Assertiveness in 4 Steps

The basic assertiveness formula has four steps: (1) the situation, (2) the feeling, (3) the explanation, and (4) the request.  Another way of stating the formula is (1) here’s what happened, (2) here’s how I feel about it, (3) here’s why I feel that way, so (4) here’s what I want. Occasionally there is a fifth element, the consequence.


The situation is the antecedent.  When you refer to the precipitating event, think of it as verbally holding up a mirror to the other person so he or she can see his or her reflection.  In order to do this, you need to be specific.  If it is something the other person has done, you need to describe the behavior exactly.  If it is something the other person has said, you need to quote it as precisely as possible.

If she came up to you and, using the index finger of her right hand, tapped you three times on the forearm of your left arm, that is what you need to say.  Having heard this description, the listener will know exactly to what you are referring.

You must avoid what I call conclusion words.  Conclusion words are those such as rude, obnoxious, or inconsiderate.  Who would automatically agree he or she was being rude, obnoxious, or inconsiderate? Most certainly it was not the intention of the other person to be any of those things.  Again, you are trying to hold up a mirror, not incite.


Next, you will want to say how you feel in reaction to the situation.  This is the most important part of the formula.  This is the part that will encourage the listener to hear what you are saying.

A simple demonstration is to start a sentence with “You.”  If you say, “You . . .” it really does not matter what you say after that.  The other person will be building a defense and not listening.

However, if you start with “I feel,” most likely the other person will be curious enough to listen.  Note that saying, “I feel that you,” still is a you statement.

When it comes to expressing what you are feeling, you have only six choices.  You can be happy, sad, angry, scared, hurt, or ashamed.  Anything else is a combination of feelings or a combination of thoughts and feelings.  In order to be clear, it is best to choose one of the six.  Otherwise, it becomes confusing for the listener.  Although you may have more than one feeling, choose the one that is most important to you.

If you stop there, the reaction might be something like, “Huh?” The reason for your feeling will not be clear.

For instance, if you said, “When you tapped me three times with the index finger of your right hand on the forearm of my left arm, I felt sad,” it is likely the listener would be confused how the behavior led to sadness.


That is why the third part of the formula is necessary. It is the bridge or connection between the event and your feeling. It always is the thought process that led to the feeling.  What was your thought that led to feeling sad about being tapped on the arm?

If you thought being tapped on the arm was rude, that would not explain being sad.  If you remember your mother telling you that if someone treats you rudely, that person is not a real friend and you conclude that the person who tapped you on the arm must not be a real friend, that would explain why you felt sad.

By way of explanation, it is necessary to divulge the whole truth of your thought process and not just a portion of it.  Part three is the part most people find difficult because they do not make the entire explanation.


At this point, the listener understands what you are feeling and why.  However, the reaction is something along the lines of “So?”  You need to give the listener something to which he or she can respond.  You need to make a request. Do you want an apology?  Do you want the listener to explain his or her behavior?  Do you want a hug?  By the time you make your request, it is clear what is behind your request.

You need to make the request in the affirmative.  Say what it is you want rather than what you do not want.

This is the step that distinguishes assertiveness from aggression and non-assertiveness. The difference is one of choices.  Aggression is taking all the choices for yourself and not giving the other person a choice.  Non-assertiveness is not taking a choice, but neither giving the other person a choice.  Assertiveness is taking a choice for yourself and giving the other person a choice as well.


When speaking with an adult, you most likely will not use the fifth element.  It is used more often by a parent speaking with a child.  “If you do that one more time, you will have to leave,” is an example of a consequence a parent might give to a child. It is not necessary to say that the consequence of complying with your request would be that it would make you happy or that it would enhance the relationship.

Initially, the formula may seem awkward.  You will find that you will amend the formula when speaking with a business associate or addressing someone in the queue at the supermarket checkout.  Note that the assertiveness formula is the first part in the negotiation process.


Lorraine M. Dorfman, PhD

Dr. Dorfman is a Clinical Psychologist in private practice in Pennsylvania.