Assertiveness: Speaking Up While Staying Connected


...what is required is the bringing forth of humanity

under the conditions of a communication which is not deceptive,

not superficial, not degenerating, but limitlessly clarifying.

- Karl Jaspers

eing assertive, like planting daffodil bulbs, is an investment in having a more pleasing future. We scrabble in the wet dirt of fall, maybe breaking a fingernail, and voilà, come February or March, our garden is lovely. We speak up, with some trepidation perhaps, our coworker stops teasing us about our poor haircut choice and, voilà, our friendship is eased. Life is prettier.

Haven’t you met people who smoothly and gently shape their world to be more to their liking? In some ways they can be seen as demanding, but in other ways they are restful to be around because you most often know where you stand with them. They also tend to be successful and satisfied because they harbor neither grudges nor the pessimistic belief that things will never go their way. Their lives are enviably uncluttered. And because they have practiced being routinely clear on what they need, they simply expend less energy when they assert.

Why, then, do people frequently avoid being assertive if the point of it is to make their lives more enjoyable? Two reasons. One, because with investment comes risk, for sometimes squirrels dig up our bulbs and sometimes people around us remain unmoved by our appeals. In fact, frequently people react with ugliness or hostility when their poor behavior is described back to them, even if the assertion is well-crafted and appropriate. Two, many of us are not good at asserting and our well-meaning attempts to get our needs met don’t go too well. We embarrass ourselves, and no one likes it when that happens.

It doesn’t take many rejections for sensitive folk to decide that it’s just not worth it to speak up. But if we stay silent, our lives can fill with unpleasantness as other people continue to treat us with lack of awareness or lack of concern. And those things that would make our future more gratifying become merely wishes written in invisible ink. So here’s the thing – while it’s true that assertiveness involves a risk, it is nearly always a good investment.

Each time we practice speaking our minds, we learn a little about how to do it well and life gets a little better. We, too, can start to build lives that are uncluttered and enviable.

It is wise to do so


Exploring Leadership

- Susan R. Komives, Nance Lucas and Timothy R. McMahon

Your Perfect Right

- Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons

That’s Not What I Meant

- Deborah Tannen

Getting to Yes

- Roger Fisher and William Ury

Assholes: A Theory

- Aaron James



What about being assertive toward someone when there are other people around?

I would say it's kinder and probably more effective to try to speak with a person privately when you are going to assert yourself. Not only does privacy avoid social awkwardness that may evoke self-protectiveness in the person you're trying to reach, but it also...


Let me stop here for a moment to make a case for the ethics of social pressure. Similar to the herd immunity created when a high proportion of people are vaccinated, when people routinely confront rude, thoughtless or aggressive behavior, the entire community is better protected from the toxicity of churlishness. A go-along-to-get-along philosophy can be appropriate in many instances, but there is a lot to be said for being part of the solution when faced with offensiveness. Bullying, indeed all forms of violence, can only occur when enough people stay quiet in the face of their knowing what is happening because that silence grants the evildoer permission to continue to plague others. Asserting in the face of poor behavior is brave and appropriate. As Edmund Burke reminded us: All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good folks to do nothing. Please don't do nothing. Try to speak out and remember to be proud of yourself when you do for it is principled behavior.

It makes sense to focus on improving our assertiveness skills so that we will be more comfortable speaking up for ourselves and therefore more likely to do so. We will also become better citizens of the world when we feel empowered to speak up when others are being poorly treated. We can do all this best by defining the concept and then breaking the assertion into its components.

The Components of An Assertion

An assertion is a declaration that I want something that you have the power to give me. It can be as simple as requesting the butter at the dinner table or bumming a ride home from a softball game, and as involved as asking for deep, personal communication or needing someone’s spare kidney. Further, an assertion is always an invitation. In other words, with the declaration of your need, you are appealing to the other to meet that need. As such, assertiveness falls between wishful thinking and aggression. In the former, we are hoping that the other will take it upon themselves to spot what it is we need and empathically grant our wish. In the latter, we try to take what we need. With an assertion, what we are inviting the other person to do is discuss the situation from a cooperative and creative standpoint. A good end result is me getting my needs met and you getting to be magnanimous.

