5 simple assertiveness strategies (for teddy bears and tortoises)

We all know the feeling. You come out of a meeting, negotiation or a conflict discussion with a difficult team member, and say to yourself, “If I had only said or done this.” Or “Was I too hard on my report?” For whatever reason, you aren’t asserting yourself and addressing the issue.

What do we mean by assertiveness?

listening skills target trainingBefore going any further we ought to agree and be clear what “being assertive” is. We have all experienced managers, experts who have the ability to set people on the right course, give negative feedback without breaking the relationship, or make a tough point without being offensive or hurtful. They handle substance and people equally well …and that is true assertiveness. These people have good communication skills, are blessed with social and emotional intelligence and have reached the fourth level of “conscious competence”.

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Very quickly, here’s the fourth level, explained in more detail:

Level 4 – unconscious competence*

  • the skill becomes so practised that it enters the unconscious parts of the brain – it becomes ‘second nature’
  • common examples are driving, sports activities, typing, manual dexterity tasks, listening and communicating
  • it becomes possible for certain skills to be performed while doing something else, for example, knitting while reading a book
  • the person might now be able to teach others in the skill concerned, although after some time of being unconsciously competent the person might actually have difficulty in explaining exactly how they do it – the skill has become largely instinctual
  • this arguably gives rise to the need for long-standing unconscious competence to be checked periodically against new standards

*Taken from http://www.businessballs.com/consciouscompetencelearningmodel.htm

But this takes time, experience and maybe innate ability. So what about us mere mortals lower down the food chain who struggle with the substance/people balance?

Assertiveness starts with knowing our rights and responsibilities

In the world of learning and development we understand that being assertive is being aware we have rights and responsibilities. In other words, we have the right to assert our position, but (especially as a manager) we have the responsibility to be fair and to respect our reports and colleagues. This easier said than done. Furthermore it is often those who tend to play the teddy bear (accommodate), or the tortoise (avoid conflict) who need most support and coaching. People who tend to be pushy, or even aggressive (the sharks), normally feel quite good about themselves. So here are 5 strategies for teddy bears and tortoises.

5 communication strategies that work


If you have a difficult discussion coming up, then write down your key arguments, how you can best convince the other party. Script how you address the issue, how you formulate what you want, how you word criticism and other sensitive issues. Unless you are very experienced, just relying on intuition and ‘seeing where the moment will take you’ can be costly.


When you want something out of the ordinary from a team member or colleague, then script using the SPIN formula: Situation – Problem – Impact (of the problem on the business) – Need. In other words involve the report by briefly describing the context. Involve them and treat them as adults.

Saying no

As a manager you have the right to say no. If you want to say “No”, then say it but give a reason and maybe provide an alternative. If you want to say “Yes”, then say that too. We have all come across people who appear to say “No” on principle. This might be useful in a negotiation, but counterproductive when dealing with staff.

Broken Record

Sometimes your opposite number just refuses to take “no” for an answer. Provided you are 100% clear on your position, then it’s time to play broken record. Like the old-fashioned vinyl LPs with a deep scratch, you simply repeat yourself, NO plus reason, always using the same wording: e.g: “As I said I cannot give you a pay rise, as there is a freeze on salaries.”, then “I understand your position but as I said ……” and so on. Using this strategy takes courage and should be used sparingly and only with difficult people. Even the most obstinate will get your point after three rounds.

Buy Time

People are not stupid. If they want a favour or a concession, they will approach you when you are under pressure, with no time. This can mean you are unprepared and certainly unscripted. So if you are at all unsure about your response, then buy time: “Let me get back to you when I have finished this.” You will come to regret shooting from the hip and start kicking yourself, “Why on earth did I say that?”

Most of us cannot be assertive on command

Our behaviour is determined by our fight, flee or freeze instincts. Assertiveness is a conscious way of thinking and acting. These five simple strategies will help you develop your assertiveness. But, as with nearly everything, it takes practice.

2 replies
  1. Gerhard
    Gerhard says:

    Hello Tony,
    a good thing is to exercise such roles with a friend. Your friend will play the person you have trouble with to assert yourself.
    First you play your usual role and give up. You experience the failure directly, all the negative emotions about it and you can talk about your feelings to your friend. Then you try it a second time: This time you have a clear goal to protect yourself. You will feel like it is to do it differently. What makes it a bit difficult, maybe. And if you fully succeed you experience the positive impacts in you, which may help you to do repeat your new behaviour in reality.

    • Tony Norman
      Tony Norman says:

      Hi Gerhard,
      Let’s put that in as the 6th strategy! Practising the conversation with a colleague or friend is a good and very useful idea. It will help you find the right words to say. It takes some pressure off and it even allows you to ‘test’ phrases and wording – sometimes when you say something, you don’t realize the impact of your words on others until you’ve said them and not practising means that you’ve only got one chance at saying what you want to say.
      All the best,

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