What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is much more to do with fearless equality than with aggressive superiority. Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash

To be assertive is not to be loud, or gregarious.  Nor is it a question of dominance – many assertive behaviours do not need to rely on holding power over others.  Perhaps commercial leadership training is to blame for making us think we are all supposed to be leaders over subordinates or followers.

Yes, there are other forms of ‘assertiveness’, more rooted in a biological framework, such as the idea of ‘alpha’ behaviour.

But a more general and supra-biological assertiveness is maybe rooted in a right primary relationship with the self, which then filters through to confident, un-fearful relationships with others. 


To offer an example, we can think about arguments.  People often drift into arguments, which are essentially conflicts of viewpoint or direction.  Two or more people are seeing the world a different way, or going a different way.  If they have to share the same living space, then there is a likelihood of conflict when the same resources, mental or physical, are available to each side.

If one party to a conflict is not in a comfortable relationship with themselves or their thoughts, then this discomfort will tend to express itself in angry or aggressive behaviour.  The behaviour is essentially internal conflict pushed blindly outwards, in the same way that a boiled saucepan emits steam.

This kind of anger or aggression is not really assertiveness, as it doesn’t have its root in any particular intentional good action.  It is just an externalisation of internal struggle.  A reaction.  In this sense, the opposite of assertiveness is probably ‘mindless reactivity’.  Nothing can easily be asserted if the mind and body are not under control.


In contrast, one party to an argument may be in a comfortable relationship with themselves and their thoughts.  Being under control, they are then free to decide how to respond to the existence of the argument, and to the presence of a sense of conflict.

Sometimes they may respond by offering a viewpoint.  Sometimes they may ask about another’s viewpoint.  Sometimes (but probably rarely) they may respond by impose a limit on another person’s behaviour.  And sometimes (possibly quite often) they may respond by remaining relatively silent on the issue at hand, offering peaceful words or a kind gesture to keep the situation amicable.

Assertive action is highly contextual.  To detect truly assertive behaviour, therefore, we would have to be familiar with the inner thoughts of the person.  We would have to know whether they were simply reacting angrily, or peacefully choosing a course of action.  It is a question of intention.


When developing ourselves, we might want to move away from aggressive or fearful reactivity, to assertive intentionality.  To do this, we need to remain mindfully aware of both the external situation and our own mental state.  If we lose our awareness of either situation or self, we can easily fall back into reactivity.


Just for today, try to be constantly aware of all the situations around you, and also of your own inner state.  Just as in meditation, try to find a position of comfort.  Let your feelings be your guide.  If you feel deeply uncomfortable, then trust that you have got something wrong.  If you feel more secure and happy, then trust that your thoughts are probably getting clearer.

Try to find wisdom in all your responses.  In particular, choose wisely between:

  • offering a view
  • listening to another’s view
  • imposing a limit
  • remaining silent

In all cases it should be possible to continue offering kind words or peaceful gestures.

Remember that assertiveness is no more than making wise choices from a position of peaceful self-control.


The above doesn’t mean that we float over life, not engaging with others in conflict situations.  That can be very annoying to others, as it looks rather superior and aloof.  It also means that we cannot learn – we need to be stimulated out of our complacency in order to achieve an energetic development path, full of positive and interactive change.

Assertive engagement can certainly involve struggle, and be difficult at times.  But, with a degree of intentionality and self-mastery, it is more likely to be a constructive and equal struggle in collaboration with others, free from blame or recrimination.