How to be assertive and say no without putting relationship at risk


When is the last time you did not say what you thought, and felt frustrated about it afterwards? What thoughts crossed your mind? How did you feel? People who don’t speak up and say what they think suffer the consequences of what we call lack of being assertive. In other words: the lack of stating your point with confidence in an appropriate way.

Before we share our tips how to be assertive, let’s check what being assertive actually means: By the definition we use at Shine Coaching, assertiveness means 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 even can go against your convictions. It’s a bit as though you gave up part of your identity.

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, this usually is a good indicator that you are overdoing it.

So, how can you become more assertive? Let us share 3 practical strategies that will help you building confidence to say no:

To be assertive, know why you say no

The first strategy might sound counterintuitive, but it actually is the first thing you should do and the best guarantee for saying no with confidence: know why you say no. Sounds obvious? Think for a moment. Recall recent situations where you have said yes and engaged in commitments you actually didn’t feel positive about. (Really, do it now. Don’t continue reading, before you haven’t identified at least one concrete situation).

Why didn’t you say no? Often the answers to this question are something like “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 have to be assertiveThus, you need to find your argument: what is the one strong and meaningful reason why you should have said no? As soon as you know why you don’t want to do something, magic happens. You have a solid reason, something tangible to defend.

Think of the request you are exposed to as though it was a bulldozer. And you are a wall. If your own position is not clearly defined and solid, your wall will be easily torn down. Knowing your why makes your wall strong, more difficult to be brought down. If you know why you say no, you will feel more comfortable to 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 assertiveness can feel uncomfortable – it’s normal!

Another frequent reason why a lot of people don’t say what they think is the unease saying no creates. Speaking truth definitely will make you feel uncomfortable, even more if you like harmonious relationship. We fear the consequences of our acts, especially 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 discomfort 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 assertive:

What are the consequences for my status

If saying no might have a consequence e.g. on future growth opportunities or put our 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, assertiveness!

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. saying 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 that you can strengthen and train. If you nurture this so-called synapse, over time you will comfortably say no when it feels right.

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 become self assertive

Getting there, requires some continuous practice. So, to become more assertive, you actually need to start being assertive. At least from time to time. No shortcut here!

But here is a trick to train your assertiveness progressively. Just like a baby has to learn to craw before it can walk, you need to learn to be assertive in less challenging situations to be ready for assertiveness in really important moments:

  1. Choose a set of recurrent everyday situations where you current don’t speak out what you actually think. Here are 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 persons, your emotional brain will perceive less threats.
  2. For each situation, define right now, why it is important for you to say what you think.
  3. Practice. At every opportunity. And observe, what actually happens. You probably will experience a set of different consequences, but you most probably won’t suffer severe consequences.
  4. When you feel comfortable being assertive in these first scenarios, identify the next challenging level of situations to increase and train your assertiveness.

By following these steps and showing assertiveness, 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 also just 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 your confidence in the moment, 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.