Assertion works well when you’re quick and nonjudgmental, and you listen

Diagram on enlarging the “No Problem Area” with various skills, showing where assertion works

Enlarging the “No Problem Area” with various skills

Assertion works sometimes when you’re just quick and nonjudgmental

John, I’m glad to have the opportunity to talk with you. Okay, Doc, what’s up?
Do you remember about a month ago, you came in with a cold and I saw you? Yes, I do.
Well, I learned that you returned after I left and complained to the on-call nurse about how you’d been treated. Did I? I don’t really remember.
Well, I just wanted you to know I was annoyed by your complaining, since I had given you the opportunity to tell your concerns at that visit.
(I-MESSAGE)
Sorry, Doc. I didn’t think that what I did would bother anyone.
Okay. I just wanted you to be aware.  

 

Good morning, Carrie. I was just talking with your Mom about your diabetes. She’s quite worried. She’s always worrying. I’m doing okay.
I’m sorry, Carrie, but I have a problem with what you just said.
(I-MESSAGE)
What problem?
You said that you were doing okay. I disagree, and I’m concerned because you’re not testing your sugar levels or following your diet, and that has resulted in two hospitalizations. If you are to stay out of the hospital, I need your cooperation.
(I-MESSAGE)
 

 

Assertion works more reliably when you also listen

I have a problem with your taking so much time before letting me administer your shots each time. I’m afraid I won’t be able to get to my other patients.
(I-MESSAGE)
I really hate those shots. They hurt a lot, and I’ve always been a baby about pain.
You’ve always been afraid of pain, and these shots really hurt.
(SHIFTING GEARS WITH ACTIVE LISTENING)
 

 

I have a problem when you say you don’t walk every day. I’m afraid the circulation in your legs will get worse, and that would make me feel I haven’t done my job well.
(I-MESSAGE)
It takes too much time. Right now I’m swamped with work at the office.
It sounds like your work has a higher priority right now, so there’s no time for walking.
(SHIFTING GEARS WITH ACTIVE LISTENING)
 

 Assertion works amazingly well sometimes if you just try it

One morning the door swung open and in marched a resolute five-year-old boy with a diagnosis of leukemia. He was followed by four nurses, one of whom said, “This is David.” I was surprised to see so many nurses and was about to ask why, when one of them lifted David to the table. Suddenly there was a mass of struggling women: “Got his leg? I have his arm. Watch out, he bites… ” and the room was filled with David screaming and screaming.

A little arm projected from under the white mound of their bodies. As it was smaller than the rest, I drew blood from it, assuming that it was David’s. I said, “I have it,”…

…one by one the nurses, wrinkled and sweating, got up, and left David alone and quiet on the table. He was watching me.

My hands were shaking so badly that I could not transfer David’s blood from the syringe into the test tube. I brought my hands up against my chest to steady the transfer.

David said, “Why are your hands shaking?”

…I found myself saying, “I’m shaking because you yelled so loud you frightened me.”

A few days later I was again in the treatment room at dawn. As I glanced anxiously over the list of patients, my eye caught David’s name. I asked that he be called first, as I wanted to have it over with. The door swung open, and in walked David, followed by four nurses.

Waving the nurses back, he climbed up on the table and extended his arm to me. “There,” he said, “I won’t scare you this time.”

And he never “scared” me again.


  1. Gordon, Thomas, and W. Sterling Edwards. Making the patient your partner: Communication skills for doctors and other caregivers. ABC-CLIO, 1997, pp. 104, 113-117.

Assert well by stating one sentence, listening, and reasserting

The increase and decrease of defensiveness with reflecitve listening to assert well

Figure 10.1. The increase and decrease of defensiveness in the assertion process as the asserter “shifts gears” between asserting and reflective listening responses.

…when someone is violating my space, I want THAT behavior changed.

The three-part assertion message… begins with a description of the offending behavior and includes a description of the consequences on your life and how you feel about those consequences.

The three parts of the assertion message are stated as succinctly as possible and are contained in one sentence.

Effective assertion is characterized by firmness without domination. It vigorously defends one’s own space while steadfastly refusing to violate the trespasser’s turf. That is why the three-part message contains no solution. It is up to the other person to figure out how he can best evacuate my space.

Beginners at assertion usually send more effective messages when they use the formula:

When you [state the behavior nonjudgmentally],
I feel [disclose your feelings]
because [clarify the effect on your life].”

Assert well in one sentence: describe one behavior

First, describe the behavior in specific rather than fuzzy terms.

