Assertiveness skills - Shepherds and sheep

In many of the courses I run for the Professional Marketing Forum, the topic of assertiveness arises. Sometimes this relates to people needing the confidence to speak up and share ideas or to challenge requests. Often it relates to finding ways to decline or modify inappropriate requests – how to say “No” effectively. But it’s not just support staff that are challenged. A lack of assertiveness and confidence can arise in price communication – even seasoned professionals can be passive when faced with demanding and unrealistic clients and cave in on price negotiations. (See Assertiveness skills are needed by us all.

In some of the sessions, we use a diagnostic tool to work out whether our dominant behaviour is passive, assertive, aggressive or passive-aggressive although we recognise that it can often be situation dependent.

What does being assertive mean?

Assertive means that you have self-confidence in conversations. It means you have a self-assured, open and confident manner and approach. You need to have self-respect to be assertive – to value yourself and your right to be heard and for your needs to be met.

Assertive people express negative thoughts in a healthy and positive manner and confront challenges and issues without getting personal. Assertive people convey their ideas clearly and enthusiastically

Assertive people are considerate to others, Assertive people accept that people are responsible for their own behaviour. Assertive people are regarded as firm and fair by others. This sometimes means that you may need to adjust thoughts and actions as a result of understanding the other person’s position.

Assertive people also ask for time to think about and complete a task properly – they are not pushed into accepting unrealistic deadlines. Assertive people also welcome feedback and accept criticism and compliments positively.

Being assertive – balancing needs

A passive person allows others’ needs to dominate (I lose: You win). An aggressive person insists on meeting their own needs (I win: You lose). An assertive person seeks to balance their own and other people’s needs (I win: You win).

Being assertive means you present your opinions and needs clearly so that others can understand and consider them. To be assertive, you need to recognise your emotions and be able to manage them – and these are core skills in emotional intelligence.

Assertiveness often means adopting a win:win approach – tackling things in a way that everyone gets what they want. This is an approach often used in principled negotiation.

Passive and aggressive behaviour

Think about the alternatives to assertiveness. Often the way we behave has roots in how we were treated when we were young and how we learned to cope. But established and habitual behaviour can be changed with knowledge, effort and practice.

Aggressive behaviour Some people are aggressive – they get angry or may lose their temper. They have no consideration for others – and may even bully them – by demanding compliance and even being threatening. Aggression is dangerous as it is usually harmful to relationships and reputation. Aggression generally creates fear or prompts others to become aggressive too. Forcing your opinion and will on others isn’t conducive to good team spirit and morale. There’s more information on dealing with difficult behaviour types (e.g. ogres, bulldozers etc) here:

Passive behaviour At the other end of the spectrum, a passive person does not express their feelings. They accept the request and defeat so the other person gets their way or wins. If you passively accept everything without stating your views and needs you are likely to bottle things up and become frustrated and resentful. Sometimes, young or inexperienced people passively accept tasks that they would not be given if they explained the reasons why they shouldn’t or couldn’t do so. Sometimes this means they are given more and more inappropriate tasks or unmanageable workloads, simply because they haven’t helped others understand the situation.

Passive-aggressive behaviour Sometimes people are passive-aggressive. This means that while they appear on the surface to be passive and compliant, there is an aggressive undertone. For example, someone might say “Yes I’ll do it” but with an angry tone of voice and non-verbal communication such as a frown or crossed arms that show the spoken words are incongruent with their true feelings.

You have some basic human rights

Everyone has some basic rights – to be treated with respect and to be able to express your views and to have your needs met. You also have the right to request more information if you don’t understand something. You have the right to change your mind and even to make mistakes. More importantly perhaps, you also have the right to decline responsibility for other people’s problems. There is some interesting work in this area on women’s rights by Anne Dickson.

Start with clear goals and focus

Assertive people know what they want. And what they don’t want. So you should be clear about your aims and priorities. In some sessions we use an “atomium tool” to identify the main purpose of your role and no more than six key functions. In project management (and in marketing we are often focused on a few key projects or campaigns) we look at the value of having overall project plans to ensure the right things are tackled in the right order and at the right time.

If you and those around you are aware of your goals – and they are SMART (Specific Measureable Achievable Realistic and Time-specific) – it is easier to decline or negotiate on other tasks. Clarity on Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can also help. Check these posts for assistance with goal setting: and

If you are unable to articulate clearly what you are supposed to be doing, it is easier for others to persuade you to do the things that they want you to do. It’s harder to decline requests when you are unclear of what else you should be doing.