These concepts combine to define assertion as: an invitation to negotiate with me over my request for something I need that you can generously give me.

The most successful assertions are those designed to foster both clear communication and also the negotiation process. Before a word is uttered, then, it helps to think like a senior diplomat from the State Department. Diplomats ponder the steps of a communication and customize each one to fit both the participants and the particulars of the current situation.

A complete assertion has seven steps:

1) Clarify both your needs and your entitlement within your head. You’re going to be making a declaration and a request, so double check that both are clear and reasonable. Think about what you need and why. Think about what the other person may need and why. Once you have a well thought-out sense of everyone’s needs, do you still believe in your right to make an assertion? If so, proceed. If not, FAWBOT: Your Perfect Right by Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons.

2) Check your timing. You want to make sure that both parties are ready to enter into a negotiation. For you, you will need to have your thinking clear and your mood stable and sanguine. For the other, they need to be receptive, which means you will have to either guess or inquire whether or not this is a good time to approach them.

3) Make a connection. An assertion puts tension on a relationship, so, depending on how meaningful the relationship is to you, you will want to attempt to join emotionally with the other person before you speak up. This can be as simple as a smile or as complicated as taking them out to dinner. You are informing the other person about how important they are to you before you make a request of them.

4) Describe your need and invite feedback. Using the communication style that suits both your personality and also the circumstances, make a statement to the effect of: This is the state of affairs as I see it and this is what I would like to have happen. The more clearly, accurately and calmly you can present the information, the easier it will be for the other person to receive it. Then wait as openly and patiently as possible as they process your request and respond. An excellent book to help with this step is That’s Not What I Meant by Deborah Tannen.

5) Negotiate. After listening carefully to their reply to your request, it's time to start thinking like a diplomat. When you assert, you put yourself in the position of leading a negotiation process. Because you are seeking cooperation from another person, it makes sense to guide that process using a relational management model. There are dozens of skills that underlie a leadership role that privileges connection (listening, reframing, information sharing, creativity, flexibility, collaboration and so on), and most mature adults are extremely capable of engaging in such a role. The trick, however, is pulling these skills down from the shelves, dusting them off and putting them to work smoothing out the process of reaching a mutually satisfying agreement. For an extremely comprehensive guide to how to reach ethical and inclusive agreements, I highly recommend the book by Susan R. Komives, Nance Lucas and Timothy R. McMahon in the FAWBOT box to the right. Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury is a more traditional book on the subject of negotiation.

6) Emotional dealings. If you do not prevail in the negotiation step and you do not get your needs met, move to self-soothing and respectful self-talk. Tell yourself that you were brave and right to have taken the risk to assert. Remind yourself that the other person now knows that they have rejected your request and they know that you know that about them. If your request was reasonable, then they are now on record as having acted unreasonably in the face of an appropriate request. If you did prevail, reward the generosity of the other person with gratitude and respect.

7) Reconnect. No matter what the outcome, it is always wise to keep the channel of communication open, so do any repair or restoration work necessary on the relationship.

These seven steps can create a powerful assertion. Examples of effective assertion initiations would be:

• I believe we’ve been having a lot of arguments lately. I feel like tension is building between us and it’s bothering me. Can we sit down soon and talk about this?

• My girlfriend bought me tickets to a concert on Saturday. I know it’s an imposition, but can you cover my shift for me?

• When you ask me a question you don’t seem to listen to me when I try to answer. I need to feel like what I say matters to you. Do you understand my concerns?

• I don’t mind if you borrow my truck from time to time, but my budget is tight right now. Could you please contribute some money for gas?

