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Leaping Over the Assertiveness Hurtle

Asserting yourself can be one of the most challenging communication skills to master, especially if you’re dealing with a defensive person or someone who verbally agrees with your requests, but never actually follows through.

In response, people who have unsuccessfully asserted themselves often give up or become angry. They react by ignoring issues, fixing the problems themselves, or losing their tempers. The first two approaches may seem to work on a short-term basis, but not in the long run. When people push down their own needs, anger and resentment often follow, which can lead to physical and emotional problems (such as headaches and depression). And when people react by losing their temper by shouting and/or calling someone names, the other party will often become even more defensive and uncooperative.

What to do, then? The Advanced Communication Guidebook for Interpersonal Communication by Toastmasters International provides five simple, yet powerful ways to maintain one’s assertiveness.

1. Realize the Problem is Your Own:

The first part to step one is to realize that the problem you are experiencing is your own. For example, if your co-worker Pamela talks too loudly on her sales calls, it’s not her problem but yours. For whatever reason her voice skyrockets when she’s speaking to potential clients, it’s not a behavior that upsets her—or she wouldn’t be doing it. Yet if it upsets you and makes it hard to concentrate, it is your problem—and you do have a right to speak up about it!

2. State Your Problem:

The second step is to communicate the problem you’re having without judging or blaming the other person. In the case above, you’d simply describe your issue to Pamela in non-emotional way. For instance you could say to her: “Pamela, I can’t focus on my work when your phone voice gets too loud.”

3. Share Your Feelings:

The third step to asserting yourself in a positive manner is to share your feelings, explaining how the other person’s behavior affects you. With loudmouth Pamela, you might say something like this: “I’m stressed out because I don’t think I’ll be able to finish my deadline today.”

4. Specify a Solution:

For the fourth step, verbalize a solution in a clear, nonjudgmental voice. An example of this could go something like: “I’d so appreciate it if you could lower your voice enough to still be heard by your clients, of course, but not so loud that it effects my concentration.”

5. Describe the Consequences:

This fifth step helps the other person more fully understand how her behavior is affecting you and the positive outcomes that can come if she respects and follows through with your requests. “If you do this, then I’ll be able to focus more and make my deadline today.”


1. Speak Up As Soon As Possible:

Speaking up right away can prevent further resentment and stress. For example, asserting your needs to co-worker Pamela soon after her volume causes unnecessary distraction for you will hopefully decrease the offending behavior sooner rather than later.

2. Be Clear:

If you merely say that it’s hard for you to concentrate if people’s office phone calls are too loud, Pamela may think that you’re talking about someone else. Share the specific issue and what the other person can do to remedy it.

3. Remain Friendly and Calm:

Maintaining a friendly attitude helps others react in a more cooperative manner. If you also remain calm, it helps your credibility and increases the other party’s sympathy. If you become outraged or offend others, people will more likely become defensive and less likely want to help.

And…When You Still Hit a Brick Wall:

Let’s face it, no matter how well you follow these steps, there’s going to be some people in your life who won’t want to cooperate.

For example, Pamela may respond to your request to lower her phone voice by saying something like this: “But I have to speak up on sales calls because it helps me concentrate.” Pamela may also become defensive, lashing out: “Well, you should know that it drives me up the wall when you slurp your coffee!” Neither response acknowledges your request.

What, then, can you do? Stay on course. First, let Pamela know that you heard her — and if need be, maintain a sense of humor. It can be as simple as: “I understand that you feel it helps you to focus when you speak up on your sales calls,” or: “I’m sorry about my slurping (if you can also flash an apologetic smile here, all the better!). I wasn’t aware I did that! I’ll try not to slurp so loudly from now on!” But then, you go right back and repeat your request in a calm manner: “But I really do need to concentrate on my work, so I’m asking you to lower your volume to a more reasonable level.”

Pamela may still resist: “That’s easy for you to say. If you were in sales, you’d understand.”

When you find yourself in this loop, calmly repeat yourself until the other party understands (and hopefully!) finally complies with your request.

Leaping Over the Assertiveness Hurtle

Tracy Shawn, MA

Author and speaker Tracy Shawn lives and writes on the Central Coast of California. Her debut novel, The Grace of Crows (Cherokee McGhee, 2013), won awards for Indie fiction, including the 2013 Jack Eadon Award for Best Book in Contemporary Drama and Second Place for General Fiction from Reader Views. She’s written numerous articles for print and online publications. Ms. Shawn has currently finished her second novel and is now working on her third. You can visit her website at:

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APA Reference
Shawn, T. (2018). Leaping Over the Assertiveness Hurtle. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 1, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 25 May 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.