Understanding Assertiveness

When leading a workshop, you want to stay in control so participants aren’t walking all over you. However, you also don’t want to scare participants away. You want to have an assertive attitude.

Assertiveness is a word we tend to use not always understanding what it means. Assertiveness is not about getting your own way and it is not a way to manipulate people so you get your own way while you look like you are being considerate. Those are aggressive traits. Rather, assertive people express their feelings, needs, and opinions in a forthright manner, while respecting how other people feel and think. Assertive people stop short of the abrasive manner that is the hallmark of the aggressive person.

As we explore the differences among assertive, passive, and aggressive behaviors, you may begin to feel that a little assertiveness is just what you need to cut through many of the interpersonal problems that spring up every day and in training workshops.

Often the best way to understand something is by comparison, so we’ll do a little of that here.

People can have difficulty being assertive. They choose passive responses to life, perhaps to avoid conflict. They feel helpless, insecure, or resentful, and have a difficult time saying “no.” They may feel defensive but unable to defend themselves.

On the other hand, people may also be arrogant, pompous, and presumptuous to compensate for feelings of inadequacy. They may yell, argue, and cajole to get what they want. They meet life in an aggressive way.

The assertive person is someone who communicates with others on the best of all possible levels, where there are no losers, fools, or enemies—just two people who are mutually trying to solve their problems.

Assertiveness is behaviour that allows a person to express honest feelings in a straightforward way and to exercise personal rights without changing or threatening the rights of others. Assertive people feel positive about themselves and others. They are willing to give others a chance to be reasonable before using less positive tactics. They want to openly discuss problems based on facts and needs. Assertion is based on respect for you and respect for the other person.

Aggressive Behaviour


  • Needs and wants are taken care of in a forceful and self-serving way


  • Self-serving
  • Demanding
  • Dogmatic
  • Competitive
  • Pushy
  • Uses intimidation, power, and status
  • Insensitive
  • Strong need to control and dominate others
  • Fears rejection
  • Impatient
  • Temperamental

Major Consequences

  • May accomplish personal desire and goals
  • Tends to alienate people, create distrust and tension, and undermine the ability to establish lasting and healthy relationships

Manipulative or Passive-Aggressive Behaviour


  • Needs and wants are taken care of in an indirect, cunning, deceptive, and crafty way with ulterior motives in mind


  • Game player (using pouting, looking hurt, silence, dropping hints, flirting, giving or withholding attention or caring, and other indirect methods to manipulate people)
  • Uses double messages (say one thing and mean another)
  • Hides real feelings and intentions
  • Inward feelings and outward expressions often incongruent
  • Rebellious
  • Gets defensive and angry when caught manipulating
  • Strong need for approval and attention
  • Insecure but wears facade
  • Distrusts others

Major Consequences

  • May be successful in manipulating others in indirect ways
  • Undermines credibility and trust
  • Causes self to lose touch with real self and real feelings

Passive Behaviour


  • Needs and wants are taken care of by suppressing them or maneuvering others to take care of them
  • Also use manipulative behaviours to get others to take care of them


  • Denies needs, subordinates them to others, or manipulates others to take care of them
  • Often plays martyr role
  • Creates conditions in which others will take the lead or make decisions
  • Follower
  • Tries to do what they think others expect of them
  • Lacks self-confidence
  • Easily intimidated and controlled by others
  • Indecisive
  • Moody
  • Occasionally cashes in on stored-up anger and feelings
  • Uncertain about who they are

Major Consequences

  • May result in some needs getting met
  • Often results in sacrificing needs, getting them met in inappropriate ways, and the loss of identity and ability to take care of self

Assertive Behaviour


  • Needs and wants are taken care of by knowing, accepting, and acting on them in constructive, straightforward, and authentic ways.


  • Caring
  • Genuine
  • Sensitive to the needs and feelings of others
  • Unselfish
  • Expresses needs and feelings in constructive and straightforward ways
  • Persistent without being offensive
  • Levels and confronts from caring and reasonable position
  • Good sense of timing and judgment about when to assert themselves
  • Self-confident
  • Calm in a crisis

Major Consequences

  • Able to know and take care of needs in a constructive way without doing so at the expense of others

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