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Although the term assertiveness has been in use and existed in our consciousness for a long time, it is still identified by many exclusively with the ability to refuse. Comprehension of assertiveness only as an art of saying NO is definitely insufficient and narrowing its meaning.

If that is the case, what is assertiveness and how to understand it properly?

Assertiveness is a sort of philosophy of the life based on a principle ‘I am O.K., you are O.K.’. In other words, an assertive person is the one who respects themselves and the other person, sees, understands and accepts the fact that people differ from themselves, and therefore, have every right to live and behave they way they want. Being guided by this philosophy, we give ourselves and other people the right:

1. to ask for what they want;

2. to express their own opinion and feelings and show emotions;

3. not to be discriminated;

4. to make decisions and take their consequences;

5. to decide, whether they want to get involved in others’ problems;

6. to make mistakes;

7. to get what they pay for;

8. to change their decision;

9. to privacy;

10. to make success[1].

And finally, people have the right not to always be assertive, particularly, if by assessment of the situation they regard that e.g. directive or passive behaviour will be more effective and more justified. Therefore, it should be noticed that a healthy and mentally mature individual uses three patterns of action in their repertoire of behaviour. We can be submissive, aggressive and assertive as well. Psychological maturity is shown in the rational evaluation of a situation and adjusting the appropriate strategy of action (pattern of behaviour) to it. It is hard to imagine that a man in their or others’ life threatening situation, acts assertively, instead of acting aggressively and defensively, or in the face of a conflict with their boss stands pat on their demands, not pursuing the compromise or agreement (which may bear all the hallmarks of a certain passivity and submissiveness). In such cases choosing the wrong (inadequate to the situation) pattern of behaviour can lead to serious consequences, like e.g. bodily harm or even loss of the job.

Fortunately the above mentioned situations are not an everyday occurrence.  We are relatively rare forced to resort to such extreme and radical patterns of behaviours, like aggression or submissiveness. Every day we have much more opportunities to be assertive, thanks to which our relations with people are getting more and more mature, and the ones with our partner, full of the respect.   

What are the other benefits of the assertive attitude? 

The list of advantages associated with being assertive is very long, and its top points are: creating clear image of ourselves with regards to who and what we are, what our needs, preferences, expectations are; increasing our self-confidence, respect for ourselves and respect of other people, a sense of well-being, positive self-assessment, a sense of being good to ourselves and living in harmony with our conscience, minimizing stress by releasing our emotions, achieving internal harmony and peace. Looking at the above list of advantages assertiveness gives us, we may ask: why in the article of that many benefits of this style of behaviour, very few of us are able to build relations based on the principle ‘I am O.K., you are O.K.?’

The main factors affecting our resistance to assertiveness are probably socio-cultural condition (e.g. bringing up in the spirit of absolute obedience, obsequiousnesses, lack of sense of security and stability), low self-esteem, ignorance about other socially promoted patterns of behaviour as well as perception of assertiveness as a unique talent, innate ability rather than skill, which is possible, or simply necessary to be learned and developed.

What is more, the anxiety of getting a label of an egoist or eccentric-contester sticking to their own guns openly (often against the whole society), additionally taking liberty of expressing emotions, causes that only few strive for assertiveness. But although being assertive involves a kind of falling foul of people in the interpersonal contacts, it is worthwhile to respond to a challenge, and, as Maria Król-Fijewska the forerunner of the assertiveness in Poland says, start living ‘firmly, gently, without fear’[2]. The below presented selection of skills and tools such as: active listening, assertive reacting and expressing criticism, techniques of refusing and defining limits will surely be helpful in this process.

Active listening

There is an enormous difference between hearing and active listening. Hearing as a physiological process consists in the reception of sound signals flowing from the environment (part of them is ignored, the other part absorbed). Whereas active listening is a much more complex process, in which sound is only one of many stimuli, which act on and are processed by a human. Active listening requires switching over from the ‘sending’ mode, which we are attached to a lot, to the ‘reception’, full of attention and concentration. It is about becoming sensitive to the most subtle signals sent by the other person, both through the verbal as well as non-verbal channel, in order to UNDERSTAND who the other person is and what the motives of their behaviour are.

