Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Effective Assertion Skill

Say what you need so
 others can hear you:

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW
Member NSRC Experts Council


The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/skills/assert.htm

Updated  01-03-2015

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      This is one of a series of articles in Lesson 2 - learn communication basics and seven powerful skills. Progress with this Lesson depends on concurrent progress on Lesson 1 - free your true Self to guide your personality in calm and conflictual times.

       This article exists because - in my experience - many adults and most kids aren't able to assert their needs and opinions effectively. Asserting well is a learnable skill, based on some key attitudes.

      This brief YouTube video summarizes effective assertion skill: The video mentions eight self-improvement lessons in this Web site. I've reduced that to seven.

      Learn something about yourself with this anonymous 1-question poll.


           This two-page article covers...

  • a place to rate yourself as an effective asserter, 

  • perspective on assertiveness, including a definition of effective assertion, and four types of assertion; 

  • eight steps for preparing and delivering effective assertions,

  • an overview of three-part "I"-message assertions;

  • how to assert "dodge-proof" praise; and...

  • a status check on how you stand with the ideas in this article.

          The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site and the premises underlying it;

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 and 2

  • these Q&A items on communication knowledge

    Rate Yourself

      Say your definition of "effective assertion" out loud. Imagine trying to explain it to an average teen.  Then rate yourself as an asserter recently: on a scale of 1 (I never get my needs met) to 10 (I always get my needs met, while respecting others' rights and needs)...

  • In calm situations with the people who mean the most to me, I'm usually a ___

  • In conflicts with the people who mean the most to me, I'm usually a ___

  • With the people I work with, I'm usually a  ___

  • With strangers or acquaintances, I'm usually a ___

  • When I'm upset and need to assert to myself, I'm usually a ___ 

Would other people who know you pretty well agree with your ratings? Who's rating you here - your true Self or ''someone else''?


      See how your beliefs compare to these premises about the relationship skill of assertion...

      Effective assertion is the art of (a) saying what you need or believe in a way that other people can hear you clearly, and (b) you all feeling respected enough when you finish. This ability is essential for effective problem-solving. The alternatives to assertion are submission (letting other's needs come before yours and possibly violating your integrity, and aggression - forcing your needs or values on another person. Both are lose-lose choices.

Types of Assertion

      There are four types of assertion:

Self-nurturing - stating your perceptions, feelings, and opinions about something (venting) to preserve your self respect and integrity. The goal here is to feel satisfied that you've tried your best to have the other person hear you clearly, vs. agree to some action.

Preventive - the assertion goal here is to get the other person to commit to act now to avoid a future problem;

Reactive assertion aims to have the other person...

  • acknowledge a change you need from them, and/or to...

  • acknowledge limits you set with them about some unacceptable behavior;

      And a surprise type of assertion is...

"Dodge-proof" praise - affirming or appreciating someone in a way they can't easily discount or minimize. This can be fun! More detail on this kind of assertion on the next page.

      In each situation you can assert spontaneously or intentionally. With your Self guiding you, practice, and self-awareness, asserting effectively becomes automatic.

Requisites for Assertion

      To assert effectively (satisfy your and others' current needs) adults and kids need to...

  • be guided by their true Self; and...

  • be clear and firm on their personal rights as dignified, worthy persons; and...

  • believe that their rights, needs, opinions, and dignity (self-respect) are just as valid and important as anyone else's, regardless of age, power, role, or gender;

      And effective asserters need to...

  • become fluent in the communication skills of awareness, clear thinking, digging down, metatalk, and empathic listening.

      Reflect on your reactions to what you just read.  Do you regularly meet these four conditions when asserting with other people? Would people who know you well agree? If you don't (yet), what's in your way?

      Now - compare this framework for asserting well to your present way of declaring your needs and opinions to adults and kids:

       Eight Steps for Effective Assertion

      The following options can be useful in any situation. Your true Self (capital "S") is the best judge of whether each option is necessary. The more you do these, the more automatic they'll become:

Prepare to Assert

Step 1)  Consciously choose to assert (i.e. to follow steps like these); until the skill becomes automatic. The common alternative is being unaware of what you need and what you're doing, which risks being submissive (1-down) or aggressive (1-up). Both are lose-lose attitudes.

