How to be more assertive in one easy step

how to be more assertive

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Many people talk about assertiveness and being assertive, but not everyone truly understands what being assertive is.  What is the meaning of assertive?  While there are many different assertiveness techniques, and I have outlined the main ones in the article 9 Assertiveness techniques to use in any situation, this article discusses how to be more assertive in one hopefully easy step.  It might be easier for some than for others, and, like most things, it will take some practice.  I also give some recommendations for books on assertiveness later in the article.

What is the meaning of assertive?
How to be more assertive in one easy step
Books on assertiveness

how to be more assertive

What is the meaning of assertive?

What is the meaning of assertive?  When people are trying to figure out how to be more assertive, the first step is to learn what assertiveness actually is.  I find that, particularly people who grew up in families where confrontation was not handled well (for whatever reason), and also people who grew up in abusive environments, often have a little bit of difficulty understanding what assertiveness is and is not.  This is because in many people’s experience, there are only two communication options: being passive or being aggressive.  Some people also have a third, which is being passive-aggressive.

Assertiveness is not the same as aggression and it is not the same as being passive-aggressive and, of course, it is not the same as being passive.  So, what is the meaning of assertive?  When we are assertive, we express our own needs, wants, and desires in such a way that we do not infringe upon the dignity and rights of the other person.

Assertiveness: expressing our needs and desires in a way that doesn't reduce the dignity and rights of others.Click To Tweet

The last pudding assertiveness example

How to be more assertive. Assertiveness example: Suppose there was just one pudding left and you wanted it.

Passive response: “It’s okay.  You can have the pudding.” (You give up before you even start.  This is not assertive.)

Passive-aggressive response: “Fine.  Have the pudding.  I will just sit here and have nothing.  I’m okay though.” (You express your desire by making the other person feel guilty or sorry for you.  This is also not assertive.)

Aggressive response: “One more pudding?  I am taking it!  You can’t have any, and you could stand to eat fewer puddings anyhow by the way.” (You don’t acknowledge the other person’s rights and put them down. This is not assertive, obviously.)

Assertive response: “There’s one more pudding left.  I would like to eat it, but if you also would like to eat it, maybe we can share it?”  (This explains the situation, expresses your own desire, but also acknowledges the other person’s right to eat pudding if they so desire.  This is assertive.)

How to be more assertive in one easy step

While there are many assertiveness techniques, and ideally, learning them all would be an excellent plan, one that I have found to be useful across a wide range of situations is what I call “buying time”.   I like two things in particular about this technique: 1. it is versatile, and 2. it is a great technique that can be used by people who are feeling nervous about being assertive while also being useful for people who are much more confident and already have a good handle on how to be assertive.

How to be more assertive – you are caught off guard…

Frequently, in our lives, people say things to us that throw us off in the moment.  Examples:

  • someone asks you if you are available at a certain day or time and you know that you are, but you do not want to say yes to what they are asking, but you are too flustered to say no.  “Can you babysit for me on Saturday night?”
  • someone surprises you with a request that you do something with them or for them.  “Hey, I just wrote a cool new book.  It is only 450 pages long.  Do you mind proof reading it for me?”
  • someone asks you for a discount on your products or services.  Example: you own a hair salon and a friend asks if she can get a discount.

We are often so thrown off in that moment that we quickly agree to something that we later regret agreeing to.  We are then faced with the dilemma of going through with it or being seen as someone who does not keep his/her word (more on this in a moment).

How to be more assertive – Take your time and feel free to say “no” without guilt!

Whenever you have that “deer in the headlights” feeling, remember that you actually can take your time.  If the suggestion is truly inappropriate and your answer is a definite no, you can say so.  Without guilt.  Even if the suggestion is not inappropriate and your answer is a definite no, you can say so without guilt.  We (especially women) are trained to “be nice,” but it is important to be true to ourselves and maintain appropriate boundaries.  But, back to the idea of taking your time.

Often, we are in social or business situations that trigger our fight/flight/freeze reflex.  This is why we feel nervous going in.  And when that happens, when you feel yourself start to freeze up, get upset, or want desperately to crawl into a hole, here is an alternative that might eventually give you confidence. If you do feel that fight/flight/freeze reflex, the first thing to do is to pause and take a deep, quiet breath into your diaphragm, also known as “belly breathing”.  Not only is this very calming, but it actually evens out your voice so that you can speak without sounding strained or stressed, something I learned from a vocal coach.

