How to be Assertive, Not Passive or Aggressive

19/03/2012 16:33 GMT | Updated 19/05/2012 10:12 BST

Picture this: your boss calls you into his office and, the second you sit down, launches into a long critique of the pitch you just made to important clients. How do you feel? Do you crumble, accepting his criticism with head bowed and heart sunk? Or listen calmly, thank him for his feedback and then respond, accepting his valid points before pointing out the flaws in his argument?

If, like most of us, you struggle to be assertive, you are more likely to crumble than stand up for yourself. You may also find it hard to tell people what you want in any given situation, whether it's with colleagues, dealing with bolshy builders or a distracted partner who seems more interested in the football results than your request to clean up the bombsite that used to be a kitchen.

A lack of assertiveness is inextricably linked with a lack of confidence and low self-esteem, chronic stress, depression, anxiety disorders, anger issues, relationship and parenting problems, workplace bullying... the list goes on. Simply put, if you don't feel good about yourself, deep down, it's hard to ask for what you need. Overcoming this may not be easy, but the good news is that a few simple techniques - like the one below - will help you become more assertive.

First, a quick look at what assertiveness is. It's useful to think about three different states (none of which are fixed or permanent and which apply to all of us with certain people or in different areas of our life): passivity, aggression and assertiveness. When we are passive, we tend to speak quietly and make ourselves physically small; we will let others take the lead and avoid making decisions, often for fear of criticism or rejection. When we are aggressive, we're at the other end of the spectrum, speaking loudly and try to be being dominant; we may bully others into doing what we want, either verbally or physically; we may well be prone to angry outbursts which, although they feel powerful at the time, are destructive and ultimately disempowering, because we must deal with the (possibly legal) consequences.

Assertiveness, on the other hand, is a state in which we calmly and clearly express our thoughts and feelings; our body posture is open and upright, our gestures expressive; we make eye contact with the other person and listen carefully to what they have to say before replying.

Although we ask for what we want and try to get our needs met, we don't do so at any cost - if necessary, we seek a compromise so it's a win-win, not an 'I win-you lose' situation.

If you would like to be more assertive - especially with a challenging person in your life - try the Broken Record technique:

1. State clearly what you would (or would not) like to happen, using 'I statements' and being as specific as possible. For example, 'I find it rude and frustrating when you interrupt me all the time, so in future please let me speak without interrupting. Thanks.'

2. Let the other person respond - and try to let go of any expectations. They may accept what you say or they may not, that is their right. But it's also your right to stick to your guns, so then calmly and clearly repeat your point, as many times as you have to - do vary the words, so you don't sound like a robot! 'Clearly you have a different view, which is fine. But the fact remains that it does really bother me when you keep interrupting, so please don't do it.'

3. Repeat, as many times as you need to - in most cases, the other person runs out of steam and agrees.

Finally, as with any kind of cognitive (the way you think) or behavioural change, learning to feel, speak and act more assertively takes time and persistence. Think about a yoga 'practice' - it's the daily practice of yoga that makes your body strong and supple and your mind calm. The same goes for psychological techniques like this one.

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