If we want to listen actively, we should stop assessing, giving opinions, judgments, comparisons which effectively darken the reception of the other person. By listening actively, we temporarily change the perspective from the one focused on ourselves, to the one focused on somebody else, which can be a very interesting and enriching experience. The other elements supporting active listening:

  • maintaining eye contact with the interlocutor;
  • turning our body towards the interlocutor;
  • nodding with approval;
  • asking questions (especially the open ones, thanks to which we express our interest in someone's point of view, passions, opinion on a given topic etc.);
  • paraphrasing, clarification, allowing to verify the correctnesses of understanding one's statement.

As can be seen, the process of active listening requires high energy expenditure. We are not able to listen to others actively all the time. This could lead to weariness and psychological burnout in extreme cases. Nevertheless, it is worthwhile to make attempts in this respect as often as possible, particularly when we come across a person towards whom, for various reasons, it is hard for us to apply the motto ‘I am O.K., you are O.K.’. Perhaps understanding the real intentions of a person, the attempt to understand their behaviour, get acquainted with their system of values different from ours, which occurs in the process of active listening, can help us build the relation based on respect and partnership.

How to assertively accept and express the criticism

Criticism arouses anger, reservation and aggression with many people. It is not surprising, especially that in the vast majority of cases it is unjustified, shows symptoms of attack, and its superior aim is to humiliate or prove one their lack of knowledge and skills.  This type of the criticism is not only unfair, but above all does not lead to development –  because there is no incentive for improvement of behaviour, but only escalation of aggression or increasing distance between people and considerable cooling of relations.

One of the skills of an assertive man is the ability of giving a constructive criticism as well as reacting to it assertively. Constructive criticism occurs when behaviour, not a person, is assessed. It is not painful, generalized (does not contain such phrases as: ‘because you always...’, ‘and you never...’, ‘again’, ‘each time’), sharp, but contains no irony, allusion and cynicism.

Well-worded criticism is an invaluable support in the human development. Because the person giving a constructive criticism make us realise what is the mistake, incorrectness of our behaviour, suggests whose or which help we can make use of, not to repeat the mistake in the future.  A correctly worded critical statement consists of a few basic elements. These are as follows:

  • facts (referring to the past occurrence, which is the subject of our criticism, e.g.: ‘There were five serious mistakes in the report which you sent’, ‘You are late more than half an hour for the management board meeting’);
  • emotions (emotions and feelings of the critic which arose in the reaction to the existing situation, e.g.: ‘I am angry that you didn't consult the final version of the report with me before sending it’, ‘It irritates me that you were late’);
  • expectations (concerning future behaviour of the other person towards us, this is a kind of agreement defining the shape of future relations, e.g.: ‘Could you, please, consult the decision regarding the report dispatch to the director-general with me first in the future’, ‘Could you, please, come to the important meeting at least 15 minutes earlier from today on?’).

How to react to the criticism, especially the non-constructive one?

Assertively, that is neither aggressively – taking liberty to throw one off balance, nor submissively – getting intimidated. ‘Assertive response to criticism is based on the assumption that it is we who are responsible for our emotions, thoughts, needs and behaviour. We also take responsibility for their consequences’[3]. There are a few techniques of effective and assertive reacting to the criticism. One should pay particular attention to: fogging and sounding.

Zamglenie (zaciemnienie)

This technique turns out to be extremely useful in the situation of the manipulative criticism. As far as this kind of criticism is concenred, numerous relations and references to the past occurrences and behaviour are accompanied by words of disapproval referring to a specific behaviour. It is easy to recognize the manipulative criticism by generalizations, ‘you’ messages, accusatory-moralizing tone of the critic.

