The Power of Assertiveness

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Welcome to a new series of short pieces aimed to help chemical engineers develop their professional skills. In this piece we look at the power of assertiveness and how we might adopt assertive behaviour to good effect.

LET'S pretend we are in a team of people, working on a technical problem. Things are going well, the project is on track and well resourced, people are relaxed, and the client is making positive noises. Conversations and meetings are convivial. We accept minor differences between us and our colleagues. Now let’s introduce some adversity into the project. Maybe there’s a constraint on resources, or time, coupled with a new team member who is competitive. Quite quickly the team might move to a situation where there is disagreement and tension between the members. Meetings that were once convivial have now turned tense, and the project is now slipping behind, which fuels the tension further.

People respond to disagreement in different ways. Some may adopt passive behaviour, giving in to views of others. Some may adopt aggressive behaviour, trying to impose their views on others. Some may adopt passive-aggressive behaviour in which they exhibit a passive exterior but aggressively try to influence events by subversion. These modes of behaviour are natural responses to tension or the possibility of tension between people. The mode adopted depends on a person’s character and their experiences that have shaped them and helped them cope in the past. The primary thing these behaviours have in common is that they are generally not constructive.

Assertive behaviour offers an alternative pathway for interaction that leads to more constructive outcomes. It is characterised by the recognition that both parties have valid views and opinions, and focusses on the issues rather than the individuals. According to Alberti1, assertiveness is behaviour that enables a person to:

  • Act in their own best interests.
  • Stand up for themselves without undue anxiety.
  • Express their honest feelings comfortably.
  • Exercise their own rights without denying the rights of others.

Another way of looking at assertiveness is being able to state positively what you think, or feel, or want. We will return to this shortly. Typical characteristics of the four modes of behaviour can be summed up as follows:


  • My rights do not matter

  • I must hide my feelings

  • Poor eye contact, withdrawn

  • Hesitant and quiet speech


  • My rights are most important
  • Hostility, anger, resentment
  • Confrontational body language
  • Loud and direct speech


  • My rights are most important

  • Hostility, anger, resentment

  • Sullen, icy body language

  • Snide comments and muttering or gossip


  • All individuals have rights

  • My desires should not be denied or pursued at the expense of others

  • Even-tempered

  • Channels frustration to the situation, not the people

  • Upright, comfortable posture

  • Direct eye contact

  • Open body language

  • Clear, direct, and concise speech

  • Expresses own views and listens to views of others

So how do we adopt assertive behaviour when faced with a disagreement? These simple steps are a good starting point.

  • Check in with yourself. Ask yourself whether you are tempted to react to this situation in an aggressive, passive or passive-aggressive manner. Recognise this, and put it to one side.
  • Ask yourself – what might be going on for the other person? What might be fuelling tension for them? Are they responding in a passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive manner? This can help you avoid making the situation worse unintentionally.
  • Determine your position. Ask yourself: what do I know or feel or want?
  • Positively state what you know or feel or want.

Easy eh? No.

But here’s a really powerful method to craft an assertive statement. We have to make our statements personal. Here’s some examples.

Each of the initial "thoughts" above can be interpreted as criticisms and are likely to result in defensive response degenerating into a sort of “Oh no it wasn’t! Oh yes it was!”

By personalising the statement, expressing what you think or feel or want, the sting of criticism is removed. Furthermore, it is difficult for someone to argue that you do not think or feel or want something. You have got your point across assertively and if you remain in assertive mode the chances are that you will get a positive result from the encounter. Bear in mind that a few other skills might help such as attentive listening, and fluency in body language.

The power of assertiveness is useful in every situation where there is potential for disagreement. That would cover every professional interaction that I can think of, as well as interactions with friends and family outside work. I suggest you think of some current situations of your own, define what you know, think or want, and then spend some time crafting assertive statements as an alternative.

Remember this is a behaviour that can be learned and developed.


1. Alberti, RE (Ed), 1977, Assertiveness: Innovations, Applications, Issues, Atascadero, CA, Impact Publishers

Article by Jamie Cleaver

Freelance trainer and facilitator, IChemE course leader on Mentoring for Chemical Engineers

Jamie Cleaver is a chemical engineer who works as a freelance trainer and facilitator, helping engineers and scientists to develop professional skills related to communication. He runs workshops on various aspects of communication, creativity and mentoring for companies and universities. He also specialises in explaining chemical engineering to non-chemical engineers. In his spare time, he lectures chemical engineering to undergraduates.

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