Let me get back to you

Whether it is at work, during a meeting, in your personal life, you can take all the time you need.  But how?  Be polite, and tell the person that you will give them a response at a later date.  This may sound like it would be socially awkward, but actually, it comes across very naturally, and you will probably start noticing people in your life who use this technique consciously or unconsciously all the time.

How to phrase it:

  • “You brought up something really interesting, and I am going to need to get back to you on that”
  • “You have given me a lot to think about.  I am going to take some time to absorb this, and then we can schedule a meeting to discuss it in depth.” (this one is especially good for work situations)
  • “That is a good question.  I don’t have the answer right off the top of my head, but I will get back to you by Friday.”
  • “That sounds like an interesting project.  I will have to check on a few things including what I have on my plate and get back to you.”
  • “What you just said really made me think.  I need some time to process that alone, but let’s make a plan to meet and talk later.”
  • “I am feeling very upset about what you just said, and, to be honest, I don’t know how to respond.  I need some time to think about this.”  (If the person pressures you to keep talking, then you can say:) “I know you want to discuss this right now, and I probably would too if I were you, but I need time to think so that I can properly communicate my feelings to you.”
  • “I am thrilled with this offer.  I am going to make sure I carefully consider this.  Can I get back to you soon?”

I usually try to keep the tone positive unless someone has been very offensive or upsetting.  If they are offensive or upsetting, I try to be true to my feelings.  For example, if someone says or does something inappropriate, “NO!” is perfectly acceptable.  And if someone says something humiliating or very offensive, I will usually say something like, “That is offensive and unacceptable.”

However, if someone has said something like, “the project deadline for your work has been moved up and so I am going to need you to put in some extra time,” I might feel a bit cornered.  On the one hand one feels obligated to do a good job at work.  On the other hand the new deadline might be unrealistic and lead to several sleepless nights.  I might need some time to assess the situation.  In such a case, I might say, “Wow.  That is a super tight deadline.  I have some things scheduled during that time that I may not be able to move.  Let me look into this further and get back to you.”

The magic words: “Let me get back to you.”  Say you need time to think, check your schedule, talk to your spouse, consult the astrological charts, whatever it takes to buy yourself that time that you need to figure out if you want to agree to do what is being asked of you or not.

Books on assertiveness

  1. The Courage to Be Yourself: A Woman’s Guide to Emotional Strength and Self-Esteem
  2. No More Mr Nice Guy
  3. People Skills: How to Assert Yourself, Listen to Others, and Resolve Conflicts
  4. Cool, Calm, and Confident: A Workbook to Help Kids Learn Assertiveness Skills
  5. The Guide to Compassionate Assertiveness: How to Express Your Needs and Deal with Conflict While Keeping a Kind Heart
  6. Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life
  7. Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, 3rd Edition: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships (Nonviolent Communication Guides)
  8. Assertiveness at Work: A Practical Guide to Handling Awkward Situations


How to be more assertive: if you feel you can’t say no, and you need extra time, please just help yourself to some extra time. Maybe you are already super-assertive, but for me, it took years to get to the point where assertiveness comes fairly naturally to me.  It took a lot of practice and experimentation with how to phrase things.  Fortunately, there are no shortage of opportunities to practice.  The joy of it is that you get your life back from people who take advantage of your kindness and desire to say “yes” immediately.

Once you begin to practice being assertive and start getting the hang of it, you will probably feel like it is almost like magic.  I did.  Situations that used to make me nervous or panic-filled are now situations I can approach with confidence now that I know how to be more assertive.  I know that if I feel cornered, I won’t go into fight/flight/freeze mode.  I will take care of myself andtake all the time I need to properly respond to the situation as opposed to being forced to react in the moment.

And, as for the other assertiveness techniques?  Let me get back to you on those.  Just kidding.  You can read about them here: 9 Assertiveness techniques to use in any situation.

Further reading:

What is the assertive response?  Assertive communication examples

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