Learning to Be Assertive


Today’s post is written by guest author Cristina Mardirossian, MFT.


Steven has been with his girlfriend for almost two years and is tired of not getting his needs met. According to Steven, he has a difficult time in asking for what he wants and needs. A simple decision, for example, about where to eat dinner is challenging for him. Instead, he allows his girlfriend to pick the restaurants, while he gets frustrated with himself for not speaking up. Steven acknowledges that he is passive in many of his relationships. Non-assertive people such as Steven are often unable to express emotions of any kind, negative OR positive.

It’s very harmful for a relationship when the person can’t be open about their thoughts/feelings. Assertiveness is a learned behavior and thinking style. The messages that we receive growing up have a lot to do with the way people act and think. In Steven’s case, his family taught him that you should always please others before yourself- in other words, he learned to put his needs on the backburner. Now, in his relationships, he has a tough time voicing his needs. 

What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is the ability to express your thoughts, feelings, opinions, attitudes, and rights, without unwarranted anxiety, in a way that doesn’t invade or disregard the rights of others.

Assertiveness differs from aggressiveness- It is true that both assertive and aggressive communication consist of have your needs stated; however it is different to state your needs assertively and state them aggressively. There are variances in the words and tone used, as well at the body language used.

Some questions that I explored with Steven when thinking about how he may have learned to become unassertive are: 

 How did your family handle conflict?

  • What did they do when they disagreed with somebody or were upset with people? 
  • What were their messages given to you about dealing with conflict? 
  • In what ways did you learn to get what you wanted without asking for it directly?
  • (e.g., crying, yelling, making threats etc.) 
  • How do you still use these in your present life? Are they working for you?

Types of Behaviors:

Above I described what Assertive behavior looks like. In addition to Assertiveness, there are also other ways of behaving:

Passive / Non-assertive Behavior is when someone gives up their right to express thoughts, feelings or desires (directly or indirectly) i.e. “We can go whatever you want. You know of better places to go.”

Aggressive Behavior is when someone stands up for themselves without regard for others; typically demands, attacks or humiliates other people i.e. “I want this done right now.”

Passive-Aggressive Behavior is when someone tries to get what they need or want indirectly or manipulatively. i.e. “I’m sorry I’m so late. I didn’t realize this was such a big deal.”

Here are some helpful Assertiveness Skills:

  • Use assertive body language: such as maintaining eye contact, stand/sit straight, keep your voice calm, etc.
  • Use “I” statements. Keep the focus on the problem you’re having, not on the otherperson. i.e. ”I would like 5 more minutes to get ready” instead of “You always rush me.”
  • Make clear, direct, requests, instead of “will you please…” or “do you mind…”
  • Don’t apologize when it isn’t necessary. Avoid lines such as “I’m sorry but I really can’t…”
  • Avoid making excuses or trying to defend yourself when it’s unnecessary. “Oh you don’t want to hang out today, how about tomorrow?” Trying to find excuses is typically dishonest. It’s not that you can’t do it, but you choose not to.
  • Asking for a time out: Letting someone cool down before discussing an issue.

Cristina Mardirossian is a Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Pasadena. She works predominately with adolescent and adult trauma survivors, and also helps clients work through issues of depression, relationship difficulties, and attachment disorders. Learn more about Cristina at http://www.PasadenaTraumaTherapy.com.

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7 replies
  1. Kyle
    Kyle says:

    If you don’t communicate your desires then you end up building resentment which will end up hurting everybody.
    Thanks for the post Ted.

  2. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    Just this morning at work, I heard my name being thrown about my my manager and co-worker in front of a senior officer at my work, implying I had something to do with something that went wrong, when in fact, I was not involved in the mishap. Normally submissive, I defended myself diplomatically and was clear about my position right then and there, in front of the senior officer, even though my manager was poo-pooing me. Don’t trust anyone to look out for you. Take care of your own personal integrity and needs. Whats right is right. I feel empowered.

  3. Rebecca
    Rebecca says:

    Oh yeah I have been working on that too. I know someone who always says we did this or that on a committee project when for the most part it is a Me project til the praise rolls around but this time when that started to happen I quickly said “Jim” why don’t explain your part in this project and he has since been more of a team player. rb

  4. jeannine
    jeannine says:

    My partner and I were meeting with someone to help us with our business. At the beginning he mentioned that he wanted us to sign an agreement. It wasn’t until the 3rd face-to-face meeting that he finally brought it out. Basically he would own all the clients that we brought in – in essence making us sales people for his company rather than helping is create business for our own company. He wanted us to sign the agreement right then and there. My partner calmly just told him that we wanted to take it home and digest the terms. He insisted, but he stood his ground and we did not sign. At home, my partner and I discussed how the terms were all in this other guys favor. We even consulted someone else. In the end, we told him our terms – we would not be his salespeople – this is our business, our clients.

  5. Skotti
    Skotti says:

    Work is a challenging place for the assertiveness issue. Several at my place of employment think they can walk all over me because I naturally start my day in a happy and outgoing mood, then when I defend myself or challenge their attitudes or abusive negative behavior, I get accused of being brusque or difficult to deal with.

    When I arrive at work in the morning I specifically set a goal of making sure it is the best day I can have (using many of the 10 steps mentioned in the next post) – but that attitude is not popular with some. Several are simply miserable human beings, and try to insist that they spread their misery among those surrounding them. When their negativity is challenged, they make accusations of hostility.

    When you challenge the negativity or unprofessional behavior of a co-worker, sometimes it gets manipulated into YOU being the aggressor. But I saw a quote yesterday that I think sums up how one has to approach negative behavior without putting yourself at risk of coming across strongly: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” – R. Buckminster Fuller

    • Ted A. Moreno
      Ted A. Moreno says:

      You are right, work can be challenging. I like BF quote.
      I wonder, how can you stay true to who you declare yourself to be while letting the others be who they need to be?
      Clue: Start by not giving your power to them.

      Thanks for you comment!


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