertively. Select words to show that you understand the other person’s view. Ask for time if you need it, before offering a final response. And don’t be afraid to re-state what you want and need, if you feel that someone is being dismissive.


“Assertiveness is not what you do, it is who you are.” – Shakti Gawain


If you’d like to develop assertiveness, or other leadership development skills, get in touch.

If you have any questions about this post or any other topic I’ve raised, I would love to hear from you. Your thoughts and comments are of great value to me.


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