“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
-Eleanor Roosevelt

There is a close relationship between self-esteem and assertive behaviour. If the two pillars of self-esteem are in place in our thinking - that is, ‘I believe I am competent’ and ‘I believe I am worthy’ - then assertive behaviour is possible. Should individuals have a very low opinion of their worth as human beings, it will be difficult for them to take on personal rights to assert themselves.  For example, if I do not believe I am worthwhile, how can I take on the right to be treated with respect? As people start to believe that they have rights, their self-esteem improves. As the belief in their rights improves their self-esteem, they start to behave assertively. As they behave assertively in more situations, so their self-esteem continues to improve.

Assertion is a vital communication skill that allows us to take responsibility for communicating with ourselves and others in an authentic, clear, open and concise manner. This vehicle ensures that we live as valuable and worthwhile individuals who are able to communicate what we are thinking, feeling and needing.

Assertion is a learnt skill. If we know it is a skill, then we can make a commitment to learn a way forward that keeps everybody’s self-esteem intact.

When is assertion used?

Assertion is used at all times with ourselves and with others, for example walking into a room and greeting people; ensuring that we stay committed to a goal; stating an opinion; giving constructive criticism; having our needs met; and resolving conflict with others. Assertion sets out to face an issue, to clarify it, and to move to a solution in which no one is compromised. 

What is your personal history of communication?

Let’s not start with you. Let’s delve a little deeper. How did your parents and grandparents communicate? Was their way of communicating assertive, or was it perhaps passive, aggressive or even passive-aggressive? Did they believe that they had a right to a voice, and did they use that voice powerfully? Similarly, was this communication style encouraged in you? 

In general, there are four different communication styles. Often the reply to the question ‘How do you communicate?’ is ‘Well, it depends on the situation’.  Imagine if you were able to control your response to different situations with the knowledge that you are able to handle most situations reasonably well. Reflect on your dominant style of communication as you read through these typical communication styles:

  • An aggressive communicator:
    I assume total power at the expense of another and am harmful, critical and judgemental. I am intent on proving I am more powerful than others. I express feelings and wants as though any other view is stupid or unreasonable. I dismiss, ignore or insult the opinions and needs of others. I believe that my contributions are worthwhile while those of others are worthless and stupid. I make myself large and threatening. My eye contact is fixed and penetrating and my voice is loud and often shouting. I am angry and victorious when I win, but afterwards I have guilt and remorse – even self-hatred – for hurting others.
  • A passive communicator:
    I abdicate power and open myself up to abuse. I keep quiet and don’t say what I think, feel and need. I put myself down frequently. I apologise when I want to express myself. I seldom disagree with others. I make myself small. I hunch my shoulders, look down and speak softly. I believe that others’ needs are more important than my own and that their contributions are valuable while mine are worthless. I experience frustration and resentment and have reduced self-respect.
  • A passive-aggressive communicator:
    I do not deal with issues directly. I often deny personal responsibility for my actions. I believe that I am entitled to get my own way, even after making commitments to others. I fear that I will be rejected if I am more assertive. I usually mimic a more passive style of communication. I experience resentment at the demands of others and fear being confronted. I deflect issues and often resort to sarcasm.
  • An assertive communicator:
    I express my needs, wants and feelings directly and honestly. I don’t assume I am correct or that everyone will feel the same way. I allow others to hold differing views without dismissing or insulting them. I believe that my needs and those of others are equally important. My body is relaxed and my movements are casual. I make frequent eye contact. I believe that I have an equal right to express myself and that we all have something valuable to contribute. I take responsibility for my behaviour. I feel positive about myself and the way in which I treat others.

Have you identified your dominant communication style? Have you been communicating assertively for the most part?

If assertion is so effective, why is it not used more often?

It is evident that, in general, assertion has neither been taught nor learnt in our homes and schools. On the whole, assertion was not encouraged while today’s adults were growing up. They were not given permission to be assertive, thus they do not give themselves permission today. But there is good reason to be excited.

The South African Constitution guarantees the right of every individual to have a voice.
This encourages a culture of freedom of expression.


Often assertion is not the chosen vehicle for communication because we are afraid of being rejected by others, or of having others confuse our communication style with aggression, or believe that we won’t be properly assertive and will be judged. It is true that choosing assertion involves taking a risk, but the reward is utilising a tool that maintains an open and honest relationship.

Should you decide not to be assertive, then you cannot blame any person other than yourself. When it comes to assertion, you are the starting point. Assertion with others makes you feel powerful and equal. Assertion with yourself reminds you that you are responsible, competent and deserving. How do you feel about being assertive? What would stop you from being assertive?

The benefits of assertion

  • Assertion is the only strategy that really allows you and others to be fully authentic in a relationship.
  • It provides both parties with the right to a powerful voice.
  • It doesn’t provide a guarantee that conflict will always be resolved, but it’s a tool that allows the greatest chance of conflict resolution.
  • Assertion establishes a clear way forward.
  • It enables you to be relaxed around others because you know you will be able to handle most situations reasonably well.
  • It helps you to focus on the present.
  • It gives you control over your own life and may reduce depression by reducing helplessness.
  • It decreases stress and increases well-being.

Assertive conflict resolution simplified

To resolve conflict assertively and effectively, you could follow these three steps. Remember always to communicate clearly, concisely and openly:

  • Step One: Thinking
    What am I thinking? – What is the problem?
  • Step Two: Feeling
    What am I feeling? – This is the emotional reaction to the intellectual.
  • Step Three: Needing
    What do I need? – What is the solution?

These three steps enable you to maintain your own integrity and dignity, even if the issue cannot be resolved.

Practical task

In your journal or diary, write down an issue that currently faces you which calls for you to be assertive. Step by step, write down how you are going to handle the situation. After you have been assertive, reflect on the situation. In other words, what have you learnt, and how would you change anything in your future communication?

Ten useful assertion tips

  1. Take time to determine what is important for you and your life by establishing your own values and goals.
  2. Use the seven second rule by breathing and counting to seven before you react to a situation.
  3. Express your viewpoint with precision and conviction.
  4. Use body language to support your viewpoint by maintaining eye contact, standing upright, and using hand gestures to emphasise words.
  5. Adopt the ‘broken record’ technique by repeating what you want over and over again without getting angry to ensure that the other person takes in the message that you are not going to change your mind.
  6. Acknowledge what the other person has expressed, for example ‘I hear that you are upset . . .’, and then state what you still expect that person to do.
  7. Use ‘I’ messages to express your true feelings and thoughts. For example: ‘I feel angry when you don’t respect me when I am speaking’, and ‘I feel frustrated when you don’t appreciate my efforts’.
  8. Avoid judgement of the other person’s behaviour.
  9. Say ‘No’ politely and firmly to unreasonable requests from others.
  10. Stand up for your legitimate rights. Ensure that your requests are reasonable and do not violate the rights of others.

Assertion enables us to live authentically and allows us
to make decisions that sometimes others might not like.