Step 2)  Use your awareness skill to get clear on...

  • who's guiding your personality now - your Self (capital "S") or other subselves. If you're often uncomfortable asserting your needs and opinions, see this parts-work strategy when you finish reading this., and...

  • what you feel, and why. Your emotions point to current needs,

      and identify...

  • specifically what you need from your communication partner/s now.


Check yourself for fuzzy thinking (e.g. for vague pronouns and "hand-grenade" (emotionally-provocative) words or phrases;

Recall the difference between surface needs (e.g. "I need the checkbook to be balanced") and underlying primary needs ("I need to lower my anxiety about having our phone turned off again.") If you get what you're asserting for, will it satisfy your primary needs? Use awareness and dig-down skills to answer this.

When you assert, stay aware of your current awareness bubble. Does it include you and your communication partner/s (a "two-person bubble"), or just you? One-person and no-person bubbles usually indicate a false self controls you.

Review these common communication blocks before important assertions. Are there any you want to be alert for with this communication partner?

Remind yourself of the difference between a need conflict ("When you commit to an arrival time, I need you to be prompt."), and a values conflict. In the latter, guard against asserting for something that your partner can't (vs. won't) give you ("I want you to stop this vegetarian fetish."); and...

Clarify whether you're making a request or a demand, and...

Be alert for self-defeating "Be spontaneous!" paradoxes; and... 

Use these wise guidelines in important situations; and...

Review the ways you can assert: (a) in person, over the phone, or in writing, and (b) alone or with other key people present. Each has pros and cons. Which gives you the best odds for being heard clearly?

Step 3)  Make four quick attitude checks on how you honestly feel about …

Your partner's needs. If you believe "they are as legitimate and important as mine now," go ahead. If not, lower your expectations about the outcome of your assertion or explore what's blocking a mutual-respect attitude. Often, it's a well-meaning false self controlling you.

Asking for what you need. If you feel solidly "I have the right to say or ask for this," go ahead. If you’re thinking something like: "I'm really being selfish / pushy / greedy / a pain /..." (inner attitude: "I'm 1-down"), lower your assertion-outcome expectations.

      And check...

Your confidence about handling your partner's reactions to your assertion, like anger, rejection, hurt, defensiveness, or attacking. If you feel confident enough, assert. If you don't, focus on freeing your true Self and review this article on building self confidence. Practicing these steps will increase your  ability to handle "resistances" effectively. And review...

Your expectations about the outcome. If you solidly feel...

  • "We both can get our main needs met here, and...

  • we both will probably feel OK about it,"

then assert your needs and/or opinions. If your dominant subselves believe "This assertion won't work," it probably won't. As your fluency with the seven communication skills grows, your effectiveness will rise and the attitudes above will become more automatic.

      Recall - we're reviewing eight steps (options) for asserting your needs and opinions effectively with adults and kids. We just reviewed three preparation steps. Now you're ready to...


Step 4)

  • Reduce any significant environmental, emotional, or bodily distractions,

  • define what specific outcome you want from asserting, and then...

  • choose a time and place where your partner is minimally distracted; and...

  • assert your needs or opinions simply, clearly, directly, one at a time, with respectful eye contact.

The more words you use, the greater the chance for confusion and distraction. If you're really clear on what you need, one or two sentences is often enough.


If you're asserting a boundary (personal limit) - e.g. "I need you to stop leaving your wet towel on the bathroom floor." be clear on what specific action you'll take (a consequence) if the other person chooses to ignore (disrespect) your boundary ("If you 'forget,' I'll drop the towel on your pillow as a reminder.")

Watch your pronouns!  If you state your needs as "You need to ___...", you risk being perceived as arrogantly dictating what the other person must do, feel, or believe. Remember how you felt the last time someone did that to you? A safer choice is taking responsibility for your need or opinion: "I need you to..."  

Step 5) Expect "resistance" from your partner, without judgment. It's a normal human response, not weakness, defensiveness, cowardice, bad, or wrong! This expectation and attitude are essential for successful assertions! Do you agree?