Techniques for being more assertive

In the sessions, we explore different techniques for increasing assertiveness. Often, we will role play scenarios where these techniques can be tried out and practiced. Here are some of the most popular techniques we use.

Understand their needs

Use empathy to see the other person’s point of view. The best advice is to ask questions and listen carefully so that you understand their perspective and needs. At the very least, this gives you more information on which to base your decision and response. But by asking questions you are showing respect for their views and entering into a mature dialogue to resolve the matter.


This is where you ask more detailed questions both to understand the nature of the situation and request. But during the course of the questions you might reveal other possible approaches and solutions to the person’s problem or request.


Acknowledging means that once you have asked about and listened to the other person – you acknowledge their views. We call this validation. You response might be something like “I understand that you are worried and stressed about your client’s project”. It is particularly effective if you reflect back the words the other person has used.

Prepare yourself

If you are afraid that you will cave in when confronted by a dominant person, then spend some time preparing yourself. Make a note of your aims and priorities, the reasons why you are unable to comply or what you need in order to do so. Spend some time preparing yourself mentally too – and request the discussion take place at a time and in a place where you will feel most calm and confident.

Consider a conditional agreement

In this technique, you agree to the request but qualify it with conditions. So, for example, you might say “I understand that you need your project completed urgently. I will be able to help you but only if you speak to my manager to check that it is alright for me and that they agree”.

Use the three part sentence

This follows the approach of a) listening carefully b). saying what you think and feel and c). saying what you want to happen. So your three part sentence might be something like “I understand that you are worried about your client project. I would like to be able to help you but at the moment I am working on something urgent for John. Please ask Maria for help but feel free to come back to me later this afternoon if you still need assistance”.

Practice saying “No”

Saying “No” can be challenging – especially if you are in a reactive, service-providing role and the person asking you to do something is more senior. There is always the fear that saying “no” will lead to argument and conflict. Some people worry that saying “no” means that others will perceive them as unhelpful or uncommitted to their job.

So developing the confidence to say no appropriately is important. You should always aim to be polite but firm. You might indicate that whilst you understand the other person’s problems and would like to help, it simply isn’t possible for you to do so. Sometimes you might explain the reasons, Sometimes you may need to seek help from your line manager. But it might be best to provide an alternative solution to the person by directing them to an alternative and more appropriate source of help.

Avoid child-like responses

Transactional Analysis (TA) suggests that while we generally behave in a rational and adult way, sometimes others behave in a parental or child-like way that triggers us to mirror that behaviour and act inappropriately. There is more about TA here:

Play a broken record

In this approach, you are like a broken record – repeating your views and answer when the other person continues to put pressure on you. For example, you might say “I understand that you are in a difficult position, I would like to help but at the moment I have been asked to complete another task”. And when they explain further why you should assist you firmly but politely repeat the same sentence.

Point out discrepancies

This is a way to deal with contradictory behaviour. Imagine a situation where a boss says that you are to focus on one particular project but then keeps asking you to do other things. Here, you need to calmly point out the discrepancy. “You stressed at the start of the month that our top priority was to complete Project X. You indicated that it was strategically vital. But then you have given many other things to do. I understand that you are working on many projects and that you are really busy. But I am working very hard and trying to do as you say. However, you are giving me contradictory instructions. So please explain whether you want me to focus on Project X as originally instructed or whether you want me to complete these other tasks?”

Explain consequences

You can calmly explain the consequences of the requested action. So, you might say “I know this report is urgent and important. However, if I do this work for you then I will be letting down Jane and Henry on their urgent work. Are you OK with me letting down Jane and Henry?”

Understand cultural differences

While we are generally an open and equalitarian society in the UK, other cultures are different. This means that there is a danger that behaviour and communication can be misunderstood. For example, in cultures where there are more hierarchical structures it is typical for those higher in status to give orders to those lower in status who will not challenge such instructions. This doesn’t mean that the people are being aggressive – it’s just that they operate to different social rules and you must guard against judging that behaviour on your values. There are various posts on multi-cultural sensitivity for example:

Avert or manage conflict

Sometimes, being assertive can generate conflict. And so you need to develop skills and techniques (such as negotiation skills – see to avoid or resolve conflict. There are posts on this subject, for example