Working WITH People, Not Against Them

Stand firm when you need to.

© iStockphoto/JayKay57

Do you consider yourself to be assertive? And what does being assertive mean to you? Does it mean exercising your rights all the time, every time? Or does it mean knowing when to let someone else or some other cause or outcome take precedence over your rights?

Is the boss who places a pile of work on an employee's desk the afternoon before that employee goes on vacation being assertive? Or, is the employee who is about to go on vacation being assertive when she tells the boss that the work will be done upon her return?

It's not always easy to identify truly assertive behavior. This is because there is a fine line between assertiveness and aggression. Some definitions are helpful when trying to separate the two:

Assertiveness is based on balance. It requires being forthright about your wants and needs while still considering the rights, needs, and wants of others. When you are assertive, you ask for what you want but you don't necessarily get it.

Aggressive behavior is based on winning. It requires that you do what is in your own best interest without regard for the rights, needs, feelings or desires of others. When you are aggressive, you take what you want regardless, and you don't usually ask.

So, that boss was being aggressive. Yes, he had work that needed to be done. However, by dumping it on his employee at such an inappropriate time, he showed a total lack of regard for the needs and feeling of his employee.

The employee on the other hand, demonstrated assertive behavior when she informed her boss that the work would be done, but it would be done after she returned from vacation. She asserted her rights while recognizing her boss' need to get the job done.

Being assertive is not necessarily easy, but it is a skill that can be learned. Developing your assertiveness starts with a good understanding of who you are and a belief in the value you bring. When you have that, you have the basis of self-confidence  . Assertiveness helps to build on that self-confidence and provides many other benefits for improving your relationships at work and in other areas of your life as well. In general, assertive people:

  • Get to "win-win" more easily – they see the value in their opponent and in his/her position, and can quickly find common ground.
  • Are better problem solvers – they feel empowered to do whatever it takes to find the best solution.
  • Are less stressed – they know they have personal power and they don't feel threatened or victimized when things don't go as planned or expected.
  • Are doers – they get things done because they know they can.

When you act assertively you act fairly and with empathy. The power you use comes from your self-assurance and not from intimidation or bullying. When you treat others with such fairness and respect, you get that same treatment in return. You are well liked and people see you as a leader and someone they want to work with.

Developing Your Assertiveness

Some people are naturally more assertive than others. If your disposition tends more towards being either passive or aggressive, you need to work on the following skills to develop your assertiveness.

Value yourself and your rights

  • Understand that your rights, thoughts, feelings, needs and desires are just as important as everyone else's.
  • But remember they are not more important than anyone else's, either.
  • Recognise your rights and protect them.
  • Believe you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity at all times.
  • Stop apologizing for everything.

Identify your needs and wants, and ask for them to be satisfied

  • Don't wait for someone to recognize what you need (you might wait forever!)
  • Understand that to perform to your full potential, your needs must be met.
  • Find ways to get your needs met without sacrificing others' needs in the process.

Acknowledge that people are responsible for their own behavior

  • Don't make the mistake of accepting responsibility for the how people react to your assertive statements (e.g. anger, resentment). You can only control yourself.
  • As long as you are not violating someone else's needs, then you have the right to say or do what you want.

Express negative thoughts and feelings in a healthy and positive manner

  • Allow yourself to be angry, but always be respectful.
  • Do say what's on your mind, but do it in a way that protects the other person's feelings.
  • Control your emotions.
  • Stand up for yourself and confront people who challenge you and/or your rights.

Receive criticism and compliments positively

  • Accept compliments graciously.
  • Allow yourself to make mistakes and ask for help.
  • Accept feedback positively – be prepared to say you don't agree but do not get defensive or angry.

Learn to say "No" when you need to. This is the granddaddy of assertiveness!

  • Know your limits and what will cause you to feel taken advantage of.
  • Know that you can't do everything or please everyone and learn to be OK with that.
  • Go with what is right for you.
  • Suggest an alternative for a win-win solution.