Step 6)  Let your partner finish responding to your assertion (unless s/he's too long-winded). Then use respectful empathic listening until your partner's E(motion)-level  drops "below their ears."

      If you start to blame, debate, disagree, or over-justify your needs after your partner responds, a false-self probably controls you. Breathe, free your true Self (capital "S"), and stay focused on requesting or demanding what you need now from your partner. Expect more resistance, without blame!

      If you're not clear on empathic listening, review this brief YouTube video:

       When you feel the other person can hear you, then…

Step 7)  Stay focused, in case your partner brings up other issues or changes the subject. Repeat steps 4 - 6 as needed: re-state your needs clearly, firmly, and directly, using respectful empathic listening and steady eye contact with each new resistance, until you…

get (a) a clear, credible agreement, or (b) an acceptable compromise or refusal, or (c) new information that justifies switching from assertion to mutual problem solving; or you…

run out of time. In important assertions, plan lots of undistracted time for your interaction!

Step 8)  Note the outcome of your assertion. If you and your partner/s each got your primary needs met well enough, thank them and appreciate yourself! If someone didn't get key needs met well enough, use awareness, metatalk, and empathic listening skills to discover what would work better the next time. Maintain the nonjudgmental, curious "mind of a student," and consider adopting the motto:

"Progress, not perfection"...

       Breath and reflect... what's your self-talk now? (e.g. "This is silly"; or "I could never do these steps"; or "Too academic - unreal and phony"; or "Hmm - maybe I could experiment with these steps. What's the risk?"...)

       Do you feel these eight effective-assertion steps really could work for you? Could you assert in key situations and leave any of these options out? If you don't normally do some version of these steps to meet your needs with other people, what do you do? Do you usually satisfy your primary needs? Is anything in the way of trying these steps?

          Now let's look at a powerful type of assertion:

  Assertive "I" Messages

      This YouTube clip previews what you'll read here:

       Unaware asserters can lower their odds for meeting everyone's needs by using provocative "you" messages, like "You always / never / need to /..." Depending on voice tone and body language, these are often received as disrespectful criticisms. This usually raises the receiver's E(motion)-level, which blocks effective listening and win-win problem solving.

      A better alternative is to use sincere (vs. manipulative) "I" messages to assert your need or opinion. These assertions describe what you are an expert on: your perceptions, feelings, values, and needs. "I" messages have two or three parts:

"When you... (describe some specific behavior that could be recorded on audio or video tape),

"... I..."  (summarize factually how that behavior affects you, without name-calling, lecturing, or criticism)...

(optional) "... and I need you to (commit to making a specific attitude and/or behavior change.)"

      This sounds like "Alex, when you interrupt me frequently, I feel disrespected and distracted, and want to stop talking with you. I need you to be more aware of interrupting, and to let me finish before you respond."

      Avoid bringing up the past, lecturing, and/or elaborating on the last 22 times your partner has done (whatever). Keep it simple!


  • limit your descriptions to behaviors that could be recorded on audio or video tape, like a reporter or scientist; and...

  • avoid using labels, provocative words, accusations, and vague or general terms ("When you're so selfish and insensitive all the time...")

      Well-composed, "I" messages - delivered calmly, with steady, respectful eye contact - have a better chance of being received as information vs. criticism. This is less likely if the receiving person is shame-based (wounded). With all assertions, use respectful empathic listening to affirm your partner's responses, and demonstrate that you heard (vs. agree with) them.

      When you finish here, try this "I"-message worksheet to raise your awareness and effectiveness.

      Recall the four kinds of assertion: self-nurturing, preventive, reactive, and praise. Let's look at the last one now...

Assert "Dodge-proof" Praise

       Have you ever complimented someone who ignored, deflected, or minimized your praise? ("Ah, I was just lucky, Anyone could've done that.") Shame-based (wounded) people automatically diminish or "dodge" sincere praise because narrow-focused subselves feel (a) it isn't deserved, and/or (b) accepting the praise would risk big trouble (e.g. excessive guilt from having a "swelled head" or "being "egotistical" or "self-centered."

        This brief YouTube video offers perspective on what you're about to read.

