Assertiveness - Is it the Only Way?

Assertiveness - Is it the Only Way?

Assertiveness is often seen as one single form of behaviour.

In this article, the concept of asserting yourself is broadened to include other forms of behaviour; humour, submission, irresponsibility, manipulation, playfulness, aggressiveness, etc.

Chosen Behaviour

The key here is that the behaviour - nice, not-nice or nasty - is chosen.

When people are able to choose behaviour that's not limited by fear of possible consequences, then they can become Truly Assertive.

The Art of Saying No

Impact Factory has been running programmes on 'The Art of Saying No' for nearly twenty-eight years and we are often asked what the difference is between our work and assertiveness training.

We believe the very term 'Assertiveness' is limiting.

For instance, people say you should be assertive rather than aggressive as if assertiveness is the only way.

It isn't. If you are being attacked or abused, then aggressively fighting back may well be an appropriate thing to do.

The keyword here is appropriate.

Patterns of Behaviour

Many unassertive people recognise that their pattern of behaviour is to be nice or compliant for far longer than they really want to until they reach the point of no longer being able to hold it in and then explode nastily and inappropriately all over whoever happens to be around.

There are three ways this 'explosion' can happen.

1. Unexpressed

The first is that the rage happens inside the head and remains unexpressed.

2. Inappropriately Expressed

The second is that it is inappropriately expressed and someone not involved, like a work colleague or secretary, becomes the recipient.

3. Improperly Directed

The third is properly directed at the "offending party" but seems out of all proportion to the probably small, but nonetheless, final straw event that unleashes it.

Only Two States

This leaves people with the impression that there are only two states: Nice and Nasty.

When, in fact, they have forgotten a whole range of behaviour that lies between Nice and Nasty that can be termed Not-Nice.

Assertiveness is often seen as one single form of behaviour.

The concept of asserting yourself, (getting your voice heard, being understood, being taken into account, getting your own way) needs to be broadened to include all forms of behaviour.

It can include

  • humour
  • submission
  • irresponsibility
  • manipulation
  • playfulness
  • aggressiveness

The Behaviour is Chosen

The key point here is that the behaviour - nice, not-nice or nasty - is chosen.

This is key because until people are able to choose behaviour that's free from the limiting effects of their fear of possible consequences, they will not be able to act no matter how well they are taught "how to" be assertive.

They will still feel overwhelmed in difficult situations.

It needs to be acknowledged that the strong feelings associated with changing behaviour are real and valid.

Difficult Feelings

Once that is allowed, then these (usually difficult) feelings can be looked upon as a good thing, a sign that something new is happening.

At this point, people can start to "choose" to have these feelings rather than having to endure them or trying to pretend they are not happening.

The idea of choice is very important.

If people feel they have a real choice about how they behave, they start to realise that it can be OK to put up with something they don't like.

Choosing for Advantage

They can choose it because they want to; it is to their advantage.

They then avoid the disempowering tyranny of always having to assert themselves. (Which is almost as bad as feeling you always have to be compliant or nice.)

Many people think that in order to be assertive, you need to ignore what you are feeling and just "stand your ground". In fact, you ignore those feelings at your peril.

Often the magnitude of peoples' feelings is way out of proportion to what the situation warrants.

They may well reflect more accurately a previous difficult event. It is only by beginning to experience and understand how crippling these feelings can be that they can start to do anything about changing their behaviour.

Many people know what they could say; they know what they could do.

Head Says No Mouth Says Yes

Most "unassertive" people have the conversations in their heads about how to resolve a conflict they're in; but still, their mouths say 'yes', while their heads say 'no'. Knowing what to do or say is not the issue here.

In looking at training others to be more 'assertive' it is wise, therefore, to broaden the brief to "changing their behaviour".

Assertiveness can be a straight jacket of its own.

Rather, the full lexicon of behaviour needs to be practised.

Assert Yourself

If you 'assert' yourself you are likely to create resistance and resentment; whilst on the other hand, using charm, humour, telling the truth or even deliberate manipulation, may well get you what you want without having to 'defeat' the other person.

Part of the disempowerment felt by an unassertive person is in their continual sense of no-choice-in-the-matter.

Giving them back some sense of choice is more important than teaching them 'How To' be assertive.

Make It Fun

Making it fun or even mischievous is a major factor in shifting the sense of burden for a person who is constantly feeling defeated.

Giving the person minor tasks that they can win at, like deliberately changing their order in a restaurant, or returning a perfectly good purchase, can begin to ignite a sense of choice or control about what happens to them.

Something like trying not to get served in a pub begins to introduce a sense of playing life more as a game rather than always facing uncomfortable situations as do-or-die serious.

Below are examples of how each of these techniques could be used.

These examples are to give an understanding of how the tool works, rather than as a script of how you're supposed to do it.


This is a tool to use when you're being 'got at' unfairly. In other words, if you do a report and it really is appalling, then being criticised is fair.

If, however, you're being victimised and criticised unjustly, humour is a way to take the heat off the situation.

