How To Become More Assertive

Follow the ’problem, feeling, ask‘ technique to communicate clearly and effectively
Two people talk in a business environment with a landscape window in background.

Do you tend to stand up for yourself? Are you known for expressing yourself and your feelings effectively? If so, you may have mastered the art of assertive communication.

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But for many of us, the word “assertive” can have some negative connotations. We may worry about coming across as pushy or aggressive.

Implementing assertive communication into your life can help you work through problems or issues with others, boost your self-esteem and ease stress when a tough situation arises.

So, how do we become more assertive?

Pediatric psychologist Amy Lee, PhD, shares how to be assertive and explains a simple technique we can use.

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is communicating your point while respecting what others think and feel.

“Being assertive is standing up for yourself without aggression or retaliation,” explains Dr. Lee. “Assertiveness is focused on doing what’s right, what’s true and speaking up for the greater good.”

There’s a fine line between being seen as assertive and aggressive. But there’s a key difference, says Dr. Lee.

“Aggressive behavior seeks to dominate, harm or instill fear,” she clarifies. “Assertive behavior is responding — not reacting — to problematic interpersonal situations thoughtfully, mindfully and calmly.”

And being assertive is a better way to deal with difficulties or concerns instead of acting passive aggressively.

“When we talk about passive aggressive behavior, sometimes, people aren’t aware they’re acting that way,” Dr. Lee further explains. “It’s an emotional defense mechanism. The problem with passive aggressive behavior is how you react. You tend to act in ways that are indirectly designed to hurt versus to resolve problems. And it’s more aggressive and designed to provoke harm in some way — without necessarily resolving the underlying issue.”

How to be more assertive

Dr. Lee says there are a variety of strategies to help someone become more assertive. She shares a simplified version that can work in a many different situations.

And it’s an easy formula to remember:

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  1. Problem.
  2. Feeling.
  3. Ask.

When you’re in a situation where you feel you’re not being heard, feel frustrated or are struggling to communicate how you feel, this technique can help give you a roadmap on how to talk to someone assertively.

Take a deep breath

Let’s walk through a situation where you might need to assert yourself. The example: A co-worker ignores you in the breakroom. You wonder if you did something to upset them.

Start off by taking a deep breath to try to center yourself. By doing so, you’re giving yourself a chance to evaluate your emotions and how you’re feeling. You may need five minutes or few days before you’re ready to approach the topic.

“It’s OK to take time — take a day or two,” advises Dr. Lee. “You want to take time to make sure you’re calm and clear before you start a discussion.”

Describe your problem

When you’re ready to talk, the next step is to describe your problem.

“You want to stay focused on yourself and stay in your own perspective,” notes Dr. Lee. “You want to be careful about making assumptions about another person’s perspective or intentions.”

And this can be done by using “I” statements. Others are less likely to be defensive and are more likely to hear what you’re saying when you use these kinds of statements.

In our example, you might say to your co-worker: “The other day when we were in the breakroom, I noticed you didn’t say hello when I said hi.”

Explain how you feel

Though it may be hard to articulate how you feel, this is an important step.

Keep using “I” statements for this step — you don’t want to guess how the other person is feeling or what their intentions were.

“Using ‘I’ statements allows the other person to hear your thoughts and feelings,” reiterates Dr. Lee. “Those type of statements are hard to argue against. Another person can’t say you didn’t feel like that.”

In our example, you might say to your-co-worker: “I’ve been worried about what may have happened that day and wonder if things are OK between us.”

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Make an ask

The last step is to ask a question. It can be as simple as, “Can we talk?”

“Sometimes it’s a request such as, ‘Can we talk about it?’ Or sometimes, it’s a request to do something different,” says Dr. Lee.

By asking a question, you’re opening up a conversation.

“Following these steps and ending with a question is an empathic way of approaching problem-solving,” she continues. “You’re asking for consent to discuss an issue.”

In our example, you might ask your co-worker: “Can we talk about it?” or “Are things OK between us?”

The goal is that you can have a healthy dialogue about how you both feel and come to a solution.

But what do you do if you follow this technique and still have no resolution?

“That’s where having the formula of ‘problem, feeling, ask’ is helpful,” says Dr. Lee. “It’s meant to help us not get distracted by other people’s emotions or their reactions to us. If you get off track or feel thrown off by the way someone reacts to you, go back to beginning and repeat the sequence. It can help you stay in your own lane and not get into an argument that gets off topic.”

The bottom line?

Learning how to be assertive can be beneficial in many facets of your life — and you’ll be able to troubleshoot issues as they arise.

“By being assertive, you can address problems with the goal of resolving them. Without assertiveness, we’re less likely to resolve problems,” says Dr. Lee. “Assertiveness is a way to protect oneself or protect a group — and it’s a very honest, truthful way to approach problems.”

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