A Recipe for Assertive Behavior

Not too hard and not too soft

Posted Nov 02, 2020

Assertiveness is a vital social skill and core component of emotional intelligence. Because interpersonal conflict is common in life, we need an effective way to handle these situations, and assertive behavior is that way.

The reason is this: When two people’s needs are in conflict, no solution can be adequate unless both sets of needs are addressed, at least to some extent—and that’s what assertiveness is about. It doesn’t mean both people get what they want, but it means there is an attempt to acknowledge, respect, and try to meet both people’s needs, while taking care not to make things worse.

The Goldilocks Response to Conflict

Possible responses to conflict exist on a spectrum. At one extreme, there is aggressive behavior, in which the person behaves as if only her feelings and goals are important, and the other person’s needs don’t count. (This is the case for both physical and verbal aggression.)

At the opposite extreme, there is submissive or passive behavior, in which the individual behaves as if only the other person’s feelings and goals are important, and his own needs don’t count. The submissive person might not believe this, but he behaves as if he does by not doing anything to advance his agenda. Submissive behavior can be the result of intimidation and fear, but often the threat of harm lies less in external reality than in the person’s mind.

The middle of the spectrum—the Goldilocks zone—consists of assertive behavior. In assertiveness, the person behaves as if both her own and the other person’s needs are valid and important, so there should be an effort to work things out. This quality of even-handedness means the word fair is practically a synonym for assertiveness, because this type of behavior is fair to both others and the self, at the same time.

Here is a diagram of the spectrum of possible responses to conflict:

Shapiro, 2020
Spectrum of Responses to Conflict
Source: Shapiro, 2020

The solution to the problem of aggression is the same as the solution to the problem of passivity: assertive behavior. This is why assertiveness training is a central component of therapy for both types of clients. Both groups need to move toward the middle of the same spectrum, although they start out on opposite ends.

As a therapist, I have seen that clients on both ends of this spectrum are afraid of the opposite side. People who have problems with aggression are usually afraid of being perceived as weak, which they believe will result in getting walked on. People who have problems with passivity are usually afraid of being perceived as pushy, selfish, and rude, which they believe will make other people mad at them.

Neither fear is crazy—there is some validity to both. If possible responses to conflict actually came in just two types, this dilemma would be unsolvable. Fortunately, once we move past black-and-white thinking, there are options involving balanced blends of different components. In the realm of conflict-related behavior, gray means assertive.

The two-sided nature of fairness means that definitions of assertiveness should combine respect for self and respect for others. Two good definitions are, “standing up for yourself without pushing the other person around,” and, “saying what you’ve got to say without threatening or insulting the other person” (Shapiro, 2015; 2020).

Nonverbal Behavior

The nonverbal aspect of self-assertion is at least as important as the words we say. The body language of assertiveness expresses a combination of calm and strength. Taking deep, slow breaths helps us stay centered. Here are the nonverbal ingredients in the recipe:

  •  Stand up straight and tall with your shoulders back, or sit with good posture.
  • If standing, place your feet on the ground about six inches apart.
  • If you gesture, keep your hands open—don’t point or clench a fist.
  • Make direct eye contact (in most cultural groups; there are exceptions).
  • Have a sincere, earnest facial expression, not necessarily smiling but not scowling.
  • Speak in a tone of voice that is not too loud and not too soft.
  • Neither invade nor concede personal space (see below).

Aggressive people typically lean forward and advance into the other person's space. Submissive people typically shrink back and allow the other to invade their space. Assertive people maintain a steady, moderate distance from the other person while conveying both that they will not intrude into the other’s space and that they will not allow intrusion into their own.

Assertive tones of voice communicate sincerity and perhaps intensity but not threat or disrespect. The sound of our voice should convey that the issue is important to us and perhaps that we are upset but should not express hostility or an attempt to dominate. Interrupting is out; let the other person talk. The effective type of intensity conveys that we really want the other person to understand our position, not that we are trying to push them around.

Words to Say

Assertive speech gives the other person information about our experience of the conflict. This information is of four main types:

1.  Cognition: our view of the situation. For example, “I didn’t know getting together with them was so important to you; last time we talked, I got the impression you were tired of them.”

2.  Emotion: how we feel about the situation. For instance, “I don’t like being criticized like this for an understandable mistake; it’s making me mad.”

3. Motivation: what we want to achieve from the outcome. For instance, “Next week is bad for me, but if you want to see them the following week, fine—and please stop acting like I did something awful.”

4.  Proposed plan: ideas for resolving the conflict. For example, “Since I cancelled, I’ll call them back to reschedule; and I would appreciate it if you apologized for criticizing like that.”

In conflict situations, “I-Statements” generally work better than “You-Statements.” I-Statements tell the other person where we’re coming from, which is important information for them to have. You- Statements make some claim, usually negative, about the other person in the conflict. These statements usually make the other person angrier and the situation worse.

Also, I-Statements are generally more accurate than You-Statements. We are experts on our own experiences, but we don’t know everything about why other people do what they do, so it’s best to leave out judgments of their character.

We do not need to be concrete and rigid about this distinction: The word “I” is not literally required—“It upsets me when ___________” is an I-Statement—and the word “you” is not forbidden, as long as it refers to a specific action of the other person, not what they "always" or "never" do. The point is that assertive communication means verbalizing our point of view rather than making judgmental statements about the other person in the conflict.

It might be difficult to articulate this point of view in the midst of a complicated, emotional situation. Here’s a helpful hint: We don’t need to figure everything out, we can just take things one step at a time by making I-Statements about what we know. For example:

  • “I have no idea what led up to that scene, but I’m really upset about what happened.”
  • “Maybe I’m missing something, but here’s how the situation looks to me.”
  • “I don’t know what the solution is, but it can’t be okay for me to feel so slighted.”
  • “You might be right about __________, but I need a way to have input into the plans for this event.”

A passive communication style doesn't work because it does not get our message across. An aggressive style doesn't work because it causes fear and anger, which interfere with problem solving. Interpersonal conflicts can be very difficult, but assertive communication has the best chance of making things better and the least chance of making things worse.


Shapiro, J. P. (2015). Child and adolescent therapy: Science and art (2nd ed.). New York: Wiley.