This may not actually stop the attack from happening, but it is designed to take care of you.

"This report is appalling."
Is it really that bad?
"It's dreadful."
"Oh dear! I goofed again!"
"Fix it."
"Of course I will."


You're not supporting me. (Attacking)
I'm not getting the support I need. (Less blame)

Every time you supply an excuse or an explanation you provide fuel to the other person to come back at you.

"Never apologise, never explain" may not make you the most popular person in the world, but it will sure save you a lot of aggravation.

Status Manipulation

One version of this is to be deliberately low status or play the victim.

I'm so stupid I can't do this; you're so clever can you help me?

It sounds wimpy, but it's back to the concept of choice: when you choose to use low-status behaviour and get the help you need, you also get an esteem-boosting win.

Boundary Setting

Start to set boundaries and limits for other peoples' benefit as well as your own.

A boundary is not a barrier never to be breached; it is more like a border negotiated by two parties through which some people will be refused entry.

Conditions of entry or notice of refusal need to be published clearly for the other person to see.

A boundary is not set clearly enough until it is respected by the other person.

This is a brilliant measure of "just how assertive do I have to be?"

If you find yourself saying

"I kept telling him but he just wouldn't listen"

then, no matter how aggressively you feel you set the boundary, it wasn't set clearly enough.

It must be set so that the other person understands that you're serious.

A common example of an inadequately set boundary is someone saying very forcefully

"Please don't do that"

whilst at the same time smiling or giving other non-verbal signals that they don't mean it.


This technique can often be coupled with humour and will stop most bullies.

The idea is to take the wind out of someone's aggressive sails so that you stop the attack and get out of the blame rut.

This is a good technique with bullies because they are counting on your weaknesses to get their own way.

"This report is appalling."
"You're right, it is."
"What do you mean "it is"? I asked you to do it properly and it's full of spelling mistakes."
"Your right, my spelling's really bad."
"Well, this is not good enough."
"You're right; I'm really bad at reports. You'd probably be better off using someone who's good at doing reports."

Levelling (Saying What's Actually Going On)

This is essentially saying exactly what you are thinking, rather than looking for the right thing to say.

"This report is appalling."

"Whenever you come over to my desk I get a sinking feeling in my stomach because I know you're going to criticise me."

Keeping the Initiative

This is similar to levelling but in a more active way.

"This report is appalling."

"I get very defensive when you attack me like that.
I'd much rather you tell me specifically what the problem is.
Now shall we see what can be done about it?"

Negotiating for a Win-Win Result

"This report is appalling."
"What's wrong with it?"
"It's full of mistakes."
"Would you like me to arrange to have it re-done?"
"Have it on my desk by 5.00."
"I'll have Susan look at it."
"You fix it."
"I don't have time, but I can have Susan do it."


This technique involves using the other person's energy to create a shift.

"This report is appalling."
"Is it? We can't have that, what shall we do?"
"Fix it. Now!"
"I'll drop (the vital work for his or her boss) and fix it at once."

Changing You by Changing Me

All the above!

So often, unassertive people wish that the person they are in conflict with would change, then everything would be all right.

We've all heard this from a colleague, friend, partner and probably even said it ourselves:

"If only he'd listen to me, then I wouldn't be so frightened."

"If only she'd stop complaining about my work, I'd be much happier."

You Become a Victim

"If only" puts the onus on the other person to change how and who they are and makes them responsible for how we feel.

By using some of the tools outlined above people can get a sense of being in charge of situations, rather than being victims to what other people want.

Blaming Others

It does seem to be part of human nature to blame others when things go wrong in our lives, or when we're feeling hard done by.

If you take away the "if only" excuse you also take away the need to blame and make the other person wrong.

As was pointed out earlier, when people feel really strongly about the power they believe another individual has over them, that person is usually a mirror for someone in their past.

Feelings of helplessness, powerlessness and dread of dire consequences, if they speak their mind or ask for what they want, will be superimposed on the current situation, blurring what is really going on.

Dealing With Difficult Feelings

It is important when working with people who are trying to deal with these feelings that they learn to separate what is really going on for them now from whatever may have happened to them in the past if they "stepped out of line".

It becomes second nature after a while to project onto other people thoughts, feelings and beliefs that they simply do not have.

We make things up about what they are thinking and feeling and then we act as though they are true.

Power of Exercising Choice

In conclusion, then, we work with people to get them to relish the power of exercising their choice.

We see it as very important that this work of changing behaviour is fun to do; that people are motivated to do it because they want to rather than because it would be good for them.

Remember! What may seem like a molehill to you may be a mountain to someone else and vice versa.

That's All Very Well

As you read through some of the examples given above you may have had the thought

"Oh that's all very well, but..."

and that is what it's like for an unassertive or overly nice person all the time!

If people are made to just "do it" then their sense of choicelessness and disempowerment that's at the root of the problem gets reinforced.

People will feel more able to tackle the challenge and are likely to get a win when the stakes are lowered.

They don't have to be assertive at all... just less nice

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