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How to be Assertively Feminine

by Alison Finch

If somebody asked you whether you'd like to be an assertive woman, most of you would probably say yes, but only after a few moments' thought. Of course, a few would say "I am already!", but far more would say things like "it depends what you mean" or "I'm not sure". Only a tiny minority would actually say no.

What do these reactions tell us?

Many women feel that the word "assertive" sounds aggressive, even though they know that it really isn't supposed to be. The thought of being assertive is therefore not very feminine. It's as if - by being assertive - they would become less attractive, lacking in empathy and kindness, a bit too "in your face", rather grabby, mean, serious and, well, not very likeable at all!

So how do you learn to stand up for what you believe in, retain your femininity, state your desires clearly, and get your own way when you deserve to do so?

It's very important to make a clear distinction between being assertive and being aggressive. And not just in a look-it-up-in-a-dictionary sort of way.

Dictionaries will tell you that "assert" means to put oneself forward boldly and insistently. This is certainly a skill that an assertive woman possesses, but aggressive women can do this too. Perhaps this goes some way to explaining why aggressive women sometimes give assertive women a tainted reputation!

The verb "to assert" is also defined as "to state as true; affirm; declare; to maintain or defend in a moral sense such as your right to something". And in this rather tedious list lies a clue to help us make that useful distinction.

All of those definitions suggest to a greater or lesser degree some sort of "goodness" .

In contrast, aggression is associated with encroaching, or invading, or harming, or immobilising a threat. Sometimes aggression is warranted, but only in extreme circumstances and as a last resort. Sadly, too many people see aggression as their natural response to something that appears threatening to them, and we have many casualties (emotional and physical) in our society as a consequence.

So, let's cling on to this notion of goodness. If we always associate some aspirations of goodness with our desire to be assertive, we can be sure that we will not cross over that line and become inappropriately aggressive.

With the distinction between assertion and aggression now becoming clearer, we can move one step further to associate the concepts of assertiveness and femininity in our minds. Let's try to marry them together, or at the very least persuade them to enter into a civil partnership!

However you choose to associate the words, try to think of one as never being very far away from the other. Like all good pairings, each can add richness to the other, but never makes the other smaller.

I think the benefits of being an assertively feminine woman are abundantly clear: we can more easily protect our loved ones, we have more chance of getting what we really want out of life if we deserve it, we can hold our heads high, we can be women in our own right, we can be beautiful, sophisticated, and adorable And all these things feel good, don't they?

how to be assertively feminine

If you like the sound of being assertively feminine, but still aren't quite sure how to become it, here is a simple technique to practise. Remember, this technique WILL work, it just takes patience and repetition.

the who, what, when, and how technique

Do you remember that one of those dictionary definitions suggested that, to be assertive, you must put yourself forward boldly and insistently? Can you imagine doing this ALL the time?

I do hope not! That would be tedious, tiresome, and ineffective. You'd become the sort of person that no-one in his or her right mind would want to spend much time with!

But can you imagine doing this SOME of the time? Being assertively feminine requires you to use your judgement and spot the occasions when taking a firm stance is appropriate, necessary, or absolutely the right thing to do.

The trick is to know:

  1. Who you are dealing with
  2. What you want to get out of any given situation
  3. When it makes sense to assert yourself
  4. How much pressure needs to be applied to achieve your aim.

If you have clear answers to these questions in your mind, you will find that you are able to judge situations more accurately, which in turn will build up your confidence that acting in a certain way is appropriate. You will begin to sense how assertive you should be in order to make the best of whatever situation you find yourself in. Please note: by "making the best of" I don't just mean for yourself - I'm trying to help you develop skills that will help you to work towards outcomes that have an inherent "rightness" about them, for all parties involved.

After running through each of these four steps, all that's required is a sprinkle of courage and you're there! And, once you've practised it often enough, it will start to feel like second nature. You'll be able to apply it naturally and spontaneously in ANY situation. What fun!

At this point, some of you may be thinking "I do that quite often already!". If so, that's great - but challenge yourself to apply the technique across ALL the circumstances you find yourself in: at home; with your family, friends, partner, whoever; at work; on the phone; writing a letter; playing sports. Even when thinking through what you want to say to someone, this technique will help you to be and feel assertively feminine.

Let's look at each of the four steps above in turn:

1. who

In any given situation that you might want to influence, write down the names of those both directly and indirectly involved.

For example, if you have an issue with your partner whom you believe is not presenting a good role-model to your son, make yourself aware of who else may be influencing his views or actions. Once you've written down the names of everyone involved, characterise them a little in your mind. Are they generally passive, sulky, aggressive? Do they shy away from conflicts or encourage it?