Second, limit yourself to behavioral descriptions. …behavior… is observable. Anyone present who had sound hearing and sight could have noticed the same behaviors.

Third, make your behavior description an objective statement rather than a judgment. …be sure that no subtle judgmental words have crept in.

Fourth, behavioral descriptions should be as brief as possible. I typically concentrate on one behavior at a time.

Fifth, be sure that you assert about the real issues. …repeated small irritants often grow until they loom large in our feeling world.

Sixth, be sure to assert to the right person.

Assert well in one sentence: disclose your feeling

“When I experienced the negative effect of the other’s behavior, what was the first feeling I experienced?” Often the first feeling is the primary feeling—the one which belongs in the assertion message.

The asserter can increase the emotional accuracy of his statement by selecting from several words of varying intensity to see which best matches his inner feeling. For example, he might try such words as “nervous,” “worried,” “afraid,” or “petrified.”

The more we express our feelings, the more we sharpen our emotional awareness.

Assert well in one sentence: say one tangible effect

Concrete or tangible effects” seem to be most convincing to people. By concrete or tangible effects we mean those things that unnecessarily cost the asserter money, harm his possessions, consume his time, cause him extra work, endanger his job, and/or interfere with his effectiveness at work.

In most ordinary relationships and in every significant relationship, people trespass on one another’s turf in tangible ways.

The assertion message that cites tangible effects often influences the intangible areas of a relationship.

…a three-part assertion on values issues is never appropriate (in fact, you can never complete the third part—citing a concrete effect of the other’s behavior on your life space).  One assertion after another is discarded—as many as half to three-quarters of them—because they fall into the values area and constitute an intrusion on the other person’s space rather than a defense of the asserter’s space.

Effective assertion is open and honest communication.

Assert well by shifting gears: reflectively listen, then reassert

I get down to business quickly. When you send an assertion, your body language should demonstrate that you mean what you say, that you are not ambivalent about it, and that you expect to get your needs met. At the same time, assertive body language communicates respect for the other person.

After sending your brief assertion message with appropriate body language—stop. Be silent.

…it is almost certain that the person to whom the assertion was addressed will make a defensive response. …it is most important to “shift gears” and listen reflectively to the predictable defensive response. As Figure 10.1 indicates, this shifting back and forth between assertion and listening normally takes place several times before the assertion is completed.

As the recipient of the assertion expresses her defensiveness and that is reflected back with respect, her defensiveness subsides. The vicious cycle of increasing defensiveness is broken and constructive conversation can begin again.

The defensiveness-reducing power of effective listening responses is truly remarkable. For many people, it must be seen to be believed.[1]


  1. Bolton, Robert. People skills. Touchstone, 2009, pp. 262-314.

Boundaries are defined by thinking, feelings, and actions

Boundaries are displayed by two dogs that touch noses as each dog looks into the other dog's eyes.
[1]

Boundaries are defined by thinking—
including talents, values, attitudes, and conviction

Our talents are clearly within our boundaries and are our responsibility.

What we value is what we love and assign importance to.

We need to own our attitudes and convictions... They play a big part in the map of who we are and how we operate. We are the ones who feel their effect, and the only ones who can change them. The tough thing about attitudes is that we learn them very early in life. 

We must own our own thoughts. We must clarify distorted thinking.

Boundaries are defined by feelings—
including desires and delight

your feelings are your responsibility and you must own them and see them as your problem…

Our desires lie within our boundaries. “Delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Ps. 37:4).

Our ability to give and respond to love is our greatest gift.

We need to realize that we are in control of our choices, no matter how we feel.

Boundaries are defined by actions—
including behaviors, study, exercise, loving, and limits

Behaviors have consequences. As Paul says, “A man reaps what he sows” (Gal. 6:7–8). If we study, we will reap good grades. If we go to work, we will get a paycheck. If we exercise, we will be in better health. If we act lovingly toward others, we will have closer relationships. On the negative side, if we sow idleness, irresponsibility, or out-of-control behavior, we can expect to reap poverty, failure, and the effects of loose living. These are natural consequences of our behavior. 

we can… set limits on our own exposure to people who are behaving poorly…[2]


  1. Davenport, Barrie. “10 Ways to Establish Personal Boundaries.” LiveBoldAndBloom, 7 Nov. 2016, liveboldandbloom.com/08/life-coaching/want-to-boost-your-self-esteem-10-ways-to-establish-personal-boundaries.
  2. Cloud, Henry, and John Townsend. Boundaries: When To Say Yes, How to Say No. Zondervan, 2008. Chapter 2.