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Assertiveness

How to exercise self control with assertiveness so that you win the opportunity to choose consciously how you respond and get the result that you want

Within Push, we talk about pushing forward and pushing back.  There are many occasions when HR people need to take a stand, hold a position, handle a conflict situation, or manage resistance.  To get best results, this needs to be done in a constructive way that maintains the relationship as well as HR’s credibility.

First, let’s define what we mean by assertiveness, as this word can be interpreted differently in different cultures.  To do this, we need to start with behaviours that are NOT assertive.

As humans, it is natural for us to fall into being aggressive, or passive - to reflect the natural order of society

This reflects the fundamental family heirarchy – it’s instinctive.  Family life can work better when everyone knows their place.  It can be very subtle, however, in organisations.

In aggressive behaviour, the underlying belief is that your point of view is more important than others.  It can be expressed by behaviours that are controlling or dominant, such as a raised voice or talking over others.  In corporate life, there are many ways that people can be manipulative without raising their voices.

In passive behaviour, the underlying belief is that your point of view is less important than that of others.  It can be expressed in silence, or avoidance, or saying yes when your gut says no.  In corporate life this often means people going along with something for an easy life – or because they really believe someone else knows better than they do.

Assertiveness is a learned behaviour

Many parents start teaching this when their children are young, by showing respect as well as demanding it.  It is the most effective behaviour style.  People like assertion in others.  They like to know where they stand.  They tend to respond with openness and directness, which helps you learn where you stand too.

Assertiveness doesn’t mean winning all the time, or getting your own way.  You can choose whether to behave assertively or not – and it is important to make that choice conscious.  In some circumstances, being assertive will result in an agreement which is less than you set out to achieve – but you will have made a conscious decision to find a middle road which respects the rights of both parties – the win-win situation.

Assertiveness mindset

We all have rights, and the assertive mindset stems from two basic beliefs about human beings:

  • that all people are equal (although not the same)
  • that we are all entitled to freedom, eg. of opinion.


It is OK to

  • have opinions, feelings and ideals and to express them in an appropriate way.
  • have our opinions, feelings and ideas listened to and respected.
  • to ask for what we want or need, and to have others respond suitably
  • to say ‘no’ and not feel guilty or selfish
  • to make choices

Beliefs drive behaviour

You can see that to truly hold these beliefs would drive assertive behaviour.

We talk in our section on understanding resilience about our instinctive, deeply rooted tendency to react rather than to respond thoughtfully.  This is what we have to control in order to make a conscious choice about what we do or say next.

We must recognise that we will have this automatic response first – whether it’s a thought or a feeling, there may be a negative response.  The passive response would be to stifle them, try to ignore them, and they manifest themselves in some other way – often through our body language.  Alternatively we allow our feelings to burst out in a display of reactive behaviour.

The choice to be assertive

Assertive behaviour expresses itself verbally in concise statements which make it clear what you want.  It is more assertive to speak as ‘I’, which shows accountability.  It is also valuable to use facts and evidence rather than opinion, eg:

  • ‘My idea is to test one aspect of flexible working at a time’
  • ‘I would like to move to a new supplier’
  • ‘The new method works well for me’


The words and the music need to work together: alongside confident and clear statements, the body should be kept still and calm.

Assertiveness delivers better outcomes

Combined with effective listening, empathy and generous curiosity about the other person’s position, this approach is rewarding in terms of self-confidence as well as results.

Assertiveness also underpins effective influencing, and building trust.

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