Hiss, but never bite

© Jorgan Harris

1. Introduction

More often than not; people find it very difficult to say “yes” to what they want, but find it even more difficult to say “no” to something they don’t.

I hope the following will help you to achieve just that: to gain the ability to stand up for yourself, even when it’s difficult.

It is called “assertiveness”.  Assertiveness is an attitude, a way to behave in a situation where you may need to:

  • express your feelings
  • ask for what you want and
  • say “no” to something you don’t want

In order to be assertive, you may need to improve your self-esteem.  You also may experience higher anxiety levels or even depression.  If this is the case, it may be useful to consult with a psychologist.

2. Alternative behaviour styles

Assertiveness is a way of acting that strikes a balance between two extremes: aggressiveness and submissiveness.

Non-assertive or submissive behaviour involves yielding to someone else’s preferences while discounting your own rights and needs.  You don’t express your feelings or let others know what you want and the result is that they remain ignorant of your feelings or desires.

Aggressive behaviour may involve communicating in a demanding, abrasive and even hostile way with others.

Assertive behaviour involves asking for what you want (or saying ”no”) in a simple, direct fashion that does not negate, attack or manipulate anyone else.  You communicate your feelings and needs honestly and directly while maintaining respect and consideration for others.  You stand up for yourself and your rights without apologising or feeling guilty.  In essence, assertiveness involves taking responsibility for your own needs, met in a way that preserves the dignity of other people.  Others feel comfortable when you are assertive because they know where you stand.  They respect you for your honesty and forthrightness.

Schematically, it may look like this:

How needs are addressed

3. Becoming more assertive   

“I was raised to be ‘nice’. Which is fine, I guess, except that ‘nice’ meant never saying what you wanted, never saying ‘no,’ and never having an opinion different from anyone else. I thought the only way to be assertive was to yell and get red in the face. It took a while to learn that I could be honest and still be considered ‘nice”.

Assertiveness means more than just being able to voice your complaints. It is a set of communication skills that allow you to express respect and care for yourself and others. It means being able to say what you want to say when it is time to say it and feeling comfortable in doing so. Whether you want to express affection or annoyance; assertiveness skills are useful.

What does it mean to be assertive? The table below, adapted from work by Dr Lynn Alden (Paterson, McLean, Alden and Koch 1996), compares assertiveness with submissiveness and aggressiveness. As you read over each row, place a checkmark in the box that describes you best. When you are done, see which column has the most check marks.

4. Key points about assertiveness 

Assertiveness is how to portray yourself; not your core personality. Some people feel that they can’t be assertive because they don’t have the personality for it. However, assertiveness is a skill and not a personality trait and as with any newly acquired skill, it can feel awkward at first. It gradually becomes more comfortable as you master it. Just as it takes time to learn to ride a bicycle, it takes time to become more comfortable being assertive.

  • Start easy. Perhaps there is one person in your life who is especially difficult to be assertive with and if so, don’t start with them. Start with people who are a bit less threatening. As you become more confident, you can take on more and more difficult situations. Save the hardest person for last.
  • It’s not necessary to be assertive all the time. Some situations call for less assertiveness than others. You might accept a cup of tea from Aunt May even after you have said you don’t want one. When you are alone with someone you know to be violent it may not be safe for you to be assertive. When you are safe and when the issue is important to you, however, assertiveness generally leads to better results than the alternatives
  • Ask for time. Some people think of the right thing to say after the discussion is over. They get talked into things and then regret it later. If you realise during a discussion that you would like to be more assertive but can’t think of what to say, ask for time. Use phrases like, “I can’t answer that right now,’ or “I’ll let you know next Tuesday.” This will give you the time you need to think the situation through. As assertiveness becomes a habit, you will learn to respond faster.

5. You have basic rights 

Before you can become assertive, you will need to keep a few things in mind.

As human-beings, we all have basic rights.  Developing assertiveness involves recognising that you, along with everyone else, have a right to everything listed under the personal bill of rights.


Personal Bill of rights


6. Mistaken assumptions and new affirmations

Example: Even though it is selfish to put my needs before others, I can put myself first sometimes.

