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Assertion Skills

Three Part Assertion Messages

One of the most productive ways of asserting involves the use of a message which contains three parts:

  • a non-judgmental description of the behaviour to be changed;

  • a disclosure of the asserter's feelings; and

  • a clarification of the concrete and tangible effect of the other person's behaviour on the asserter.

In the process of framing these messages, we can unexpectedly find ourselves on a voyage of self-discovery.

Even under normal circumstances, we often find it difficult to speak with precision. When asserting we will usually be angry, frustrated or afraid. In that condition of emotional stress it is even more difficult to convey our meanings accurately and succinctly. Though it is difficult to speak accurately while under stress, it is not impossible. Even when we are very scared or furiously angry, our behaviour can be selected, not compelled, and our words can be chosen, not triggered.

When a person invades our life space, we want them out of it. To accomplish that, we can send an assertion message with the goal of changing the behaviour which is intruding on our personal territory. Effective assertion is characterized by firmness without domination. We defend our own space while refusing to violate that of the intruder. That is why three-part assertion messages contain no solution. It is up to the other person to work out how they can best evacuate our space. The recipient of these messages can usually come up with a resolution that preserves their self respect and meets our needs.


When we want another person to modify a behaviour that intrudes on our space, the method we use should meet the following criteria:

  • a high probability that the other will alter their behaviour.

  • a low probability that we will violate the other's space.

  • little risk of diminishing the other's self-esteem.

  • a low risk of damaging the relationship.

  • a low risk of diminishing motivation.

  • little risk that defensiveness will escalate to destructive levels.

Three part assertion messages meet the above criteria. They begin with a description of the offending behaviour and include a description of the consequences on our lives and how we feel about those consequences. Each part of the message is important for the success of the assertion. The three parts of the assertion message are stated as succinctly as possible and are contained within one sentence. Beginners at assertion usually send more effective messages when they use the formula. Practise your message using the format below:

When you

{state the behaviour non-judgementally},

I feel

{disclose your feelings}


{clarify the tangible effect on your life}.

Non Judgmental Descriptions of Behaviour

When a person violates your space, the behaviour to be altered must be described very accurately and objectively. Otherwise, the other person may not clearly understand what behaviour you find offensive. The following will help you develop an effective behaviour description:

  • Describe the behaviour in specific rather than vague terms.

  • Limit yourself to behavioural descriptions. Do not draw inferences about the other person's motives, attitudes, character etc.

  • Make your behaviour description an objective statement rather than a judgement.

  • Make it as brief as possible.

  • Be sure that you assert about the real issues. Many people send displaced assertions. They confront on a topic other than the one that really troubles them.

  • Be sure to assert to the right person. People commonly confront the wrong person, i.e. they misattribute their assertion.

Disclosure of Feelings

The second part of the three-part assertion message communicates how we feel about the effect the other's behaviour has on us. The genuine disclosure of emotion underlines the importance the assertion has for us. When you begin to send this kind of assertion message you will see how the expression of your own feelings contributes greatly to the other person's willingness to change their behaviour to meet your needs.

We tend to have three problems with the expression of emotions:

First, we may substitute a secondary emotion for a primary one, e.g. we may express anger when our primary emotion is one of fright. This can be overcome by asking, "When I experienced the negative effect of the other's behaviour, what was the first feeling I experienced?" You will be able to recognize some of your patterns of emotional substitution. If you normally become angry when you feel vulnerable or sad, the next time you find yourself becoming angry check to see if it is possible that you are really stressed by feelings of vulnerability or sadness.

Second, we also find it difficult to accurately state the degree of feeling we are experiencing. It is not unusual for us to say, "I'm angry" when we are merely annoyed, or "I'm irritated" when we are seething with rage. You can increase the emotional accuracy of your statements by selecting from a range of words to see which best matches your inner feelings. Genuine disclosure of feeling is the only appropriate expression of emotion in assertion messages. Sometimes we feign stronger emotions, thinking that will be more convincing, but this is manipulative and counterproductive.

Third, when trying to phrase the feeling part of an assertion message, it is easy to choose a word that is laden with judgement. The word selected provides more of a slur on the other's character than a disclosure of our feelings.

You may ask, "How do I get in touch with what I am feeling?". Try to listen to your emotions without distorting or censoring them. Listen also to your body. When you have a headache your body is usually telling you something about your emotions. When you have muscular tension your emotions are trying to speak through their primary channel of communication - your body. Don't shrink from expressing the feelings that you do experience. You can acknowledge your feelings silently to yourself, talk about them with others, or express them vigorously through laughter, crying, shouting, dancing or lovemaking. The more we express our feelings, the more we sharpen our emotional awareness.

Clarification of the Tangible Effect on the Asserter

A major reason the three-part assertion works is because it describes how the other person's behaviour affects us. If we want them to voluntarily alter a specific behaviour, it certainly helps if we present them with a convincing reason to change. The effectiveness of this part of the message depends on whether or not the person intruding on our space believes that their behaviour does indeed have negative consequences on our lives - things that unnecessarily cost us money, harm our possessions, consume our time, affect what we'd planned to do, cause us extra work, endanger our job and/or interfere with our effectiveness at work.

There are five common difficulties in writing this part of an assertion message:

  • You may find it difficult to think of a single situation in which someone is intruding on your space in a tangible way;

  • You may think that materialistic intrusions are insignificant compared to some other behaviour, but the assertion message that cites tangible effects often influences the intangible areas of a relationship;

  • You may find that there was no effect on your physical or psychological space, in which case you may be attempting to impose your values on the other person, thus aggressing by intruding on their space rather than asserting. (This is not to say that you should not try to influence other people's values, just that three-part assertion messages are not the tools to use);

  • You may find that you have difficulty in asserting because the effect is on somebody else, not on you, in which case the person affected should send their own assertion message as only they can know how they feel about it;

  • You may state an effect that isn't the real reason. Substitution of an effect, albeit more plausible for both parties, is dishonest and inappropriate in an assertion message which depends on openness and honesty for its success.

Personal Growth

The voyage of self-discovery that accompanies the writing of assertion messages is exciting and productive. At the same time, it can be very difficult. It is hard to work on the words until they describe the behaviour accurately. It is difficult to tune into our emotions, and even tougher to become vulnerable through expressing our feelings to others in the middle of stress. It is also frustrating to discover that one message after another that we wanted to send has no tangible effect and may have meant that we wanted to invade another person's space.

Fortunately, the assertions that withstand the formation process have a high probability of altering the behaviour of others. Equally important, the relationships of genuinely assertive people are stronger, more nearly equal and more fulfilling. We communicate more easily and tend to respect and like each other more as a result. 


Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Acknowledgement: The content of this page is based on
Chapter 9 of People Skills by Robert Bolton, PhD
(Simon & Schuster's Touchstone, 1986 paperback)