Assertive Communication Techniques

There are a variety of ways to communicate assertively. By understanding how to be assertive, you can quickly adapt these techniques to any situation you are facing.

I statements

Use "I want.", "I need." or "I feel." to convey basic assertions.

I feel strongly that we need to bring in a third party to mediate this disagreement.

Empathic Assertion

First, recognize how the other person views the situation:

I understand you are having trouble working with Arlene.

Then, express what you need:

...however, this project needs to be completed by Friday. Let's all sit down and come up with a plan to get it done.

Escalating Assertion

This type of assertiveness is necessary when your first attempts are not successful in getting your needs met.

The technique involves getting more and more firm as time goes on. It may end in you telling the person what you will do next if you do not receive satisfaction. Remember though, regardless of the consequences you give, you may not get what you want in the end.

John, this is the third time this week I've had to speak to you about arriving late. If you are late one more time this month, I will activate the disciplinary process.

Ask for More Time

Sometimes, you just need to put off saying anything. You might be too emotional or you might really not know what you want. Be honest and tell the person you need a few minutes to compose your thoughts.

Dave, your request has caught me off guard. I'll get back to you within the half hour.

Change Your Verbs

  • Use 'won't' instead of can't'
  • Use 'want' instead of 'need'
  • Use 'choose to' instead of 'have to'
  • Use 'could' instead of 'should'.

Broken Record

Prepare ahead of time the message you want to convey:

I cannot take on any more projects right now.

During the conversation, keep restating your message using the same language over and over again. Don't relent. Eventually the person is likely to realize that you really mean what you are saying.

I would like you to work on the Clancy project.

I cannot take on any more projects right now.

I'll pay extra for you accommodating me.

I cannot take on any more projects right now.

Seriously, this is really important, my boss insists this gets done.

I cannot take on any more projects right now.

Will you do it as a personal favor?

I'm sorry, I value our past relationship but I simply cannot take on any more projects right now.


Be careful with the broken record technique. If you use it to protect yourself from exploitation, that's good. However if you use it to bully someone into taking action that's against their interests, it's manipulative, dishonest and bad.


This technique involves preparing your responses using a four-pronged approach that describes:

  1. The event: tell the other person exactly how you see the situation or problem.
    Jacob, the production costs this month are 23% higher than average. You didn't give me any indication of this, which meant that I was completely surprised by the news.
  2. Your feelings: describe how you feel about express your emotions clearly.
    This frustrates me and makes me feel like you don't understand or appreciate how important financial controls are in the company.
  3. Your needs: tell the other person what you need so they don't have to guess.
    I need you to be honest with me and let me know when we start going significantly over budget on anything.
  4. The consequences: describe the positive outcome if your needs are fulfilled.
    I'm here to help you and support you in any way I can. If you trust me, then together we can turn this around.

Once you are clear about what you want to say and express, it is much easier to actually do it.

Key Points

Being assertive means knowing where the fine line is between assertion and aggression and balancing on it. It means having a strong sense of yourself and acknowledging that you deserve to get what you want. And it means standing up for yourself even in the most difficult situations.

Assertiveness can be learned and developed, and although it won't happen overnight, by practicing the techniques presented here you will slowly become more confident in expressing your needs and wants. As your assertiveness improves, so will your productivity and efficiency. Start today and begin to see how being assertive allows you to work with people to accomplish tasks, solve problems, and reach solutions.

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Comments (59)
  • Reader100 wrote Over a month ago
    Very nice article. I'd like to recommend a small revision however... in your article, you state to use "won't" instead of "can't" yet in the section immediately following it you use several examples with the word "cannot". This could use some clarification. Thanks for the superb article.
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi ludwinbarbin

    Welcome to the Club and also the forums. It's great to hear your thoughts and I'm curious to know more of your personal experience with being assertive. I think assertiveness is the art of making your thoughts known, but doing it in such a way that you make it extremely difficult for someone else to be offended. I'd like to know more of what you think...?