The assertive reaction to this type of criticism, based on the fogging technique, consists in partial acceptance of the critic’s argument (if we do agree with the given part of the criticism), and ignoring the rest of the statement or paraphrasing it without generalizations etc. For example, the critic says: ‘You are always forgetting about something, I have to remind you of something all the time. Do you always have to have your head in the clouds? Come down to earth at last! I cannot believe they haven’t fired you yet! Yet it is a complete lack of professionalism. You don’t know how to use notebook, maybe you suffer from memory loss? No, that’s probably simply the way you are?! If everyone was like you, I would not even dare to think…’. The criticised person answers: ‘Yes, you are right. It happens to me sometimes that I forget about certain things. Perhaps I will start using notebook or mobile reminder more often.’

The fogging technique is advantageous both for the sender and the receiver of the words of disapproval. Admitting that the critic is right (partly) neutralizes their annoyance and aggression a little bit. While it lets the criticised person ‘save their face’ above all towards themselves (this way we protect our self-esteem).


It is an effective technique in the situation when the criticism is not clear to us, when we are under the impression that the statement includes a so-called double bottom, and the critic does not tell us everything.  In this case we use open questions, which let us get to know the real intentions of the critic.

‘Critic: You don't do your best at work. You work at half steam.

You: What is so annoying about my work?

Critic: Well, all others work like drudges, stay after hours, and you slip out with the dance step every day at five o'clock.

You: What is annoying about the fact that I leave work at five o'clock on the dot, while others stay after hours?

Critic: I don't like working after hours, but work has to be finished.  My task is to see to it that this happens. That is why it makes me angry, when I see that you working according to the schedule.

You: And what is annoying about the fact that I work according to the schedule?

Critic: When you leave, somebody else has to finish your work. I want you to stay longer, until you finish the given task.

You: I understand. Okay, you explained the situation for me[4].’

In the above example, thanks to the technique of sounding the criticizing person managed after all to express reservation about the criticised person. Reservation concerns not the quality of their work, as it may seem at first, but the impact of their behaviour (work according to the schedule) on the productivity of the entire team and their atmosphere. Moreover, the expressed expectations concern the future behaviour which will probably help to build the satisfying interpersonal relationship.

Selected techniques of assertive refusal and defining limits

To say flatly NO, but without aggression, to refuse without a guilty conscience, not to excuse oneself, not to resort to a lie, weasel words – is a dream of many of us. The main problem why people are afraid to refuse is the fact they equal saying NO to a person with breaking the relation with them. Persons, who have difficulty in refusing, find it hard to accept one of the imperative rules of assertiveness, ‘I have the right to ask, you have the right to refuse. I have the right to refuse, you have the right to ask’. Being afraid of straining relations, instead of saying: ‘I don't want, I won't do’, ‘I won’t have’, ‘I don't need’, we often resort to words or phrases such as: ‘I cannot’, ‘I can't manage’, ‘I am not able’, which in our estimation sound better and mean ALMOST the same, but the similarity refers only to the lexical layer rather than the true meaning of the word.

Saying: ‘I cannot’ or ‘I am not able to’, we start to excuse ourselves. Moreover, we indicate as if there were some external circumstances, making it impossible or stopping us from performing a given activity, while it only depends on us whether we take the action or not. Using this type of ‘softening phrases’ we stop being authentic and clear about our needs and preferences. Furthermore, we show lack of inner power and readiness to take the responsibility for the words we said and decisions we made.

The inability to say NO exposes us to even more unpleasant consequences, e.g. excessive outbursts of anger and aggression, a source of which is accumulation and lack of expression of emotion and states such as: anger, sorrow, frustration, psychosomatic disorders, lack of the self-confidence, loss of the vitality, which instead of being expended on everyday activity is wasted on avoiding, covering, restraining oneself etc. Therefore, it is worthwhile to learn to refuse, and the below presented techniques of refusal and defining limits can be helpful.

‘Broken record’

This technique is particularly effective, when we feel that pressure is exerted on us (concerning e.g. the purchase or borrowing something etc.) by an intrusive person who does not accept our refusal. If we want to establish limits based on the ‘broken record’ technique, we should word brief messages (concerning our needs) beginning from the word NO, repeat them several times without unnecessary explanations. One should demonstrate iron consistency, e.g.:

‘No, thanks, I am not interested in the special promotion of the telephone services’.

