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What it is. How to recognize it. What it can do for you.


It is important to be able to identify assertive behavior. Many people are unable to distinguish it from passive behavior on the one hand, and aggressive behavior on the other. When we can tell them apart, we are better able to judge our behavior for ourselves. Unfortunately, many people mislabel assertiveness -- they have been misled into believing that assertive behavior is aggressive and therefore unacceptable. This error causes untold emotional distress and major interpersonal difficulties.

Clarifying the distinction between what is assertive and what is aggressive is actually quite simple. If you ignore another person's rights, you are being aggressive. Otherwise you aren't.

But there are two kinds of behavior that are not aggressive: You can be passive, in which case, you ignore your own rights. Or you can be assertive, in which case you honor both your own rights and those of others.


Assertive Rights

OK. We've defined three kinds of behavior -- passive, assertive, and aggressive -- in terms of a person's rights. So it makes sense to look at those rights:

  1. You have a right to make mistakes.

    That doesn't mean it is OK to blame others for them -- it is important for you to take responsibility for your mistakes yourself. Blaming them on others is a form of aggression.

  2. You have a right to change your mind.

    Otherwise, you'd be stuck with your mistakes forever.

  3. You have a right to be illogical in making decisions.

    Whether they are aware of it or not, this is a right many people exercise regularly!

  4. You have the right to judge your own behavior, your thoughts, and your emotions.

    No one else, regardless of who they are or how close they may be to you, can know what it is like to live in your life-space. Therefore, no one else is in a position to judge your behavior, thoughts, or emotions with your perspective. Keep in mind, though, that this means you have an obligation to take responsibility for your actions.

    Note that in certain situations we extend to others some limited rights to judge our behavior. When we enter into a work agreement with an employer, for example, we agree that the employer has the right to judge our job-performance behavior. Or, again, when we marry, it is generally accepted that we extend to our spouse the right to judge some aspects of our behavior -- particularly whether we conform to the principle of sexual exclusivity. Note, too, that law-enforcement people have the right to judge anyone's behavior if it is unlawful. So, if we break the law, the fuzz may come after us.

  5. Just as you have a right to be the judge of your behavior, you have a right to offer no explanations, reasons, or justifications for how you behave.

    Things probably weren't that way when you were little. It may have been essential to explain yourself. But if you gave this right up long ago, it is now time to reclaim it.

  6. You have the right to decide whether or not you will take responsibility for developing solutions to other people's problems.

    This means you have a right to say, "no." It is true that others may want your help. They may even resent it if you decide not to provide assistance. Nonetheless, management of your time, resources, talents, and energy is up to you. Invest yourself in ways that will do you and others the most good.

  7. You have the right to say, "I don't know."

  8. You have the right to say, "I don't understand."

  9. You have the right to say, "I don't care."

  10. You have the right to be independent of the good will of others before coping with them.

    If you feel you must have their good will, they are in a position to coerce you into making decisions that are not in your best interests. This right enables you to protect yourself from such coercion.


Why Bother to Learn to be Assertive?

In many situations others will make you aware that, in their terms, you are using unacceptable behavior. It may be in the form of a claim, an accusation, or an implication. Whatever its form, you will have to deal with it.

By being able to identify each of the three types of behavior -- passive, assertive, and aggressive -- you can decide for yourself whether your behavior is acceptable and whether it is appropriate. Assertive behavior is always civilized and therefore acceptable. It may not be the best strategy in any given situation, but it is always civilized.

When might assertiveness be inadvisable? If you find yourself on an elevator with a man who has a gun and is determined to take your money, for instance, probably the best response is to be passive. Give him the money. What you want is off the elevator in one piece. On the other hand if he has a baseball bat and is intent on bashing in your skull, probably the best response is to be aggressive. You need to take possession of the bat and, if necessary, strive to render your attacker unconscious. As before, what you want is off the elevator in one piece. In neither case would assertiveness be the best choice.

Nonetheless, in most situations in life, assertiveness will work better than either of the other two. Furthermore, knowing you have behaved assertively will help you feel OK about yourself. That's a big plus all by itself! Particularly when you are being accused of behaving badly.


Treatment Recommended for Passive (Unassertive) Behavior

  • It is important to be able to identify passive, assertive, and aggressive behaviors. Learning this simple set of distinctions enables a person to be realistic in judging his or her own behavior as well as the behavior of others.

  • It is also important to know when each type of behavior is appropriate. No one behavior is suitable to all circumstances. As the example in the elevator demonstrates, in order to select wisely, an individual needs to be aware of what he or she wants. What matters is to be able to adjust one's response to the situation in a practical way -- that is, to be able to choose the most effective behavior in terms of one's personal objectives. Whether that behavior is passive, assertive, or aggressive often matters less than whether it works.

  • It helps to see how and why people ignore the ten basic rights listed above. Both passive and aggressive people set themselves up. If you tend to be passive no matter what, some people will take advantage of you. Repeatedly. If, on the other hand, you are usually aggressive, many people will want to distance themselves from you. In either case, getting what you want in this world will become more difficult. That's why it is significant for people to become proficient in the use of a number of specific assertive techniques. It is important to learn:

    1. When to take action and when to lie low.
    2. How to agree with people without admitting you've been wrong or committing yourself to something you don't want to do.
    3. How to frustrate critics and prevent them from getting your goat.
    4. How to get one up and stay one up on any critic.
    5. Ways to force your critic to abandon the game.
    6. How to be comfortable informing others of your feelings and intentions.



Learning to be assertive is often a valuable part of therapy. Many of us did not learn to be assertive during childhood. Quite the opposite. Most of us were encouraged to be passive. That passivity made life easier for the people who raised us, so they approved our unassertive behavior. Unfortunately, being unassertive proves ineffective in far too many of our engagements with others.

When our passivity results in cumulative disappointment, we may "flip" into aggressiveness. Ironically, when being passive doesn't work, we may decide "the heck with it -- I'll do whatever is necessary to get what I want." That is, frustration can lead us into becoming aggressive. If honoring the rights of others fails to provide us with what we want, all too often we go to the opposite extreme.

It is quite useful to be able to choose among the three types of behavior -- passive, assertive, and aggressive. Each has its place. But the one that is always civilized -- and the one that is most effective in a majority of situations -- is assertiveness.

That's why it is important to become adept at being assertive.



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Copyright 1996-2006 William W. Snow



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