Mistaken Assumptions

New Affirmations

It’s selfish to put my needs before others. I can put myself first sometimes.
Mistakes are shameful. I have a right to make mistakes.
If others don’t agree with my feelings, my feelings must be wrong. I am the final judge of my own feelings.
I should respect the views of others, especially if they’re in a position of authority. My personal opinions are valid and important.
I must always be logical and consistent. I can change my mind if I want to.
I’m boring. No one would be interested in me. I am worth knowing.
It’s not polite to question the actions of others. I have a right to protest any action or criticism that seems wrong to me.
Interrupting is rude. Asking questions shows how dumb I am. I can interrupt when I need clarification.
Things could get even worse. Don’t rock the boat. I can negotiate for change.
I have nothing to say worth listening to. I can contribute to the conversation.
I shouldn’t take up others’ valuable time with my problems. I can ask for help and emotional support when I need it.
Everyone can see how lame and awkward I am. They’re worried about their own images, not mine.
Nobody wants to hear about how bad I feel. I should keep it to myself. I have a right to feel and express unhappiness.
I should take all advice to heart It’s OK to ignore others’ advice.
I can’t think of anything to say. I can always talk about my shyness.
Knowing I did something well is its own reward. Nobody likes a showoff. I celebrate my own successes. I accept compliments graciously.
I should always accommodate others I have a right to say no.
I’m unworthy. I’m worthwhile just because I exist.
I must be open and available to people. No one must think I’m asocial. I can choose to be alone, even if others would prefer my company.
I should always have a good reason for what I do. I don’t have to justify myself to others.
They’ll reject me. No mind reading! No predictions!
When someone is in trouble, I should always try to help. I can decline responsibility for other peoples’ problems.
Anyone I like won’t like me. I’m willing to take a chance.
I try to be sensitive to the needs and wishes of other people, even when they can’t express them. I don’t have to anticipate other people’s needs and wishes. I reject mind reading.
It’s not nice to put people off. I can choose not to respond to a situation.

7. Being assertive

In order to be assertive and to ask of what you do want and to say ‘no” for what you don’t want, in order to get to the point where you can confidently state what you do and don’t want, you may want to follow the following steps.

Evaluate your rights within the situation at hand.

Refer back to your Personal Bill of Rights; what are your rights in this situation. What gives you the right to ask for something you want and say no to something you don’t.

Before being assertive, ask yourself the following three questions:

If I am assertive:

  • What is the worst thing that can happen?
  • If it does happen, realistically, how bad is it anyway?
  • What are the chances for it to happen (since most things we worry about, actually never happen anyway)?

Designate a time for discussing what you want

Find a mutually convenient time to discuss the problem with the other person involved.  Don’t attempt to organise a meeting at a time that isn’t convenient for everyone involved; maybe say to the person that you have something to discuss with them and would like to do so at their earliest convenience. It is a good idea to sit opposite one another at a table for instance.

Keep your tone of voice:

  • Soft
  • Slow
  • Low

When you scream and shout, you will only evoke the same behaviour in the other person.  A screaming match never solved anything.  When you scream and shout – you activate the other person’s “fight-or-flight” reaction.  Your adrenaline levels increase which evokes feelings of fighting or running away and all rationality is then lost.  When you speak in a relaxed way, the other person will tend to listen to you and react accordingly.

Take time out.

When you start to feel angry, realise it is not going to solve anything; take time out and discharge your feelings.  You may go outside and shout to get rid of your emotions, or you may take your pillow and imagine it is the other person’s face and hit him/her.  It is important to discharge your feelings before you re-engage in conversation again.

Express your feelings about the particular situation.

By telling other people about your feelings, you let them know how greatly their behaviour affects you and your reactions.

In expressing feelings, always be sure to own your reactions rather than blaming them on someone else.  The best way is by always remembering to begin your statements about your feelings with “I” rather than “You”.  “I – statements” shows that you acknowledge and take responsibility for your own emotions, while “You-statements” portrays a judgmental and accusatory attitude which will put the other person on the defensive and obstruct communication.  Begin a sentence with: “I feel this or that” instead of saying: “You make me angry”.

Suggest your solution for the conflict.

This is the key step to being assertive.  You simply ask for what you want (or don’t want) in a direct, straightforward manner.

Use assertive non-verbal behaviour

  • Look directly at a person when addressing them
  • Keep an open body posture
  • Don’t back off or move too close to the person.

Keep your request simple

  • Stay calm.  When you feel angry or excited, take time out and discharge your emotions somewhere else before you engage in the conversation again.
  • Avoid asking for more than one thing at a time.  This may create confusion, anger and irritation in the other person involved.
  • Be specific – ask for exactly what you want.

