Assertive communication: how to say no without putting relationship at risk


Assertive communication is a critical skill for any person, and even more so if you are in a leadership role. Think about it for a second: when was the last time you did not say what you thought? How did it make you feel afterwards? What thoughts crossed your mind? – It’s very likely that it triggered a sense of frustration, disappointment or even anger. And most probably this feeling was directed against yourself. Because you realised that you should have said “no” – but you didn’t.

People who don’t speak up and say what they think suffer the consequences of what we call lack of assertiveness. In other words: they don’t state their point with confidence in an appropriate way in the right moment.

Before we share our tips on assertive communication and share examples how to train your assertiveness, let’s check what being assertive actually means: by the definition we use at Shine, the meaning of assertiveness is making sure that you don’t say ‘no’ to yourself before saying ‘yes’ to someone else (thanks to Patricia Soler). This definition explains why we feel so bad when we are not being assertive: when you don’t say what you think, you do something that you actually don’t want to do or that can go against your convictions. It’s a bit as though you gave up part of who you are.

Before saying ‘yes’ to someone else, make sure that you are not saying ‘no’ to yourself

Don’t get us wrong: generosity is great and sometimes it is fundamental to put back one’s own needs. And there are situations where saying yes to something you don’t really want to do can be the right thing. But if you more often than not feel bad about not having said no, it’s a good indicator that you are overdoing it and could do with an additional dose of assertive communication.

So, how can you become more assertive? Here go 3 practical assertive communication techniques that will help you building the confidence to say no:

Assertive communication starts with knowing why to say ‘no’

The first technique to train your assertive communication might sound counterintuitive, but it actually is the first thing you need to do, and the best guarantee to get to say no with confidence: know why you should say no.

Sounds obvious? – Think twice. Recall recent situations where you have said ‘yes’ and engaged with commitments you actually didn’t feel positive about. (Don’t continue reading, before you haven’t identified at least one concrete situation).

Why did you not say no? Often the answers sound similar to “I was afraid of the consequences”, “I didn’t think about it”, “I didn’t have a real argument supporting not doing what I was asked for” or “I wasn’t sure.”

Question mark symbolising the questions why do I should be assertive

Thus, you need to find an argument that convinces yourself: what is the one strong and meaningful reason why you should have say no? As soon as you know why you don’t want to do something, magic happens. You have a solid reason, something tangible that is worth being defended.

In other words, think of it using the image of a bulldozer and a wall. The request you are exposed is the bulldozer and you are the wall. If your own position is not clearly defined and solid, your wall will be easily torn down. Knowing your why makes your wall stronger, more difficult to be brought down. If you know why you say no, you will feel more comfortable to actually say it out loud. (Read this post, if you feel you could do with more clarity on what is actually meaningful to you)

Accept that assertive communication can feel uncomfortable – it’s normal!

Another frequent reason why people don’t say what they think is the discomfort saying no can generate. And it’s true: speaking truth will very likely make you feel uncomfortable, especially if you like harmonious relationship. We fear the consequences of our acts, even more so when we believe saying no puts our relationship at risk. We are programmed to wanting to be part of. But there’s a good news: feeling this unease is normal. For you and for others. Why is this?

Wall with the word "Together" symbolising our fear to lose relationship

David Rock’s SCARF model gives some insightful hints on what is triggering our emotional brain when we say no. The model identifies 5 qualities of social interaction that activate either the reward or the threat mechanisms of our brain. Said differently: either you fear & freeze or you feel strengthened. These three aspects trigger our emotional brain when we are practicing assertive communication:

What are the consequences for my status

If saying no might have a consequence e.g. on future growth opportunities or put our partnership or couple at risk, it is likely that our threat response takes over. In this situation, out of fear to lose, our emotional brain might be inclined towards doing the opposite of what we actually want.

Not knowing the outcome

Uncertainty about what is going to happen next also activates the threat response. Our brain loves to be able to predict the future. When we don’t know the outcome, – again depending on your personality – we naturally lean towards solutions that give us a pretty clear view of what is going to happen. E.g. saying “For the purpose of harmony/our relationship, I’ll just do, what I’m asked to do.” Good bye, assertive communication!

Rather friend than foe

We want to feel safe in relationship. In any relationship. If we don’t feel psychologically safe, our brain triggers the threat response. To the point, that we sometimes rather run away and avoid e.g. to say no in order to feel safe again. When we practice assertive communication and cannot guarantee the impact saying no has on our relationship, we perceive it as a threat.

As soon as you understand and accept that assertiveness can feel uncomfortable, you have taken a major step towards saying no the next time. The simple awareness establishes a connection in your brain – a so-called synapse – that you can strengthen and train. If you nurture this synapse, over time you will comfortably say no when it feels appropriate.

Humans have a fundamental need to belong, are incredibly sensitive to their social context, and are strongly motivated to remain in good standing with their social group and avoid social exclusion.NeuroLeadership Institute

Start small to train your assertive communication

Training your assertive communication requires continuous practice. To become more assertive, you actually need to start being assertive. At least from time to time. No shortcut here!

Assertive communication is a key for clarity

Here is a technique to start training your assertiveness progressively. Just like a baby has to learn to craw before it can walk, you need to learn being assertive in less challenging situations to get ready for assertive communication in really important moments:

  1. Choose a set of recurrent everyday situations where you don’t speak out what you actually think. Here go some ideas: a stranger who doesn’t say “thank you” when you hold the door open, someone throwing garbage in the street or a call center agent disturbing you late at night. Find your set of only slightly challenging situations. Given you don’t know the person and this relationship is less meaningful, your emotional brain will perceive less threats.
  2. For each situation, define why it is important for you to say what you think.
  3. Practice your assertive communication. At every opportunity. And observe, what happens. You probably will experience a set of different consequences, but you very likely will not suffer any severe negative consequences.
  4. When you feel comfortable being assertive in these initial scenarios, identify the next challenging level of situations to bring the training to the next level and train your assertiveness.

By following these steps and being assertive, your brain will learn and integrate that saying no does not automatically put a relationship at risk nor create real threat. Most likely, you will realise that saying what you think doesn’t only add value, it actually also feels good. Showing courage is a great source of self-confidence.

Put yourself the oxygen mask on before helping others

Knowing why you say no, accepting that being assertive feels uncomfortable and progressively building confidence through continuous practice are our recipe to train assertiveness.

If you still doubt about being confident enough when it matters, remember the safety instructions on the plane: In the event of decompression, an oxygen mask will appear. If you are travelling with children or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person. In other words: before saying yes to someone else, make sure that you are not saying no to yourself.

In-flight safety instructions how to put oxygen masks on as symbol of being assertive

Leadership Challenges Series

If you are looking for further tips how to overcome typical leadership challenges, check the other posts of our how to overcome typical leadership challenges series. And comment what helped you become assertive and train assertive communication.