Reject the Request Not the Person

Applying the assertiveness formula.


Dr. Jeremy Sutton

2 years ago | 5 min read

Haven’t we all been there. We say ‘yes’ when we mean ‘no’ and fail to speak up while shouting in our heads.

If you are giving in to the demands of others and ignoring your own needs, or failing to speak up when you have something to say, it may be time to work on your assertiveness.

Yet, there could be several reasons your assertiveness is letting you down:

  • Are you trying to fit in?
  • Are you unsure of your worth?
  • Are you unclear on how to assert yourself?
  • Or are you avoiding rocking the boat or being disliked?

And being assertive, rather than passive or aggressive, is crucial to your confidence and vital to your mental wellbeing — let alone building your dreams and leading the life you want.

So, what can assertiveness do for me?

Assertiveness, especially in challenging environments, has many benefits, including:

  • Increasing self-confidence, self-knowledge, and self-respect
  • Building effective communication during conflict or confrontation
  • Earning respect from peers
  • Enabling you to get what you need without trampling on others’ hopes
  • Improving decision making
  • Becoming a better negotiator
  • Helping you become a better leader
  • Improving relationships with your colleagues

When you are successful at being assertive, you stand up for your own best interests without denying the rights of others.

After all, you are being challenged daily to deal with a wide variety of situations in your lives.

Crucially, assertiveness can be learned

Becoming assertive helps you understand that it’s okay to say ‘no’ and express your feelings even when they are unpopular.

After all, being less anxious and able to speak up with confidence plays a vital role in who you are while safeguarding your mental wellbeing.

Whether you concede ground or identify creative solutions that accommodate the needs of others can be down to your degree of assertiveness.

Assertiveness describes how prepared you are to stand up for your opinions when someone else wants a different outcome.

Your challenge is to achieve a balance where you can make yourself heard and achieve your aims even when they are not fully aligned with others.

And yet, the outcome should leave neither party compromised, and ideally be in everyone’s overall interests.

How do I know if I am assertive?

Judy Murphy, in her book, How to Stand Up for Yourself and Win the Respect of Others, says that, before anything else, it is essential to recognize your degree of assertiveness.

To do this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I look people in the eye when I am talking to them? Can I recall their eye color or what glasses they were wearing?
  • Do I project my voice clearly? Or do people ask me to repeat or speak up?
  • Do I speak with confidence? Are my sentences full of “ums” and “uhs”?
  • Do I stand up tall? Or am I slouching and feeling awkward?
  • Do I feel comfortable around others? Am I relaxed or uptight?
  • Can I express how I feel? Do I tell people when feel fed up, annoyed, or frustrated?
  • Do I offer my opinions even when they may be unpopular?
  • Do I defend myself when I am unfairly blamed for something?

If you answered no, it could be that you lack assertiveness.

And if this is the case, you may be spending too much time trying to keep everyone else happy.

How do I start?

Pitch your assertiveness according to your audience and your surroundings.

  • Understand the context: Where are you? How is assertiveness going to be viewed?
  • Evaluate your assertiveness: Is your style successful? Is your assertiveness too much or too little?
  • Set and stick to goals: Why are you not speaking up when you should? What is holding you back?
  • Build relationships: Perceived social barriers may be limiting your assertiveness.
  • Be true to yourself: Be authentic. You can remain friendly and even develop empathy while being more assertive.

Is it what I do or don’t say?

Verbal communication is an opportunity to be assertive so long as you remain calm, open, and work towards resolving conflict.

  1. Be direct without being rude. Say what you mean as clearly as possible.
  2. Be clear. Say no when you are not happy to do something rather than subtle in your refusal.
  3. Calm persistence can be powerful. Repeat each point in a non-confrontational way.
  4. Be grateful, appreciative, and apologize when appropriate. Being assertive does not mean you are always right.
  5. Setting and maintaining boundaries means that you and the person(s) you are dealing with understand your relationship and what is acceptable.
  6. Remember why you are saying no, and make clear the reasons behind your decision.
  7. Tell people what you are looking for and what is not working. Be clear or you will simply sound like you are complaining.

You have rights

Define a set of rules to shift your mindset to one of positivity and growth (check out Judy Murphy’s book, Assertiveness: How to stand up for yourself and still win the respect of others):

Say to yourself out loud:

  • I alone have the right to judge my behavior (bearing in mind what is legal and moral)
  • I have the right not to excuse or justify my behavior (again, this does not include harming others)
  • I have the right to judge whether I am responsible for solving others’ problems
  • I have the right to change my mind
  • I have the right to say I do not know
  • I have the right to make mistakes and take responsibility
  • I have the right only to be responsible to myself and deal with other’s disapproval
  • I have the right to be illogical in my decision-making
  • I have the right to say I don’t understand
  • I have the right to say I don’t care (this may be less straightforward in a workplace environment)

Use an assertiveness formula

Andy Molinsky in A Simple Way to Be More Assertive (Without Being Pushy) recommends the following three-part formula when a difficult situation needs to be addressed, helping you tackle it head-on, clearly, fairly, and without anger:

  1. Begin by stating simply and objectively what has happened or how the other person has behaved
    You should aim to unemotionally get your point across without causing defensiveness.
    For example,

    When you interrupt me during calls…
  2. Next, describe the outcome of their negative behavior
    Explain the problem it is causing for you.
    When you interrupt me during calls,
    I cannot get my point across and share important information.
    Your aim is to explain both the cause and the effect.
  3. End by explaining how you are left feeling
    No one can refute your feelings.
    When you interrupt me during calls,I cannot get my point across and share important information. I am left feeling irrelevant on the calls and angry that no one will listen.

A strong, assertive message can get your points across, is typically well-received, and is highly effective.

Assertiveness is not easy

If assertiveness was easy, we would all be doing it. Start small and practice.

Don’t confuse assertiveness with agression.

Gerard Shaw in Alpha Assertiveness for Men and Women describes assertiveness as a three-legged chair. When the chair has all three legs, it performs well. If one is missing, then you and it will fall.

Consider the following:

Know what you want — be clear (with yourself and others) about what you want and when.

Say what you want — if you do not communicate what you want clearly, how will others know.

Get what you want — through clear communication, along with persistence and determination, you are more likely to get what you need.

Find the balance

Yet, assertive behavior and communication requires us to find a balance.

If being too passive is regarded as giving in to others’ wishes, then being too aggressive is only considering what we want.

And someone that is passive-aggressive may agree with others in public while communicating their feelings of annoyance, anger, and frustration behind closed doors.

Being assertive sits somewhere in the middle.

See it, own it, use it.


Created by

Dr. Jeremy Sutton

Psychologist and writer in Positive and Performance Psychology ( Exploring positive psychology and cognitive science to better understand human potential. Owner of the "Learning to Flourish" community dedicated to sharing the tools for wellbeing (link below).







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