Infants and young children have direct ways of making their needs and desires known. But as we grow older, we tend to adopt less direct styles of communicating. On one end of the spectrum, messages we receive from society and significant people in our lives seem to discourage "making waves," by expressing our views, desires, and needs. On the other end of the spectrum, more and more messages from the media seem to promote aggression and disrespect as rightful means to get what we want.

What is Assertiveness?

Assertiveness is neither passivity nor aggressiveness. Assertive communication demonstrates self-respect and self-confidence, in addition to awareness of and respect for others. Assertiveness begins when you look at the world from the position that you have eternal worth and human rights AND that others also have eternal worth and human rights. You can take the following test to determine whether you are assertive, passive, or aggressive.

Click here to access the  Self-Test for Assertiveness

Communicating Assertively

Communicating assertively is expressing positive and negative feelings honestly and directly. It is based on the belief that you have the right to be listened to and taken seriously, to say no without feeling guilty, to ask for what you want, and to make mistakes. At the same time, you acknowledge that the other person has identical rights. Because you are communicating honestly and openly, your relationships become much more genuine.

Sometimes it is difficult to learn to communicate assertively. You may go to the extreme and express yourself in an accusing or angry manner or not at all. Becoming assertive - like any other skill - takes time and practice. It is important to understand that assertive communication does not guarantee that people will agree with you or that you will always get what you want. It does, however, enhance your self-respect and improve your chances for enjoyable relationships. The key to communicating assertively is to express yourself clearly, without blaming or judging the other person. An accepted and proven method for accomplishing this is using the "I Feel" message format:

When... Objectively describe the other person's behavior.
Then... Describe the effect of the behavior on you.
I feel... Name an emotion. Do not accuse or blame. Avoid expressing thoughts rather than emotions (for example, "I feel that").
I prefer...  Describe the behavior you want/prefer. "Would you be willing to...?"


Learning this style of communication will probably feel awkward at first, but so does learning to ride a bike. The following examples may help you to feel more comfortable with the "I feel" format:"

Example 1:

"You're so inconsiderate!" can be rephrased as

"WHEN you do not call me when you say you will, (THEN) I imagine that something bad has happened to prevent you from calling. I FEEL scared and anxious. I WANT/ I WOULD PREFER that you call, even collect, when you say you will."

Example 2:

"You're such a slob!" can be rephrased as

"WHEN you don't put things away after using them, (THEN) I end up doing it and I FEEL really resentful. WOULD YOU BE WILLING to help in keeping things in their proper storage places?"

Example 3:

"Don't walk away from me!" can be rephrased as

"WHEN you get up and walk away while I'm talking to you, (THEN) I assume that you aren't interested in what's important to me. I FEEL hurt and ignored. I WOULD PREFER that you give me and our conversation your full attention."

Assertive communication involves acknowledging the feelings of the other person, without necessarily agreeing to do what the other person is asking. For example, imagine you are standing in a line at the store. Someone behind you has one item and asks to get in front of you. You respond, "I realize that you don't want to wait in line, but I was here first and I really would like to get out of here."

You can practice the "I Feel" message format by rephrasing the following messages:

  • "I can never count on you to do what you tell me you will do."
  • Respond to this scenario: You are facing a deadline and really need to work on your project. Your friends tell you, "Come on and go with us. You can do your homework later."
  • "I already told you I couldn't help you out tonight. Leave me alone!"
  • "Get off my back!"
  • "You never listen to me when I'm talking to you."
  • "Stop interrupting me."
  • "You never appreciate all I do for you."
  • "Gee, what a surprise. You're only an hour late this time."
  • "Yeah, I guess I can take care of your kids tonight."

Beliefs About Assertive Behavior

Sometimes people have difficulty being assertive because of certain beliefs they have. Are there beliefs that you have that sometimes prevent you from being assertive? You may believe that other people's rights and feelings are more important than your own. You may fear that other people will be offended if you are assertive. Being assertive may change the nature of some of your relationships, and that may cause you concern. Or perhaps you believe that you are not important enough to deserve to express your needs and feelings. What are some beliefs you have that may prevent you from being assertive?

Of course, it's not necessary to always be assertive. You can choose whether to be assertive in a given situation by asking yourself how important the issue is to you, how you will feel afterward, and how much the consequences of assertiveness will "cost" you. Be realistic--don't scare yourself with irrational assumptions or unlikely probabilities.

One of your rights is to say "no" without having to provide an excuse. You don't have to have reasons or answers, and you don't have to have solutions to others' problems. If the other person continues to press you to comply with the request, you can use the "broken record" method. This involves empathizing with the other person but continuing to firmly say "no."

Practice Scenarios

Using what you know about assertiveness, how would you act in the following circumstances?

  • A good friend calls and tells you that he/she desperately needs you to canvass your apartment complex for a charity. You do not want to do it.
  • You are working on a team project with another student, but you are doing all the planning and preparation.
  • (For women) A man asks you for a date. You have dated him once before and are not interested in dating him again.
  • Your parents are talking to you on the phone and would like you to come home for a visit on a weekend when you have made other plans.
  • You and a friend have planned to vacation together, but the plans are abruptly changed by your friend and reported to you over the phone.
  • Your supervisor at work has just reprimanded you for your work.
  • During a phone call, your roommate has interrupted you three times with something that is not urgent.
  • Sitting in the row behind you at the movie is a young couple with their infant, who begins to cry.
  • A friend knocks on your door during your favorite TV show--the only one you give yourself permission to watch during the week--and asks if you are busy.
  • A friend has asked you to join her and some other friends in a service project.
  • You are feeling really stressed by work, school, and extracurricular evening commitments.
  • You made an appointment to talk with your English professor concerning some difficulties you are having in class. You call him the day of the appointment to confirm, and he says he is expecting you. Upon arriving at his office, you find him talking with another student. Your professor asks if you would come back in an hour.


The Assertiveness Workbook : How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships by Randy J. Paterson Ph.D.