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Are You Assertive Enough to Succeed in Business?

Demonstrates and illustrates the differences between assertive, passive, and aggressive behaviors. Includes tips on channeling aggressive and passive behaviors into more assertive and positive behaviors. Concludes with the Assertiveness Bill of Rights.

Susan, sole proprietor of a year-old word processing business, had not received payment from one of her steady customers. Fearful of damaging the relationship, she did not call or send a letter regarding the lack of payment, nor did she mention it when the client phoned to request additional services. What style of behavior is this?




Charlene, president of an established outplacement firm employing five professionals and three support staff, established a money saving policy regarding the mailing of clients’ resumes. Not certain that the staff was complying with the policy, she issued a memo stating that anyone not following the new procedure would be fired. What style of behavior is this?




If you answered PASSIVE for the first scenario and AGGRESSIVE for the second, you were right. In the first scenario, Susan is not exercising her right to request payment for services delivered. She is not approaching this situation directly or honestly, and is thereby closing down the possibility of getting paid or negotiating a reasonable compromise. By behaving passively with this customer, she is allowing her needs to be stepped on.

In the second case, Charlene did not bother to approach her staff directly and do any fact finding. She did not meet with the employees to explain reasons for the policy change, find out how the change impacted their work, or explore their thoughts and feelings about the new policy. She immediately issued a threatening memo, an aggressive response. Imagine the impact of this action on her relationship with the staff.


Assertiveness is based on the democratic principle that individuals have certain rights and the right to express them. When you stand up for your rights and express them honestly and directly, in a way that does not violate the rights of others, you are acting assertively. When you stand up for your rights in a way that puts others down or humiliates them, you are acting aggressively. And, when you allow your rights to be violated and let people take advantage of you, you are acting passively.

Assertive behavior equalizes the balance of power between two parties and clears the path for honest relationships, based on mutual trust and respect and open, two-way communication. Assertiveness involves taking responsibility for your actions and their consequences. Assertive skills can be learned and maintained by practice.


To become assertive, the first step is to assess your beliefs about a situation. Beliefs profoundly influence behavior. With effort, dysfunctional belief systems can be unlearned and replaced with healthier ones.


In a democracy you have certain rights. To surface them, ask yourself, "What are my rights in this situation?"

Typical rights include:

  • The right to express thoughts, feelings, and opinions
  • The right to be listened to and taken seriously
  • The right to ask for what you want
  • The right to say "no"
  • The right to make a decision on your own terms
  • The right to make mistakes
  • The right to not feel guilty

As a business owner, some additional rights you may have include:

  • The right to request payment and to repeat that request, if necessary
  • The right to set and ask for a certain fee
  • The right to promote yourself and your business
  • The right to turn down business

If you do not believe you are entitled to certain rights, it follows that you would have difficulty acting assertively. When confronted with a business dilemma, remember to ask yourself, "What are my rights in this situation?"


We have all developed habitual ways of viewing the world and have maintained these perceptions because, to some degree, they have worked positively for us. If you have difficulty acting assertively in a certain situation, take a look at how you view it. You may be familiar with the "problem vs. opportunity" model which involves uncovering hidden opportunities or benefits in a situation. Remember Susan and the non-paying customer? Most business owners would agree that non-payment is indeed a problem, and that losing a steady customer is also a problem. But let’s say Susan viewed this situation as an opportunity to talk about their business relationship and let her customer know how much she values his or her business. She could then state that she also needs to maintain a good cash flow, and request that they negotiate an equitable payment plan. This approach, which is also great customer service, serves to strengthen the business relationship and could enhance Susan’s reputation in the business community.


Assertive behaviors are expressive and direct and take into account both your needs and those of the other party. Assertive skills include listening, empathizing, and responding.

    Remember you have rights and do not need to apologize for them. You have a choice to be flexible or firm with your policies: e.g.: "It’s not my policy to extend credit to new customers." "I generally charge $65 and hour but my fee is negotiable if you need extensive work."

    Make "I" statements: e.g.: "I would like to talk with you about the new policy." "I would appreciate your prompt payment."

    Use language that is descriptive, specific and concrete, not evaluative and vague: Instead of: "I want to talk about your poor attitude at work," Say: "I want to talk about your lateness and frequent breaks."

    Demonstrate listening with emphatic assertion: e.g.: "I understand that you are in a hurry, but the earliest I can get this to you is tomorrow at 8 AM." "I hear you when you say that traffic is awful in the morning. I still expect you here at 8:30."

    Maintain assertive nonverbal behaviors: e.g.: eye contact; open, relaxed stance; no hand wringing or pointing.

Acting assertively is smart business practice; you will feel valued by yourself, be respected by others, and contribute to the success of your business.

About the Writer: Janet E. Mass is Principal of Careerworks, a firm offering consultations and workshops on career issues, self-marketing and communication skills. She may be reached at (215) 247-8616.

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