Assertiveness: What It Is & How To Be Assertive At Work

by Jennifer Harper

Learning the art and skill of being assertive at work can develop your career, build your confidence, improve your career progression and your relationships. In essence, assertiveness is a route towards achieving respect and results, while developing the skill of ensuring your point of view is heard. When career-changing, it is also helpful to show assertiveness.

However, being assertive and knowing how to use this skill doesn’t come easily to everyone – so you’ll be glad to hear that assertiveness is a positive skill that you can learn and develop. But, importantly, you can do it in a way that will be respectful and form healthy relationships. The bonus is that assertiveness is a skill that is extremely useful at home as well as at work.


So, how many times have you sat in a meeting and admired someone who speaks up, clearly states their case and miraculously diffuses disagreements or solves problems? Equally, how many times have you witnessed a team member speak up, cause offence and create disharmony through their contribution? Here we have two people trying to do the same thing, but one is being ‘assertive’ and the other is coming across as ‘aggressive’. The two approaches frequently get confused, so what’s the difference?

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is communicating in a controlled, professional, respectful and friendly manner. It is about staying true to your values, standing up for what you believe to be right, but doing so in a positive and calm way that clearly sets out and maintains professional boundaries, while also being diplomatic. Assertiveness is an extremely useful skill to use in the workplace, but it is one that can be developed, so don’t worry if you are thinking ‘I don’t know how to be assertive.

Acting in an assertive manner take others’ views, concerns and positions into consideration, but it also offers a well-thought-through option. An assertive person will not take offence if their suggestion is not implemented, but they will try to understand the overall needs of the group, company or project. Being assertive will also be delivered with a conscious understanding of how you are using your voice, the tone you are using, as well as your body language – so speaking calmly, clearly and having an open stance.

In contrast, coming across in an ‘aggressive’ manner can be seen as stubborn, and unwilling to compromise or listen to others’ views. The difference between assertiveness and aggression is huge. Those who act with aggression rarely consider others’ feelings, and they will very rarely acknowledge others’ successes. People who act aggressively are rarely met with warm and open responses – instead, they are often met with hostile reactions. Whereas, when being assertive you will have considered the impact on other people, and you will gladly praise others (after all, you want to work with a positive and proactive team who will look after each other and celebrate their individual and team achievements).

Examples of assertiveness

Before we look at ways you can learn to be assertive, let’s explore some examples:

Scenario One – It’s Wednesday lunchtime and your boss asks you to prepare a portfolio of work by Friday morning for an important client pitch. You have a small window within which you can work on this. So what do you do? Do you panic, work until midnight on Wednesday and Thursday at the expense of your other work? Or do you be assertive and find a suitable solution?

Response – You approach your boss, and acknowledge the importance of the work. Briefly state your restricted time, but offer to delegate and oversee the work being done by one or two other members of the team who have more free time to complete by Friday morning. You have regular check-in meetings to assess the work being completed and ensure the deadline is met.

Result – By being assertive you have acknowledged the relevance of the instruction, you have continued to give it priority, however, you have identified a route to completing it, and have maintained your responsibility and accountability by overseeing the work, as well as involving the team.

Scenario Two – You are in a work meeting. People are talking over each other and you can sense tension in the air. You agree with some of the arguments and can see everyone’s point of view. What do you do? Do you allow the team to fall apart? Do you say nothing? Or do you be assertive and offer a solution?

Response – You address the group and say ‘I think we’ve come up with some really great examples but I can see we have lots of differing opinions. In my experience, this would be a great time to focus on the key points we need to achieve and see which examples meet the agenda we are all working to achieve. Does anyone have any questions or concerns before we move on to identifying a plan?’

Result – By being assertive you have diffused the cross-over conversation. You have spoken clearly and with clarity. You have offered a route forward to refine ideas and move towards a solution and decision. You have taken responsibility but acted to keep the team working towards the same goal.

How can I be more assertive?

We have defined what assertiveness is, and have looked at a couple of examples, so let’s now explore actions you can take to build and develop your own assertiveness:

Feelings and Emotions

Be aware of your feelings during confrontational situations. Do you start to feel angry? Scared? Or reluctant to speak? Try to understand those feelings and ask ‘are these feelings rational?’ In other words, is this worth getting angry over? What have you got to be scared of? By paying attention to your feelings and emotions you are better equipped to control them and then respond in a different way.


Pick Your Moments

Identify when it is important to be assertive and when it is less critical. For instance, you may feel strongly when advocating for the rights of a client, but feel less inclined to ask for a 12.30pm lunch break over a 1pm break. In essence, recognise what really matters and when.

Be Clear

When offering a suggestion, proposal or asking a question, be clear and concise in what you are saying. Do not waffle, and do not try to offer excuses.


Be Positive

Be aware of the language you use. Using ‘I would like’, ‘I will’, ‘I need you to’, ‘I feel’ and ‘I understand’ statements are positive and state what is required. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed into a situation either – repeat your statement if necessary in order to remain positive.

Listen and Empathise

Actively listening to others’ suggestions or needs enables you to empathise with their situation. When dealing with an irate customer, if they recognise that you are taking the time to listen and trying to see their side of an argument, this can help to diffuse the situation.

For instance, saying ‘I can see that you are upset, and I recognise your concerns’ followed by ‘at the moment I can do this, however, I will need to speak to my supervisor about…’ is an assertive approach – you are acknowledging their distress. You are diffusing a difficult situation while taking control, and without compromising the integrity of your company. The same approach can be used in meetings with colleagues.

Recognise Your Worth

Recognising your experience, your abilities and your strengths (commitment, adaptability, enthusiasm, organisational skills etc) can help you to see that your opinions are just as relevant as the next person’s. Understand the role that you play and how your experience and perspective benefit others.

Acknowledge Others’ Efforts

Being assertive is not just about asking for your own needs to be met. It is about standing up for what is right for the team, a client, or a department. This can mean acknowledging when another member of staff has a good idea, but assertiveness is evident when you see how this idea could be developed further.

For instance, ‘I love Jeff’s idea. If we take Jeff’s proposal as the starting point, developing that into a monthly outcome could create essential data to help later decision-making….’ This shows you are recognising a team member’s positive proposal but are able to look at the bigger picture and see its longer-term benefit.

Say ‘No’

Are you that person who everyone dumps lots of work on without asking if you have time? Recognise how long this work will take, and what impact it will have on your other commitments – relay this to the person/boss assertively. For example: ‘I can happily complete this work, however, it will be on Wednesday as my time is taken up with completing the Economic team’s project today and tomorrow.’ Using this approach, you are pleasantly, but clearly, setting out your workload and giving a definite time when you can look at it. The person/boss then has the option of giving this work to someone else if it needs to be completed sooner.

Practice being assertive

Learning to be assertive can take time. Think about instances at work, or amongst friends, when you could have been more assertive. Practice what you might have said. Consider meetings coming up – what problems might arise? Considering statements or answers in advance can help your confidence and ultimately boost your ability to be assertive.

Suggested further learning:

Now listen to this podcast which explores ‘As a first time manager, how can I communicate more assertively?’ - Let's Work It Out Episode 31: As a first time manager, how can I communicate more assertively? by Let's Work It Out

Facing a work-related challenge where assertiveness is causing you challenges? Grab a free 30-minute coaching session with a qualified professional here.

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