It may help to rate each person from zero to ten, based on how difficult a character you think he or she is to interact with. Of course, this rating is very subjective and can change dramatically over a very short period of time, so I would recommend you do not share it with others. Just think of it as an aide-memoire or work-in-progress; for goodness' sake don't build up a dossier that you can use for character assassination!

Finally for this step, be clear in your mind whether your aim is to develop a closer relationship with each person involved or simply to achieve a desirable outcome whilst retaining a healthy distance from the bit-part players.

2. what

If you don't know what you want, then you certainly won't know how to go about getting it!

Remember the great quote by Mal Pancoast, "The odds of hitting your target go up dramatically when you aim at it". So don't be put off by guilty feelings that you should not want what you want, or by the fear of failure; be honest with yourself about what you want from the outset.

Here are some things to bear in mind as you get your thoughts straight:

  • you do not have to give up on your desires simply because someone else doesn't want you to have them
  • you do not have to give long explanations to justify your desires
  • you do not have to apologise for having desires (saying, "I'm sorry, but..." serves no purpose, helps no one, and can look disingenuous)

Don't forget, it's OK to be influenced by the person you are being assertive with, provided that you trust his or her judgement and believe that he or she cares about you in some way. Brainstorming ideas and searching for solutions with someone else is all part of being assertively feminine.

3. when

You now know who is involved and what you want from them, so the next thing to decide is when to confront them about the issue or, if they bring the confrontation to you, whether to proceed with the interaction or defer it to a better time.

There is no value in rushing into a confrontational situation or sparking up a difficult conversation when there is insufficient time to talk, when there are intrusive distractions, or when there is already an "atmosphere" that may have been caused by something or someone else.

If either you, or the other people involved, cannot concentrate on what you have to say, then your words are likely to fail you. If right away is not a good time, just be assertive enough to agree a better time to confront an issue. For example, saying something like, "I can sense now is not a good time for either of us, but I want to discuss the matter further. Can we talk briefly tomorrow after lunch?"

Remember, finding the right moment is YOUR responsibility, because you're the one seeking some sort of solution.

4. how

This is the most important, and therefor the most exciting, step of all. It's the step that can make all the difference to the outcome.

The real skill to being assertively feminine is to be truthful and direct but vary the amount of pressure you apply to get what you want. Providing that pressure is legitimate, of course.

It's incumbent upon you to cause as little damage or disruption as possible which, in some people's eyes at least, is another human trait that is more feminine than masculine. I'm not suggesting that men cannot be sensitively assertive, but male execution and style in assertive situations is often very far from what we've been talking about today in the context of this article.

If you need to show someone that you're not going to budge from a position you're taking, the old broken record technique is sometimes surprisingly helpful. Calmly repeat a direct statement of what you want to happen, without raising your voice and without unnecessary emotion in your tone. Take care not to allow yourself to become distracted from the point you wish to make and, above all, don't let yourself be provoked into becoming aggressive.

If you want someone to "back off", perhaps in a situation where you are subject to an unwelcome and discourteous approach by a stranger in a bar, you need to make it clear that you have very firm boundaries. Keep the conversation very brief and use a flat tone in your voice. Show no signs of interest that might encourage them to continue in their attempt to converse with you. Remember that the word "no" accompanied by an emotionless or blank expression can work wonders in many potentially difficult situations.

Often, being assertive is simply a case of summoning up sufficient courage to be direct, clear and concise. Then stand your ground and listen carefully to what the other person has to say to you in response.

For the avoidance of doubt, though, I should end the "how" section by saying that assertiveness can take many forms and is not necessarily more suited to one gender than another. But today we have looked at the notion of being assertively feminine, which I would venture to suggest is an approach better suited to women than men!


Pushing for something you want doesn't mean you have to be aggressive. Often it's simply a case of being direct, clear, concise and prepared to listen closely to what the other person says during your conversation and after you've made your points. I've known women spend several days "psyching themselves up" for a big conversation with their boss about something as simple as asking for a day off, when in reality all that was required was a sensibly assertive conversation that would take all of two minutes to achieve the desired outcome.

As women, all of us sometimes like to roll over (metaphorically, at least), let go, be tickled, receive attention and love and affection. Being assertively feminine is not about giving up the good things in life; it's about getting more out of life by standing up for ourselves and our rights, when circumstances require us to.

This article first appeared in June 2006 in the women's Self-esteem eZine entitled "Touching Half the World", which is sent to all members of the website at

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