‘No, I won't lend you PLN 100 again’.

‘Thank you for the invitation, but I won't visit you for a coffee today’.

‘Ju-jitsu’ (yielding)

This technique is said to be a little bit more humane and less ruthless than the ‘broken record’, although equally effective. In ‘ju-jitsu’ we also protect our opinion, saying NO, and remain relentless in the decision we made before, but at the same time express understanding, demonstrate empathy towards one's difficult situation, e.g.:

Person A: ‘I would like to go on a few days holiday. Fill in for me, please. I promise I will repay you.’

Person B: ‘I understand that you are worn out and, indeed, you had a lot of work for the last half of the year. However, I can't fill in for you. I have already planned my trip.
I also want and need to rest a lot.’

‘I am an elephant’

This tactic works especially when we are up against the wall, demand an immediate reply. It is preferred particularly by impulsive persons, who realize that they often happen to make a wrong decision or say one word too many under the influence of strong emotions. The main guidelines of this technique: speaking slower, breathing deeply, many periphrases, which aim is to verify the correctness of understanding one's statement, giving oneself time for a deep analysis of the situation and matter.

For example:

‘It is interesting what you are saying. Let me look into it more.’

‘Let me get this right, did you mean.................?’

‘Can we get back to this tomorrow? It is really important and requires deep reflection, and today I feel I am already very exhausted and I am afraid that I could miss something... .’

The above presented techniques of assertive refusal teach, above all, how to firmly without aggression and hotheadedness set one’s own limits and protect oneself, how to express one’s needs openly, willingness/reluctance in relation to things, situations, persons, not resorting to lies and manipulation. Awareness of one’s own rights, respecting rights of other person, openness, ability to set limits, which protect, but do not isolate, authenticity – these are the key words defining the point of assertiveness. 

The purpose of this article is by no means promotion of the assertiveness as the only and best strategy of behaviour.  For the assertiveness should not be taken as the panacea to all problems of interpersonal relations. Undoubtedly it is a pattern strongly recommended for the reason of the intra- and interpersonal values, however, it is worth remembering, ‘that being assertive is not an automatic reciting of the formulae studied at the training or learned from the book. Assertive behaviour, although based on procedures, is always a specific, individual choice and experience of a specific man in a specific practical situation’[5].


Julia Otto


Davis M., Paleg K, Fanning P., Jak usprawnić komunikatywność?, Helion, Gliwice 2007.

Ferguson J., Asertywność doskonała, Dom Wydawniczy REBIS, Poznań 2006.

Fijewski P., Król-Fijewska M., Asertywność menadżera, Polskie Wydawnictwo Ekonomiczne, Warszawa 2007.

Fijewski P., Zaklęcie na bycie sobą, „Charektery’ 2009, No. 9.

Król-Fijewska M., Stanowczo, łagodnie, bez lęku, WAB, Warszawa 2007.

McKay M., Davis M., Fanning P., Sztuka skutecznego porozumiewania się, GWP, Gdańsk 2005.

„Coaching’ 2011, No. 3 (6).


[1]    F. Ferguson, Asertywność doskonała, Dom Wydawniczy REBIS, Poznań 2006, p. 43–44.

[2]    The quotation is the title of the book by Maria Król-Fijewska Stanowczo, łagodnie, bez lęku (Firmly, gently, without fear), WAB, Warszawa 2007.

[3]    M. McKay, M. Davis, P. Fanning, Sztuka skutecznego porozumiewania się, GWP, Gdańsk 2005, p. 135.

[4]    M. McKay, M. Davis, P. Fanning, Sztuka skutecznego porozumiewania się, GWP, Gdańsk 2005, p. 138.

[5]    P. Fijewski, Zaklęcie na bycie sobą, „Charaktery’ 2009, No. 9.