Use I-statements such as:

  • “I would like…”
  • “I want to…”
  • “I would appreciate it if…”

Object to behaviour, not to personalities

  • Let them know you are having a problem with something they are doing (or not doing), not with who they are as a person.
  • Don’t apologise for your request
  • Make requests, not demands or commands
  • Tell the person the consequences of gaining (or not gaining) his or her co-operation. With close friends or intimate partners, stating positive consequences of their compliance with your request can be an honest offer of give-and-take rather than manipulation.

8. Learning to say “no”

An important aspect of being assertive is your ability to say “no” to requests that you don’t want to meet.  Saying “no” means that you set limits on other people’s demands for your time and energy when such demands conflict with your own needs and desires.  It also means that you can do this without feeling guilty.

In some cases, especially if you’re dealing with someone with whom you don’t want to promote a relationship, just saying “No, thank you”, or “No, I’m not interested” in a firm, polite manner should suffice.  If the other person persists, just repeat your statement calmly without apologising.  You may have to use the broken record technique.  Remember the days of records?  What happened when a record got stuck…got stuck…got stuck…got stuck?  You just repeat your declination: “No I’m not interested” over and over again in the same words and the same tone of voice.  Normally people will stop after the third attempt.  And remember, you don’t have to give any explanation, let your ‘no” be your “no”. If you need to make your statement stronger and more empathic, you may want to:

  • Look the person directly in the eyes,
  • Raise the level of your voice slightly and
  • Assert your position: “I said – no thank you”.

In many other instances – with acquaintances, friends and family – you may want to give the other person some explanation for turning down their request.  Here it’s often useful to follow a three-step procedure:

  1. Acknowledge the other person’s request by repeating it.
  2. Explain your reason for declining.
  3. Say “no”.
  4. (Optional).  If appropriate, suggest an alternative proposal where both your and the other person’s needs will be met.

Use Step 4 only if you can easily see a way for both you and the other person to meet each other halfway.

9. A Metaphor: What the snake can teach you about being too nice 

The snake was vicious, snarling and dangerous. He terrified the villagers, biting the children and scaring all the adults. But sometimes he felt lonely and craved companionship.

One day, a wise man wandered into the village. He clearly saw the chaos the snake’s actions had brought.

This is a story and in his wisdom, he spoke to the snake and, on gaining the reprobate’s trust, said, “Listen up, snake. You’re not only making the people here unhappy, but you yourself are clearly miserable. Practice some kindness and gentleness to improve the lot of everyone here, including yourself.”

And so, the wise man went on his way.

Years later, the wise one happened to pass again through that same village. To his surprise, he saw an inert, passive plaything being kicked by the children. He realised that this was, in fact, none other than the formally aggressive serpent he had words with years before. The snake managed to free himself from his tormentors and slide up to the man.

“Your advice was disastrous!” he hissed faintly. “Practicing gentleness has brought me complete misery! Now I’m used as a toy, laughed at and taken for granted. I was better off before!”

The old man replied, “You took my advice too literally and without reflection. I said that you shouldn’t bite… but I didn’t say you should never hiss!”


10. Questionnaire — How assertive are you?

Understanding your scores

You can now interpret your scores using the following information:

  • The highest of your four totals may indicate that this is your predominant behaviour. 
  • The lowest of all your totals may indicate that this is your least preferred pattern of behaviour.
  • If all your totals are low, this may indicate an overall level of passivity, showing a lack of self-assurance and doubt in your ability when answering the questions.
  • If assertive and passive totals are close, this may indicate a strengthening of your assertive approach. It shows you are asserting yourself more often, although a predominant passive insecurity influences a retreat to a people-pleasing position.
  • If passive and aggressive totals are close, this may indicate a low self-esteem and insecurity, which underlies both behaviours. You may, for example, bottle up emotions and then explode with frustration when you can take no more.  You then feel guilty about your outburst and return to a passive standpoint.
  • If assertive and aggressive totals are close, this may indicate an imbalance of your self-expression and a dominant feeling of frustration. As you experiment with your assertion, you may still find yourself shouting or finger pointing when you struggle to get your views across.  This will rebalance the more you practise.

How you can use these results to your advantage?

The questionnaire helps you build a better understanding of your behaviour patterns and you can now build on your discoveries.

  • Based on the questionnaire exercise, test out your results over the next two weeks.  Form a more concrete analysis by talking to people you trust about how they see you; notice your behaviours in action and take note of the patterns that are most dominant for you.
  • Explore whether these behaviour patterns are different at work versus at home.  If they are different, explore why that might be and what is it about one domain that produces a more confident behaviour the other?
  • Notice specific situations or people that influence you to react in an unassertive way. What is it about the person or event that provokes that reaction?