       A mutually-pleasing assertion option is to use...

a mutual-respect attitude, and...

a two-person awareness bubble and...

a thoughtful I-message, and...

empathic listening, if needed...

to express genuine (vs. dutiful or strategic) praise that can't easily be shrugged off. For example:

  • "Maria, when you got your friends to wash the dishes, put them away, and take the trash out after your slumber party (specific recordable actions),...

  • I felt considered, respected, and relieved I didn't have to do those chores (concrete effect on your life)...

  • Thank you for your thoughtfulness!

        If Maria tries to deflect, minimize, or nullify your praise ("Ah, no big deal"), use empathic listening...

  • "You don't feel you all doing those courtesies are special."...

  • then patiently reassert your praise with friendly eye contact.

Notice the difference between this way of expressing specific praise and saying something vague (or a negative compliment) like "Hey, thanks for not leaving your usual mess!"

        Experiment with asserting merited praise and affirmations - specially with people who fear, distrust, or disrespect you - and notice what happens over time. Three keys:

don't do this to "get something" (strategic, vs. genuine praise), other than feeling good;

use steady eye contact, and...

don't expect satisfaction unless your Self leads your other subselves and the other person is undistracted and can hear you - i.e. their E-level is "below their ears."

        For more perspective, read about giving other people feedback after you finish this article.

        Notice with interest what your subselves are saying now about learning to assert dodge-proof praise and enjoying the results. Think of people you might like asserting "dodge-proof" praise to now. Is there anything in the way of your experimenting with doing so?

        We've covered a lot here, so pause, reflect, and take a...

Status Check

        See where you stand now on these ideas. "T" = "true; "F" - false; and "?" = "I'm not sure," or "it depends on (what?)"

  • I think of myself as an assertive person now (T  F  ?)

  • I can clearly describe the difference between assertion, aggression, and submission to an average teenager now (T  F  ?)

  • I can clearly define effective assertion now.  (T  F  ?)

  • I can describe how assertion relates to the skill of problem-solving now. (T  F  ?)

  • I can name the four kinds of assertion now. (T  F  ?)

  • I can describe the three parts of an assertive "I" message, and the (common) alternative to "I" messages.  (T  F  ?)

  • I'm clear on the difference between a request and a demand now. (T  F  ?)

  • I can clearly describe what an interpersonal boundary is to a typical pre-teen. (T  F  ?)

  • I regularly use my own Personal Bill of Rights as the basis for my assertions; or I'm evolving my Bill now, and learning to live by it without guilt, anxiety, and/or shame. (T  F  ?)

  • I can (a) clearly define empathic listening, and (b) I know how and when to use it in my assertions. (T  F ?)

  • I (a) can describe what R(espect) messages are, and I (b) know how they relate to making effective assertions (T  F ?)

  • I'm intentionally coaching each minor child in my life to be an effective asserter and communicator now (T  F ?)

  • I'm firmly motivated to improve the effectiveness of my assertions now; or if not, I know what's in the way (T  F ?)

  • My true Self just answered these questions (T  F ?)

        Pause, breathe, and reflect - what are you aware of now?

table of contents       The goals of Lesson 2 are for your adults to (a) learn and adapt seven effective-communication skills to your personalities and communication styles, and (b) each become fluent in using the skills to improve everyone filling more of their current primary needs effectively.

        My unique, practical guidebook for Lesson 2 integrates the key Web materials here: Satisfactions - 7 relationship skills you need to know (Xlibris.com, 2nd ed., 2010).


        This article outlines one of seven powerful communication (relationship) skills that every adult and child needs to become adept at: effective assertion. Until people evolve fluency and confidence with these skills, they're often submissive ("I'm 1-down"), or aggressive ("I'm 1-up") in declaring their opinions, boundaries, and needs. Effective assertion is essential for win-win problem solving.

        The article proposes 8 specific steps for composing and delivering effective assertions. Three keys to doing this are...

  • prepare well,

  • get very clear on what you really need from the other person, and...

  • calmly handle expected resistances with respectful empathic listening + firm re-assertion, until you feel heard well enough (vs. agreed with) or you shift into problem solving.

Next: explore your assertion profile, and learn from this assertion practice, Then continue working on Lesson 2.

        Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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