Teaching Clients to Become Assertive

Assertiveness is the ability to express one’s feelings, opinions, beliefs and needs directly, openly and honestly, assert one’s rights whilst respecting the feelings and rights of another (Lloyd, 1998). Non-assertive individuals may be passive, aggressive or passive-aggressive.

Assertive individuals have fewer conflicts in their dealings with others, which translates into less stress in their lives. It also results in stronger, more supportive relationships which can assist clients with stress management (Downing, 1995).

Passive clients avoid conflict by not communicating their needs and feelings, but these behaviours can damage relationships over time. They can feel like victims, avoiding confrontation. The other party doesn’t know there’s a problem until the formerly passive individual reacts with explosion (Stress, 2006).

Aggressiveness, in contrast, can alienate others and create undue stress. Those on the receiving end of the aggressive behaviour can feel attacked and frequently avoid the aggressive individual.

Over time, people who behave aggressively have more failed relationships and little social support. They don’t understand that this is often related to their own aggressive tendencies. Interestingly, they often feel like victims, too (Stress, 2006).

It is beneficial for clients who are struggling with passive or aggressive communication to be encouraged by counsellors to become more assertive. In this article, we discuss the assertiveness skills that can be used to teach clients.

How can a client become more assertive?

Step one: Assessment of current communication style – The first step in teaching a client to become more assertive is for the counsellor to assess their communication style.

Inviting a client to answer the following questions will assist in gaining insight into the client’s current communication patterns and offer an avenue for discussing changes in their communication approach.

  • Do you have difficulty accepting constructive criticism?
  • Do you find yourself saying ‘yes’ to requests that you should really say ‘no’ to, just to avoid disappointing people?
  • Do you have trouble voicing a difference of opinion with others?
  • Do people tend to feel alienated by your communication style when you do disagree with them?
  • Do you feel attacked when someone has an opinion different from your own?

(Source: Rees & Graham, 1991)

Step two: Communication skills – The second step is to teach clients how to apply assertive communication in practice. The following skill-set provides an established procedure that clients may adopt when they are first learning how to communicate assertively.

Assertive Communication Techniques:

  • Stating – When you do ……., when I see you ………, I feel…………
  • Checking – I am not quite sure how clearly I explained that, could you tell me what you think I said?
  • Insisting – Yes, I understand that you are busy.  However, I need to speak to you urgently.
  • Compromise – I can see that you are very busy right now, can we arrange a time that is convenient for both of us?
  • Goal setting – Would you be satisfied if we………?
  • Goal inviting – What do you suggest that we do so that both of us are happy?
  • Reflecting – Do you feel ……. when I……? I can see that you are really angry.
  • Accepting – I can understand why you might think that, or how you came to that conclusion.
  • Inquiring – Were you upset by………………….?

(Source: Rees & Graham, 1991)

Step three: Assertive listening – The third step in assertiveness skills training is assertive listening. According to McBride (1998) the primary goals of assertive listening are:

to accurately understand what another is saying
to acknowledge that the other person has been understood

The resource included below may assist in working with clients on developing their assertive communication skills.

Client Resource – Assertiveness Worksheet

Assertive communication demands the use of direct, honest and appropriate expression of personal opinions, needs or desires.  By communicating assertively, you are more likely to achieve your purpose. Using more forceful strategies such as verbal attack or harsh criticism ignites negative responses from others and can cause relationship tension.

TIP – When formulating assertive responses it may be helpful to remember the use of “I” messages. Starting a sentence with “you” can come across as a judgement or condemnation of the other person.

By focusing more on yourself, it conveys less blame and more personal ownership of your feelings. This might be a helpful formula – “I feel _________, when _____________.”

For example: Instead of saying, “You never do anything around the house”, try “I feel frustrated when I have to do so much around the house.”

Points to remember:

  • Be conscious of your body language. Try to ensure that your non-verbal messages reflect confidence – stand tall, maintain eye contact and try to relax.
  • Use a firm tone but maintain a pleasant demeanour.
  • Don’t assume the motives or thoughts of the other person, ask questions and try to understand their point of view.
  • Remember to listen.
  • Try to find a compromise.
  • Consider the following scenario:

You have just settled on the couch to watch your favourite TV show. 15 minutes into the program your partner arrives home and says, “Quickly change the channel. The football is on!” and proceeds to grab the remote.

What would be a verbally aversive response to this situation?
What would be an assertive response to this situation?

A Case Example – Assertiveness Training

Anna is an administrative officer working for the Police Force.  She routinely arrives at work early and leaves late. Recently she has been feeling frustrated, taken advantage of and annoyed at herself that she can’t say no to her bosses when they request something from her.

She is afraid that they will dismiss her if she doesn’t comply.  She comes to you for counselling to learn how to say no and subsequently reduce her stress.


  • Downing, J., (1995). Finding your voice: Reclaiming personal power through communication. NSW: Allen & Unwin.
  • Lloyd, S, R. (1988). Developing assertiveness. California: Crisp.
  • McBride, P. (1988). The assertive social worker.  England: Ashgate.
  • Rees, S., & Graham, R.S., (1991). Assertion training: How to be who you really are. London: Routledge.
  • Stress, (2006). Retrieved on 5 October, 2007 from http://www.stress.about.com/od.

Source: www.mentalhealthacademy.com.au