How to Be Assertive When You Need to On-The-Spot: 5 Tips for Assertive Communication

How can you be assertive on-the-spot? Being assertive when you need to and on-the-spot can be challenging, especially if you’re coming from a more passive style of communication.

It can be really difficult to think of how to respond assertively to a negative comment, in the moment.

I don’t know if this happens to you but sometimes when I’m in front of a stressful conversation, a conflict or a rude comment, I freeze. 

I can’t think of anything to say on-the-spot. I start mumbling. I get anxious. And I don’t know how to respond to this person – until 20 minutes later!

Then I think of what I “should have said” or “could have said” to that person.

This delayed response time isn’t helpful when you want to be assertive on-the-spot.

In this blog post, I’m sharing with you five techniques to help you be assertive in the moment. 

These are techniques that have helped me as a recovering passive communicator and they have helped thousands of my students in my Assertive Communication Skills Masterclass too.

First we need to understand why is it so hard to think of a response on-the-spot.

Listen to the podcast episode above for all the challenges I’ve faced in becoming assertive on-the-spot and insights into how I have become assertive on-the spot. Listen on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google, Amazon etc here.

Why Is it Hard to Be Assertive On-The-Spot?

When we’re in a challenging situation or a difficult conversation, it makes us stressed. Right? I get stressed. You probably get stressed to.

We’re not wired for conflict. You probably have your heart pounding, develop rapid breathing, and start sweating. These are common physiological symptoms of stress.

It’s basically the body’s way of putting you into “fight or flight” mode because it detects danger.

What is Fight or Flight Mode?

Flight or flight mode is a survival mechanism that we’ve developed over human evolution to keep us from dangerous situations. It helps us to respond physically to the threat or danger, on-the-spot. 

It allows us to quickly jump out of the way of an oncoming car or to swiftly turn around if you think somebody is behind you in a dark alley.

During fight or flight mode what physiologically happens is all your bodily functions are sent to that parts of your body that matter the most at that time – your limbs and your heart.

Your heart beats faster pushing blood to the muscles, heart and other organs. 

Your pulse rate increases and blood pressure go up which causes you to develop shallow or fast breathing. 

Your lungs open to take in as much oxygen as possible. And your sight, hearing and other senses become sharper so you can react quickly.

All of your bodily functions go to the parts of your body that matter the most at that time to allow you to run or to fight.

Which means they’re taken away from your brain!

Which is exactly where you need them for though processing and cognitive function.

Because you don’t have the resources in your brain when you need them, it prevents you from thinking and communicating clearly on-the-spot.

This is why you can’t be assertive on-the-spot or respond the way you want in a stressful situation.

This isn’t something we have a lot of control over. 

In my opinion, it’s really about getting used to stressful situations and difficult conversations that will help us handle them better and be less stressed in the moment.

Let’s move on to the five tips on how to be assertive on-the-spot, when you need do.

1. Try to Calm Your Stress Response

Calming your stress response is often easier said than done. 

What will really help you here is to breath. 

Take deep breath in and out during the conversation. Four seconds in and eight seconds out. 

This will help tell your mind that you’re not in fight or flight mode. You are in control and calm.

You can also adopt confident body language. 

Amy Cuddy and her colleagues did a famous study in 2010 on confident body language and they found that when you hold power poses for two minutes, it makes you feel more confident.

If you want to learn more about this study, I talk about it in-depth in Episode 015 of my podcast, The Leadership Pod, Science of Confident Body Language. 

I also have a YouTube video on this topic and a lengthy blog post which is a popular read for many.

Keeping calm through breathing and using confident body language definitely helps me feel more confident in stressful situations and I’m sure it will make you feel confident too, and hopeful help you respond assertively on-the-spot.

2. Be Prepared, If You Can

Sometimes you have time to plan for an assertive conversation and work out what you want to say.

I recently had to have a difficult conversation with somebody and I had time to plan this conversation. I could prepare my words and work out exactly what I wanted to say to this person. 

I even practiced the conversation and rehearsed what I was going to say so in the moment I wasn’t lost for words.

This helped me come across much more assertive and confident in the moment and it made the whole conversation a lot more effective.

Sometimes you do have time to prepare for an assertive conversation. If you do, use this time wisely to work out what you want to say, write it down and rehearse your message.

3. Listen First

In the event you don’t have time to prepare for a difficult conversation, you can give yourself some time in the conversation by listening first. 

Give the other person the space to say what they want and to vent their anger. 

When you do this, it gives you time to think of what you want to say to them. 

And it brings down the other person’s defence mechanism which in turn makes them more open to hearing what you have to say.

Because you’re allowing them to vent, they feel heard. They feel you’ve listened to them. And as a result, they’ll be more open to hearing what you have to say.

4. Get Your Key Message Clear in Your Mind

When you get lost for words in a difficult conversation, it’s usually your key message that gets muddled.

It gets lost in all the stress you’re feeling in that moment. And because of the fight or flight response (as mentioned above), it doesn’t come across clearly to the other person.

In order to think of your key message on-the-spot (and not have it lost in stress), you need to be in touch with your feelings and wants.

You need to go back to the core of what you really want to say.

I know you have something in mind. But you suppress that because you want to be polite, or because the fight or flight response prevents you from thinking clearly.

Take a deep breath and ask yourself, what is it you feel?

What is the one message you want that person to hear? 

And say that.

5. Re-Write Previous Conversations

One thing that has helped me immensely to respond assertively on-the-spot is to go back over previous conversations and re-write them. 

I re-write them to say exactly what I wanted to say in that moment.

I literally get out a piece of paper (or text file on my computer) and re-write the conversation.

The purpose of this is to re-train your brain. To put you back in that stressful situation and get used to identifying what you really feel and want.

This helps you to be more nimble and rapid with your responses in future conversations.

I know it’s unlikely you’re going to have same conversation a second time, but as you get practice identifying on paper your wants/feelings, you’ll become better at you’re responses in-person.

You’ll be able to respond assertively on the spot when you need to.

Above all, remember that assertiveness is a journey. If you’re assertive in one conversation but not in another, that’s okay. Simply forgive yourself and try to apply these techniques the next time around. 

And if you want more help with this, then definitely check out my Assertive Communication Skills Masterclass on Udemy. Use the above link to access the discount coupon that expires on July 19 2021. Go to this page if you want the updated discount coupons.

About Kara

Kara Ronin is the founder of Executive Impressions. She is an executive coach who specialises in leadership presence, social skills and business etiquette. She is also the creator of Bestselling Udemy course, Business Etiquette 101. Kara’s advice and unique perspectives have been featured in Time Inc., Business Insider, Ignites Europe (a Financial Times Service), The Muse, The Local France, The West Australian, and more. Kara works regularly with lawyers, investment bankers, and finance professionals to help them build presence, authority and influence in business. Get Kara's insights delivered straight to your inbox