What Stops You Being Assertive?

I often work with groups of people and individuals who want to be more assertive. But I rarely deliver a straightforward assertiveness training course; my starting point is finding out why people think they can’t be assertive. Confidence, or lack of, is so often the underlying reason, along with a fear of the consequences.


Assertiveness is not, as was so often taught in the 80s, an “I win, you lose” scenario. It’s about being able to say what you want to with honesty and directness, having self respect while still being respectful of the other person. You can agree to disagree without having to diminish the other person – that’s bullying.

These are some of the questions I ask:

  • When do you feel most able to express yourself with honesty?
  • What thoughts go through your head when you imagine saying what you want to someone? What are your feelings? Anger? Fear?
  • Is there an old message going round in your head that holds you back, i.e ‘people in authority should not be challenged’ or ‘keep your head down, it only causes trouble’
  • What do you think would happen if you did say what you wanted to?
  • What might happen if you were able to speak honestly and respectfully? What would be different?

I generally find that most of us have areas of our lives where we find it more difficult to speak up honestly for ourselves. Similarly most of us have areas where we have no trouble at all. One person who is feisty and direct with her parents may find herself turning to jelly when the boss makes an unreasonable demand. Likewise, someone who is able to be clear about her wishes at work, is seen as confident and assured, may find herself jumping to her teenage children’s every whim because she can’t stand the fall out of an argument.

If you sometimes find yourself behaving less than assertively, try answering the questions above. When do you find it most difficult to behave assertively?

PS If being more assertive is an area you’d like some individual help with take a look at my women’s coaching page.


Posted on September 8th, 2010 by

5 Responses to “What Stops You Being Assertive?”

  1. Another timely post for me, Jane. I realised in my later adolescent years that my perceived assertiveness was actually a terrible mix of pathological shyness and the frustration of which manifested itself as passive-aggressive behaviour – neither of which were appropriate nor welcome. I now lean very much towards the former having realised, equally early, that whilst assertiveness is not always a strong point for me, passive-aggressive behaviour is clearly much less necessary. I like to think that I have struck a nice balance between being assertive enough when and where required (important in my job), and quiet and unassuming when needed.

  2. I love this Jane! I too was a very shy young person and resorted primarily to squashing my feelings and getting depressed or at best passive aggressive. It was not until I took an Assertiveness Training class back in the 70’s??? that I had a glimpse of what it really meant. It was so freeing to me! But I only soaked up an ounce of practical knowledge from a sea. I’ve always wanted to go back at it. Thanks for this.

    • Jane says:

      Hi Dorothy. I think you must have done your assertiveness course during the period when the women’s movement embraced it? Good times! I first did it as a full residential course in the 80s when it was being taught in an ‘I win you lose’ kind of way, very typical of the 80s! I love working with groups on it – I think you’d recognise my approach and that chap in the 80s who initially trained me, would not! Many thanks, Jane

  3. Shirly says:

    It’s weird finding your site. I was speaking with a colleague last week about assertiveness. Because of our job we have to be assertive. But having both been quiet ones in our younger years, we both agreed that as we are now more assertive, others who have got used to us in the past now see our assertivness as agressiveness.
    At home though, sometimes it’s easier to keep the peace than to be assertive. It is a fine balance…as long as it doesn’t rock the boat too much.

    • Jane says:

      I’m glad you found us! Assertiveness is often difficult for women. My advice is don’t leap in to try and be assertive in your most difficult situation. Start where it’s not so important an dbuild up your confidence. Best wishes to you! Jane

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