    Just on another note: please let us know if you need any help around the Club - one of us is always here to help. And feel free to post your ideas and challenges in Career Cafe Central - that is where we all help and learn from one another. Looking forward to 'seeing' you around!

    Kind regards
  • ludwinbarbin wrote Over a month ago
    Always use this technique with caution especially when dealing with superiors.

    There's a tendency of it backfiring.

    Keep your cool and make sure that your assertive level is always lower than others.

    The idea behind assertiveness is to get across your point. And you do this by "sticking your behind". Once you've done that, it's time to get back to your normal self.
  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    HI aarkwill,
    You give us an excellent reminder to use 'and' rather than 'but' or 'however'. Using 'and' does indeed honour both points, even if we are strongly in favour of one!

    When we use 'but' or 'however', it actually negates what was previously said. So, at one level, it is as if we never said the first part of the sentence!

    Hope to see more of you around with more excellent reminders!
  • aarkwill wrote Over a month ago
    Don't forget that conjunctions like "but" and "however" may put the recipient on the defensive. Honor concurrent realities with "and" to make sure you acknowledge both situations. Just emphasize the one that has to ultimately be honored without dismissing the challenge or obstacle the person you're talking to is facing, and it will improve these techniques and how your message is received even more.

    Great article!
  • elliemayson89 wrote Over a month ago

    Thank you. Yes, by speaking helped resolved the current situation. I do feel good that I was able to speak. My main concern are the children, I feel I'm not only speaking for myself, but also for them. Their safety, and learning are the reasons why the parents leave their children in our care. I hold this as one of my great priority when entering my class room. I feel this is what I was hired for, not only by the company, but as well the parents.

    Thank you
  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Hi Karrie

    It's so good to get some feedback from our members and I'm glad to hear that you were able to speak to your boss and the situation was taken care of. As you say, a little compromise etc goes a long way, but I am almost certain that you feel more empowered and in control simply because you were able to speak your mind. Bosses aren't always happy...but if everybody agrees about absolutely everything and now ever challenges the status quo...a lot of us would really be redundant. Well done!

    Kind regards
  • elliemayson89 wrote Over a month ago
    Thank you all for such a great insight on this topic. It seems I need to learn how to be more assertive. I am a very easy person to get along with, I work well with others. My assertive side does not come out much, unless like you said, "brood" on it long enough. Once this happens, my voice doesn't raise, I just speak more firmly. Only because I want to be heard, not push over.
    I took a lot of consideration to all suggestions, I did speak the boss, she was not happy, but the child has been replaced back into his own age group, In consideration of other co-worker, when my teaching with my children are completed, which is usually done in morning, and I take the children outdoors, I will take the younger child with me to play with the other children. With a little comprise, and working together, it seems to have help in some areas.
    Thank you. I will be exploring more of the forum. I usually print out readings and read in between work and school. I plan for weekends, to learn more of the club.

  • Yolande wrote Over a month ago
    Sometimes I also wish I could be more assertive in public, but I don't like drawing attention in public and then rather keep quiet in case the other person reacts badly.

    But isn't it sometimes harder to be assertive with loved ones? Even though we have relationships to maintain, I find that I will sometimes turn around and walk away even though I should have stood my ground.

  • Midgie wrote Over a month ago
    I think Lulu sums it up quite nicely for me - does it really matter I tend to assert myself more depending on the situation and whether it matters or not.

    In the case of trying to study on the train, I would be tempted to change carriages if possible. Otherwise, I'd say something and ask them politely if they could tone down their voices because I was trying to study.

    I do find it rude when people hold loud conversations with others, or on their mobile phones, in small spaces such as on the train. I just see it as they want people to notice them in some way so by going up and speaking to them, you've effectively 'noticed them'. Granted, some people not care what other thinks and continue on, raising their voices even more!

    Bottom line, if it is affecting you either address it by saying something or move.

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