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Our relationships with others are an incredibly important part of our wellbeing. However, it is rare for relationships not to involve difference of opinion or conflict [please add hyperlink to managing conflict page] from time to time. This means that it is important to develop skills in asserting your needs and effectively managing difficult interactions with others. 


Being Assertive 

Being assertive is about expressing your needs while also taking into account the other person’s needs. It is an approach you take and effects how you behave, speak, think and feel about situations you encounter.  

Some people worry that if they become assertive they will come across as aggressive and may cause conflict. They therefore find it easier to retreat to passivity. For some, this passivity can lead to frustration building up perhaps leading to occasional outbursts of anger. Assertive communication can help to avoid such frustration or resentment from building up and can also develop confidence and improve relationships. 

I was raised to be ‘nice’ which is fine, I guess, except that ‘nice’ meant never saying what you wanted, never saying ‘no’, and never having an opinion different from anyone else.  

I thought the only way to be assertive was to shout and get red in the face. It took a while to learn that I could be honest, be myself, and still be considered ‘nice’. 

Listen to the Podcast about Assertive Communication

Common myths about assertiveness:

I can't be assertive, it's not in my nature

Some people feel they can’t be assertive because it’s not their style but assertiveness is a skill, not a personality trait. Like any new skill it feels awkward at first but becomes more comfortable as you get better at it.

Assertiveness is about controlling other people's behaviour

Many people think that assertiveness is all about controlling others. But more often it is about letting others behave as they like and controlling ourselves instead. You make clear what your position is and then let the other person do as they please once they have that information.

I must be assertive all the time  

Some situations call for more assertiveness than others. When you are at your grandmother’s home you might accept a poured cup of tea even after you have said you don’t want one. And when you are alone with someone you know to be violent it may not be safe for you to be assertive. But when you are safe and when the issue is important to you, assertiveness generally leads to better results than the alternatives.

I must respond immediately to be assertive 

Some people think of the right thing to say after the discussion is over. They get talked into things and then kick themselves later. You have the right to delay your answers. If you realize during a discussion that you would like to be more assertive but can’t think of what to say, ask for time. Use phrases like “I can’t answer that right now,” or “I’ll let you know when I’ve had a chance to think about it.” This will give you the time you need to think the situation through. As assertiveness becomes a habit, it will be easier for you to come up with what you want to say much quicker.

Assertiveness is just for conflict situations  

Being assertive means generally being more open and genuine, and being willing and able to share and express your inner feelings and ideas. The more you feel free to be yourself, the less tension there will be in your ongoing relationships. Being assertive in close or intimate relationships opens communication channels.

man with thumbs up

What does being passive, aggressive or assertive look like?

People show different behaviours, say different things and react in different ways depending on whether they are being passive, aggressive or assertive. Here are some of the tell-tell signs of each: 

General Approach and BeliefsGeneral Approach and BeliefsGeneral Approach and Beliefs

Compliant, Submissive

Your needs are more important than mine

Respectful of self and others

Both of our needs are equally important

Critical, disrespectful of others

My needs are more important than yours

  • Avoids eye contact
  • Hesitant
  • Head down
  • looks uncomfortable
  • Withdrawn posture
  • Looks nervous
  • Looks calm
  • Upright but relaxed posture
  • Casual hand movements
  • Occasional head nodding
  • Genuine, relaxed smile
  • Firm but pleasant tone
  • Invades personal space
  • Pointing wagging finger
  • Looks tense
  • Starring without blinking
  • Quick, jerky movements
  • Confrontational

Gives in to others. Doesn't get their needs met.

Negative self- worth. Feels sad and deflated.

Good relationships with others. Positive

feeling of self-worth. Feels satisfied.

Struggles to connect with others. Negative

self-worth. Feels upset, angry and resentful.

smiley face

ok face

cross face

Assertiveness it is a skill that can be learnt and developed, but takes practice. 

Top tips for being assertive 

  • Use ‘I’ Statements

I statements allow you to take responsibility for your feelings while also helping the other person to understand how their actions are affecting you. I statements tend to use the following format: 

“I feel ________ when you ________ because _________” 

  • Put yourself in their shoes

Try to understand the situation from the other person’s point of view. This isn’t just a case of thinking ‘How would I feel in this situation…?’ but it also involves thinking about how they may experience the situation.

  • Focus on communication

Talking about how you are feeling and encouraging the other person to talk about how they are feeling is the best way to really understand each other and make sure that both of your needs are understood and met. 

  • Don't give in

If you feel the other person is not listening to you, this doesn’t mean you have to give up and go along with what they want. As a minimum a compromise should be identified. 

Having Difficult Conversations

Assertiveness is often particularly important when you need to have a difficult, awkward or challenging conversation with someone.  

 Difficult Conversations 

  • Asking someone for something 
  • Telling someone ‘no’ 
  • Giving feedback 
  • Sharing something that makes you feel vulnerable 
  • Expressing an opinion that is different 
  • Asking for someone to change their behaviour 
  • Giving someone bad news 

Conversations like these can feel challenging because they have the potential to create feelings that may be uncomfortable. It can be difficult to remain calm resulting in either person behaving in ways that they regret. It is common for people for worry about there being repercussions from difficult conversations such as feeling rejected, threatened or ignored. 

However, having difficult conversations allows you to understand how both of you are feeling and increases the chance of a identifying a solution that works for both of you, which will ultimately improve the quality of your relationship. 

Preparing for a difficult conversation 

 When preparing for a difficult conversation, it can be helpful to consider the following: 

Be clear in advance about what you are wanting to get out of the conversation 

  • What is the key issue that you want resolved? 
  • What would need to be different in order for this to happen?

Think about the practicalities of having the conversation 

  • Where will it take place? Try to pick somewhere neutral where both of you will feel comfortable. 
  • Who will be there? Only include people that are necessary for the conversation. This may include both of you having someone there for support. 
  • When will it take place? Pick a time that is mutually convenient. 

Think about how you are going to communicate your thoughts, ideas and needs. 

  • Plan what you are going to say in advance. 
  • Practice what you are going to say with someone you trust and ask for honest feedback. 
  • Refer to the assertiveness approach and how you can communicate assertiveness with your body language. 
  • Remember to use lots of ‘I’ statements. 

Think about what you want to happen next. 

  • Consider what you expect from the relationship going forward. 
  • Anticipate what actions both of you might need to take to resolve the situation.  
  • Expect that it is likely that both you and they are going to need to compromise.  

If you are struggling with assertiveness and your wellbeing is being affected you may want to seek further advice and support. Wellbeing and Student Support

are available with Brief Consultation sessions from 10am to 3pm, Monday to Friday, via our Wellbeing Portal or call Wellbeing and Student Support

on 024 7657 5570.  

 Additional Resources: 

Available from the University Library: 



Basic introduction to assertiveness skills 

Sue Bishop 

Short booklet providing a summary of assertiveness 


This book will help you to understand yourself a bit better and learn to respect yourself, so that you can gain confidence and assertiveness in your everyday life. The life skills contained are based on fully researched psychological theory 


This workbook combines science and the clinical experience of the author to help people currently struggling with assertiveness difficulties. It is written in a sensitive and readable style, and the workbook format helps you to build on what you have previously learnt, in a structured fashion 

Randy J Paterson 

Mary Hartley suggests ways of dealing confidently and assertively with people in a range of situations. She provides a series of practical exercises designed to help you develop a positive style of behavior based on self-respect and respecting others. 

Mary Hartley 

First published in the 1930s, this classic best-selling self-help book still has useful things to say about building social confidence and social skills 

Dale Carnegie 

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