Being Assertive at Work: How to Establish Healthy Boundaries?

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We’ve got a little test for you – a game. We’ll present you with three fictional scenarios. Your task is simple: read them and tell us if they sound familiar.

First scenario: It’s been a rough day – you’ve had a ton of work, you’re exhausted and not feeling your best. All you really want is to lie down on the couch and rest. But then a friend calls, asking for a favor that involves a long trip to his faraway place. You don’t say no, even though you know you need some rest and self-care.

Second scenario: You’ve made plans with a friend who, as usual, keeps you waiting for half an hour. Her chronic lateness and the fact that she didn’t even text you to say she’d be late get under your skin. But when she finally shows up, you keep quiet, even though it bothers you.

Third scenario: Your boss, well aware that it’s almost time for you to head home, marches into your office with a stack of reports and tasks. Not only is it your quitting time, but you also have an important personal matter to attend to. Yet, you say nothing and put your own needs on the back burner. This leaves you feeling down and disappointed in yourself.

If you answered “yes” to these situations and can relate to them, there’s a common factor: you haven’t expressed your needs, shared your thoughts or voiced how these situations make you feel, even though you recognize the importance of doing so.

There’s a communication tool that will help you in these situations: assertiveness.

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is the skill or ability to communicate and express your needs, rights, thoughts and feelings politely, kindly and respectfully. Sometimes, stating what you need or setting boundaries can be wrongly perceived as rude or causing conflicts. But in reality, assertiveness is never about impoliteness, aggression or disputes.

You can establish healthy boundaries by calmly explaining what you need and how you feel in specific situations without raising your voice or losing your composure. Assertiveness will prove valuable in all areas of your life: within your family, with your partner and friends, and at work.

How being assertive can help you at work


  1. Being aware of your worth and accomplishments. Assertiveness primarily involves respecting yourself: recognizing your worth and what you deserve. This will boost your self-esteem and confidence, enabling you to convey it effectively at work, ensuring your boundaries and achievements are respected.
  2. Managing your emotions. It will help you stay in control and not be swayed by emotions or impulsive reactions in the heat of the moment. You’ll still acknowledge your emotions but won’t let them dictate your actions, allowing you to handle workplace situations with composure and self-control.
  3. Resolving conflicts in a healthy way. Life presents uncomfortable situations – and the workplace is no exception. Assertiveness empowers you to seek out more constructive, intelligent and creative solutions. This leads to more effective problem-solving with long-term positive outcomes, steering clear of shouting and disrespect.
  4. Creating a better work environment and fostering teamwork. Establishing clear boundaries  influences the company’s atmosphere and your interactions with your boss and colleagues. They will understand how to engage with you and respect you more for your clear, firm, yet polite communication style.


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6 tips to put assertiveness into practice 

Start small

If setting boundaries is new to you and saying no or expressing your feelings is a bit of a struggle, start practicing with small, less uncomfortable situations. Begin with someone you trust in your close circle. For example, a friend invites you to an event you’d rather not attend. Try practicing what you might say, something like: ‘I appreciate the invitation, but I’m not feeling up to it today because I’m tired. I care about you, but I need some me-time.’

Begin by practicing in your everyday interactions, where you can express your emotions and needs with kindness and consideration. As you grow more at ease with assertiveness, you can gradually extend it to people or situations that you may find more challenging.

Where do you draw the line?

We all have certain non-negotiables in our lives – attitudes, details or situations that clash with our values and represent boundaries we’re unwilling to let others cross. These can be dishonesty, lack of respect, lateness or irresponsibility. We recommend taking some time to think about these and understand your limits. If you’re unaware of them, you won’t be able to communicate them, and others won’t respect them.


Being empathetic and trying to see things from the other person’s perspective will guide you in communicating with them. When the people you talk to feel heard and understood, they’re more likely to be open to discussion. This, in turn, helps you avoid falling into aggressive behaviors.

Express your needs without apologizing

Some people feel uncomfortable expressing their needs – and some even think it’s selfish. That’s why it’s vital to practice expressing your needs and feelings without having to apologize for doing so. Remember to mind your body language and your tone.

Be straightforward and simple 

At times, you may find yourself giving lengthy explanations due to fear or embarrassment. In assertiveness, less is more: communicate your needs and desires clearly so your listener understands you. As mentioned earlier, remember that being honest and straightforward can coexist with being polite and considerate.

Use the first-person approach

To explain this, let’s revisit one of the three scenarios mentioned earlier. In the third case, you could find yourself uttering something like this: ‘Why are you doing this to me? You have no idea how rough my day has been. I’m so exhausted… And my workday is almost over!.’ Instead, try using a first-person approach.

You could say: ‘I’m exhausted today and have something important to attend to right after work. I understand you need these tasks done, but it won’t be possible for me today. I’ll take care of them tomorrow.’ This way, you won’t come across as accusing or making it personal while being clear about your current needs and limitations.


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