Assertion: Safely meeting needs

A note that reads "hey twit, ever notice how this space fits 2 small cars?? or just one stupid small car that parks inconsiderately"

How not to assert. Also, how not to park.

It is hard to assert: to stand up for yourself without encroaching on somebody else’s territory. Even when you assert well, you may encounter defensiveness and hostility. Is it worth it?

Well, yes it is. Assertion allows you to get your needs met, while avoiding the pitfalls of submissiveness (in which your needs are neglected) or aggressiveness (in which others’ needs are trampled).

In People Skills, Robert Bolton discusses assertion in detail (as well as roadblocks to communication and reflective listening), proposing a model, describing a process, and outlining considerations for suitability. While somewhat utilitarian, his proposed model is likely a good starting point for the student of assertion.

Let me get this out of the way first though – I love a good bit of assertion. Some of my best friendships are greatly enhanced by an awareness of personal ends and how our behaviours meet or betray them. The best way to let other people know about our  needs…is out loud! Asserting ourselves well means we enjoy our relationships more, we experience fewer frustrations, and, free from fear, we can be more vulnerable. What’s not to love?

Three-part assertion messages

Bolton suggests a three part formula for assertions:

  1. A description of the behaviour,
  2. How it makes you feel, and
  3. Its tangible effect on you.

“When you leave your stuff on the table overnight, I feel annoyed, because there isn’t space for me to eat breakfast.”

In combination, the receiver of the assertion knows what they are doing, knows how much it matters to you, and knows why. Boom!

For this to work, however, each component needs some conditions.

Part 1, the description of the behaviour, should be specific, objective, and brief. You should assert about discrete, particular behaviours – not a suite of things. The behaviour should be something observable, something that could be filmed – not an attitude or a demeanour. And be pithy about it! In all, the receiver gets a straightforward explanation that is useful to them.

Sharing how it makes you feel is to “underscore the importance” of the matter. Your feelings allow you to know that you care enough to make an assertion; disclosing them can let the receiver care enough to change.

Finally, the concrete effect should be a material thing, an impact, Bolton suggests, on your money, possessions, time, job, or effectiveness. Indeed, it’s being able to point to material consequences that allows you to know you have a legitimate assertion, and you’re not just imposing your values (which would be not assertive but aggressive!). Is the fact that a man is holding his boyfriend’s hand making you uncomfortable? Your problem.

These three components form the “three-part assertion message”. However, Bolton feels that this alone isn’t enough to assert effectively, predominantly because the receiver will tend to respond with defensiveness, which can derail everything. He describes a six-part process for using the assertion messages to maximum effect. If defensiveness is derailing your assertions, this is apparently the best way to go!

PX 96-33:12  03 June 1961  President Kennedy meets with Chairman Khrushchev at the U. S. Embassy residence, Vienna. U. S. Dept. of State photograph in the John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston.

“When you aim nuclear weapons at us, we feel anxious, because nuclear war would devastate all life as we know it.”

Six-step assertion process

The six-step process covers writing the message, delivering the message, being silent, reflecting any response, and iterating through this until a solution can be determined. Again, this is suggested as the best way of dealing with the defensiveness that is a common reaction to assertions.

  1. Write your message out. This allows firstly to determine if it is a valid assertion – is there a tangible effect on you? Are you respecting the recipient’s space? It allows you to vent some of your own emotions in the writing so that you are less emotionally-charged when delivering the message. It also provides a chance to think about an appropriate place and time to deliver the message (hint – not as somebody is about to head to the airport to catch a flight.)
  2. Send the message. Don’t begin with “small talk”. Get straight to the point: “I wanted to speak to let you know that when you don’t put petrol in the car after using it I feel resentful because it costs me time and money to do it myself.” Ensure that your non-verbal cues – posture, eyes, face, breath, voice – are consistent with your message. Your body and your words should communicate that this matters.
  3. Being silent. Now shut up! You’ve made your point. Be silent. This gives the receiver a chance to think and take in your assertion. Avoid the temptation to rush in proposing solutions – the assertee needs to take responsibility for this and have the chance to come up with a solution that suits them.
  4. Reflectively listen to a (most-likely) defensive response. The most likely scenario is that the person doesn’t respond well. They may be defensive, making excuses or justifications. Or they may go on the offensive, slinging mud back about your behaviour (“You think I’m loud? What about when you…”) . As we’ve all learnt from the internet, if you engage, you are lost. Your best bet here is to listen reflectively to any response. This allows you to validate, while also pacifying, the reaction. It’s a chance to hear their side of the story, or to identify if your needs genuinely conflict (in which case, collaborative decision-making is required). In general, you want to reflect their response back to them without getting drawn or sidetracked, while making sure to note and reflect any possible understanding or solution.
  5. Recycling the process. Step 4 isn’t a silver bullet. After reflectively listening, head back to Step 2 and send your message again. Often, the listener will again respond defensively, you’ll again reflect, and then head back to Step 2. It may take several iterations! Yikes.
  6. Focussing on a solution. If it goes well (which it won’t necessarily), you’ll hopefully be able to discuss a solution before too long. Once you’re here, be sure that the solution meets your needs – you don’t want to go through all of this only to come up with something that won’t work! Reflect the solution back to check that you both understand it, show some appreciation, and arrange a time to check in on how it’s going.


I’m fairly confident that all of us experience frustrations. Yes, there are the big things that piss us off, but there’s also hundreds of small things. Noting these small grievances and using assertion to eliminate them can help to strengthen relationships, improve communication, and create more pleasant lives. Boom! Jackpot.

Bringing it up when our needs are being impinged upon is hard – and there is no guaranteed formula for success. Robert Bolton’s People Skills describes a model which, at least, improves the odds. The three-part assertion message gives a way of determining the validity of an assertion and conveying the necessary information, while the six-step process helps us to respond to defensiveness. With practise and confidence, these methods will allow you to get better at having your needs met, while respecting the needs of others.

One Response to “Assertion: Safely meeting needs”

  1. I agree with you that it can be hard to assert yourself as the outcomes are not always as expected. I knew that assertion was the stage before aggressiveness but had never before thought that it was the step after submissiveness. I agree with you that the best way to let people know about our needs is out loud, however that’s why it is sometimes difficult for shy or timid people to be assertive.

    I think that the six-step assertion process is very useful and will help people to become more assertive. The last step (focusing on a solution) is definitely the key step in the process as, after all, the whole purpose of being assertive is to reach an end goal.

    Take a look at my post on ‘Aggression vs Assertion’ and let me know your thoughts1

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