Assert Yourself in Four Easy Steps

Assertiveness – asking for something you need or saying no to a request – is a skill that is difficult for many people. It can be hard to speak directly about your needs while striking the right tone – not coming across as too aggressive or, perhaps even worse, too passive. Here are a few tips adapted from Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) to consider when thinking through a conversation where you would like to be assertive.

Use the acronym DEAR to remember the steps of assertiveness.

Step 1: Describe the situation to the person, focusing on just the facts of the situation (“The last 3 times we have met for dinner you have arrived more than 20 minutes late.”). This orients the person to the situation and gets you both on the same page.

Step 2: Express your opinion or how you feel about the situation (“I get frustrated waiting for you and start to wonder if you want to meet up with me.“). This helps the other person understand how the situation is affecting you and even empathize with how you feel.

Step 3: Assert what you need in the situation (“I’d like you to arrive on time when we hang out.”). Remember to state your request or your refusal clearly and directly!

Step 4: Reinforce your assertion by explaining the positive effects of getting what you want (“I’d look forward to our dinners more and be less stressed when you arrive if you can be on time.”).

Notice how you can capture a lot in just a few sentences. You might be surprised by how little you need to defend or justify yourself if you say things clearly, directly, and with confidence. Don’t be afraid to repeat your DEAR a couple times if the conversation strays from the topic and, be willing to negotiate – give a little to get a little of what you need without sacrificing your goals.

As you present your DEAR statements, keep in mind that some extra attention to the other person can go a long way. Use the acronym GIVE to remember to:

  • Be gentle (no attacks, threats, or eye rolling!).

  • Act interested in the other person by asking questions and not interrupting.

  • Validate the other person’s feelings and thoughts about the situation.

  • Use an easy manner – a smile and some humor can make the conversation more pleasant for everyone.

While being aware of the relationship is important, it’s also critical that you come away from the discussion with a sense of self-respect – like you stood up for yourself and handled the situation appropriately. To support your self-respect, remember the acronym FAST:

  • Be fair to yourself and others by validating your own feelings and the feelings of the other person.

  • Avoid (over)apologizing – such as apologizing for having an opinion or disagreeing.

  • Stick to your values by not agreeing to something that goes against your morals.

  • Be truthful by not exaggerating or making up excuses.

Even if you don’t get your objective met, it’s important to feel good about how you handled the conversation. And if you need extra motivation to act assertively, you can think about the short-term versus long-term impact on the relationship. Being too aggressive or too passive in a relationship may satisfy your short-term urges, such as to lash out at someone in anger or to avoid conflict altogether. However, if you do not stick up for your needs in the short-term you risk damaging the relationship in the long-term.

Kate White, Ph.D.