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I’m Ok, You’re Ok – Assertiveness at work explained

Assertiveness at work

Being assertive at work can be really hard, and this is something many people struggle with. Our insecurities, perceived weaknesses, motivations and goals can all stop us from being assertive when we need to be. In this article, Charlotte Scott explains why we need assertiveness, what it actually is, and how to be assertive.

Why we need assertiveness

Assertiveness is a communication skill, and displaying assertiveness is essential to working with others. Being assertive enables you to put forward your ideas, thoughts and opinions by expressing yourself effectively. It also helps to earn others’ respect and boost your self-esteem.

You have probably encountered assertive people who are able to navigate difficult situations calmly and professionally, deflecting others anger and frustration with diplomacy and confidence. This level of assertiveness helps to achieve results, solve problems and build good relationships with others. It’s a useful skill we should all aim to develop.

Understanding Assertiveness

Many people don’t understand what assertiveness truly is. They think it is only about putting their opinions forward and speaking up.

Assertiveness is actually an interplay between how we communicate and how we treat the other person in the conversation.

The I’m Ok, You’re Ok model created by Thomas Anthony Harris, brings this balance to life:

IOKYOK matrix

I’m ok means I respect myself and feel confident to put forward my thoughts and opinions.

I’m not ok means I don’t feel able to express myself or my ideas.

You’re ok means I respect you, I am interested in your perspective and want to hear it.

You’re not ok means I’m not respecting you, and don’t value your ideas.


The results of this balancing act are:

Aggressive: I’m ok – you’re not ok

People sometimes believe that speaking up is the same as being bossy, pushy, or disrespectful of other people. When we take this aggressive approach, we’re enabling our voice to be heard, but we’re not respecting or listening to the other person.

We can display aggression by talking over people, exaggerating and overstating our point, or using words to belittle the other person or their idea in a way that can be easily dismissed.

Aggressive behaviour is selfish, rude and controlling, it shuts down the conversation. Whilst you might win the conversation you have not actually won-over the other person and will have damaged the relationship.

Result: winning the conversation, losing the relationship

Passive: I’m not ok – you’re ok

Being passive means that you’re not respecting yourself and so are not willing to put forward your ideas and thoughts. While at the same time you’re allowing the other person to express themselves.


Sometimes we become passive because we don’t want to be seen as pushy, or because we don’t believe our voice is valued, for example when speaking with a more senior person. When we act passively, we might understate how we’re feeling, use humour to deflect the situation, or steer the conversation to something safer.

By taking this approach true dialogue doesn’t happen so your vital perspective is lost. Being unable to share your opinion can also lead to stress, frustration or at worst burnout.

Result: losing yourself, allowing others to win

Passive-Aggressive: I’m not ok – you’re not ok

People often think they are being passive, when actually they are being passive-aggressive. Being passive-aggressive means that you are not respecting yourself by being honest about your point of view, but you are also showing subtly that the other person is in the wrong. Passive-aggressive behaviour makes both you and the other person feel bad.

We can display this when we feel wronged, but not able to solve the situation. When we act passive-aggressively we might use words to agree with the other person, but show our unhappiness through our tone of voice, facial expression or negative body language. We might display grumpy, sulky or moody behaviour. We might ignore others’ comments or not follow-through on agreed tasks.

Passive aggressive

These indirect expressions of hostility make those around us feel very uncomfortable. Over time we will be seen as unreasonable and unprofessional. As problems and issues aren’t solved, our resentment and feelings of powerlessness can grow.

Result: everybody loses 

Assertive: I’m ok – you’re ok

Being assertive means that you respect yourself enough to put forward your thoughts and suggestions, whilst also respecting the other person and their point of view. You are communicating directly and honestly as well as being kind and likeable.

When you’re assertive, you talk openly about what you need. You might not always get what you want, but by listening to others and by having the courage to speak candidly and respectfully, your calm and agreeable style will earn others’ respect.

Because assertiveness is based on mutual respect, it’s an effective and diplomatic approach. It allows us to cooperate, to understand both points of view and ideally to resolve conflict by finding an outcome that suits us both.

Result: it’s not about winning, its about outcomes for everyone

success high five

How to be assertive in five steps:

Learning to be assertive takes time, self-control and confidence. Follow these five steps to develop your assertiveness skills:

  1. Be curious about the other person’s point of view. Even if they are not acting professionally, they will have reasons for their behaviour or opinion. Ask open questions and really listen to understand what they have to say. If people are being unreasonable, listening to their needs and expectations can be really challenging. But if you ensure they feel listened to and respected, the conversation can shift to a more positive dialogue.
  2. Speak up and express yourself. People can’t read your mind, so be honest and specific. Use “I” language to avoid sounding critical. For example: “I have another suggestion” rather than “You’re wrong”. Or “I noticed the deadline wasn’t met” instead of “You didn’t meet the deadline”. If you have a hard time turning down requests, learn to say no, not yet, or not now. Saying no is not selfish, it shows you are able to prioritise and can set healthy limits. Remember, every time you say yes to something you are saying no to something else. Saying no therefore also enables you to say yes to the things that matter most. Explain your perspective and ask for help if needed. Keep any explanations short and simple.
  3. Watch your tone: It not just what you say but how you say it. Keep your tone of voice and body language open and warm. You don’t want your message to get lost because people are reacting to your delivery. We read a great deal into the way something is said, not just the words people use. When you are preparing for an assertive interaction, think ahead about your body language and how you can show you are OK and so are they. Pay particular attention to your facial expressions, arms and posture.
  4. Think win-win: don’t assume the other person is aiming to undermine or belittle you. Even if they are, don’t sink to their level, don’t treat them badly, and don’t withdraw from the conversation. Build on their ideas rather than dismissing them. Offer potential solutions and ask the other person to help you shape an answer that works for both of you. Work together on the challenge or issue, exploring it from all sides, finding common ground and a way forward that deals with both of your concerns.
  5. Respond, don’t react: if you find yourself feeling strong and unhelpful emotions in an interaction, it can be really hard to stay assertive. Take a deep breath, pause and think. Your feelings and emotions are entirely valid, however assertiveness means not allowing those feelings to drive your behaviour.


Thinking I’m Ok, You’re Ok will keep you assertive no matter how difficult the conversation. You might not always get exactly what you want, but your pride and self-respect won’t be damaged. And you will build a reputation for being confident, professional and great to work with.

What’s next?

To find out more about the I’m Ok, You’re Ok model and other ways we can help you improve assertiveness at work contact us online or call 020 7978 1516.

We also explore issues around self-confidence and assertiveness on the half-day Assertive Conversations training programme.

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Charlotte Scott

About Charlie Scott

Charlie specialises in leadership development, team facilitation and strategy development. Charlie worked for over 20 years in the not-for-profit sector. Before joining =mc ten years ago, she created and...