• I need to get up early tomorrow to get to the airport on time. Could you please watch television in the other room so I can go to sleep?


Here are additional strategies that can help create a potent as well as inviting assertion.

The most common misstep in assertion occurs when people fail to clearly or accurately describe the problematic situation. Too often we jump ahead to our demands without first establishing agreement about the particulars. If we have assessed the situation incorrectly, our assertion is going to miss by a mile. Wise people pay close attention to initiating an assertion with a very neutral and sincerely curious inquiry. For example, "It looks to me like you are starting some drastic landscaping changes. Since it affects my yard, can we talk about what you are planning?" will probably be more effective than "You can't just start cutting down trees without talking to the neighbors first!" It is difficult to be objective when you are passionate about something, but a careful description is an effective way to launch an assertion.

People often focus their assertion on what they perceive is the intention of the other person. Rather than speaking descriptively (I sent you three memos asking about the dates for the next meeting. I hope you got them. Time is now running short and I need to have your input by tomorrow.), the poor asserter makes the statement personal (You have ignored my requests for scheduling information. Now you’ve gotten me in trouble with our boss. You need to tell me right now when you can make the meeting.) A description of someone’s internal motives is rarely accurate, thus making an assertion based on that description rarely effective. Remember that step four is most dynamic when it is an observation that an objective outsider would recognize and one that avoids any aspersions cast on the intent of the “perp.”

If you are rebuffed initially, you may need to regroup then repeat the process, perhaps coming at the problem from a different angle. And as you recycle through the steps, make sure you are inviting them to solve the next thing with you not the whole thing. For example, if you were asking a neighbor to solve a barking dog problem, maybe an appropriate first step would be to establish when and why the dog tends to bark rather than expecting that the problem would be completely resolved.

A frequent error people make when trying to speak up is waiting too long to initiate the request. They have moved beyond appropriate self-interest into some sort of anger/rage blend that is antithetical to the balanced mood needed in step two. If you find this is the case, you might need to wait until the next small instance of the problem occurs and try to speak up right then in proportion to that one incident.

A strategy that helps me self soothe when an assertion goes awry is reminding myself that the information I am providing to another when I assert may just not be powerful enough to make a difference to the other person at this time. Some accumulation of the message may be required. My feedback may be the fifth time the other person hears the information and it may take 15 times for the message to get through. I am a piece of the solution, just not the last piece!

Finally, it is easier to present a calm and thoughtful request when you understand that there are benefits to being on the receiving end of an assertion. In addition to being given the opportunity to be magnanimous, there are two ways an assertion can be seen as a gift. One, when you are routinely assertive, the people around you realize that you can be trusted to take care of your own needs. That frees others up from having to anticipate or guess what you want. The other benefit from being on the receiving end of an assertion is that, when someone speaks his or her mind to us, we usually learn something valuable about ourselves. Like a critique in an art class or feedback in a writer’s group, we are shown the impact we are having on our world. This new insight will help us monitor our own behavior and additionally, to the extent it also serves as a glimpse inside the head of another person, it will increase our ability to be empathic.

Assertiveness, then, is an investment that can pay off for all involved, for everyone benefits when daffodils bloom.

A True Story

Several years ago we started having terrible problems in our neighborhood with people who would walk their dogs frequently but not pick up after them. It got so that walking down the sidewalk was akin to open field running against the 49ers. My friends and I would carp and fume as we picked our way along on our walks, but felt completely hopeless in the face of the problem. Then one day there appeared around each little pile of doggie donations a chalk outline with a few calm words about how unpleasant said pile was to the neighborhood. This chalk wizard continued to circle and comment and within about a week, the little piles all disappeared. For years our sidewalks remained clear. When the piles started to reappear, so did the chalk wizard and, once again, the simple assertion of "We're noticing and we are unhappy" was effective. I never found out who the wizard was, but my hat remains off to that clever individual.

© Copyright 2014 Jan Iversen. All rights reserved.