Compassionately Assertive – Maintaining Boundaries without Aggression – using empathy and clarity to get your needs met


Quick summary: This post will explain how to use empathy, self-awareness, and assertiveness to ensure that your personal boundaries are respected by others. Often we have a difficult time when an instance calls for decisive action in order to help the environment to respect our individual boundaries. Some react with aggressiveness that protects a person’s own boundaries yet often violates another person’s boundaries in the process. Other people are wary of engaging with conflict and therefore choose to not defend themselves or they choose to use an avoidance strategy. I am going to suggest that it is possible to be both assertive and compassionate when helping another person to stop violating your boundaries.


We all have many boundaries that are in place to help us to feel safe, respected, and happy.


There are certain behaviors that violate our boundaries in an overt or concrete way, such as if some one where to physically assault you or to physically take something that you had defined as being your property.


Other time the violation impacts an abstraction such as a moral, a principle, or an ideal, such as when someone speaks or engages in behaviors that are disrespectful to you or someone who you care about.

  • When this boundary is violated a person generally feels as though an action that he/she deems as subjectively “bad”, “wrong” or “unfair” is being or has been engaged in.


So what do you Do?


You don’t want to let a person walk all over you and you don’t want to enable a person to continue to engage in disrespectful or harmful actions towards you…


You also don’t want to react in a way that violates another person thereby creating a cycle of vengeance. You don’t want to leave an interaction feeling guilty and awkward about your behaviors with worries that this person might actually be even less likely to respect your boundaries in the future.


Empathy and Understanding – If you can be empathetic and understanding of the person in front of you, they will be more likely to be empathetic and understanding of your boundaries.


Empathy and Self-awareness – If you react to a person with empathy they tend to be less defensive. In this less defensive state a person can take some space to reflect upon the situation… often they will find their error themselves. In short, when you ‘put yourselves in their shoes’ to figure out what they are feeling the person in more likely to put them selves in their own shoes so that they can then realize what they really feel about their actions.


Patients, Self-reflection, and Clarity – By taking the space to understand your own emotions and the specifics of your boundaries you can be very clear and controlled when articulating your needs.


In order to handle such a situation in an ideal way there are some questions that are beneficial to ask yourself.


1.) What is the surface level reason for this person to be violating my boundaries?

  • Ex. She cut me off because in doing so they will be getting to her own destination faster.
  • Ex. he is calling me names because he is jealous of my success.


2.) What is the good intention behind this person’s action?”

  • I know this one is difficult, but despite your subjective interpretation of an action, people always have a “good reason” for their “bad behaviors.”
  • Ex. He does not want to assist me with my technical service issue because he lacks the training to so. He is being difficult to hide his lack of skill.
  • Ex. The teacher was short with my child today because she desperately needs space to recover, as she is being dramatically over-worked. She was being short as her emotional boundaries are already being infringed upon.


3.) What emotions seem to be dictating his/her behaviors?”

  • Ex. This employee is fearful that he will lose his job if he acknowledges the mistake he made… fear is encouraging him to blame this error on me.
  • Ex. This person feels confused and inadequate and therefore is feeling very threatened by what I thought was relatively benign constructive criticism.
  • Ex. This person is terrified about his financial situation and therefore was unable to think about how is actions were affecting other people.


4.) What is the boundary that I perceive this person to be violating?

  • Ex. We had a written agreement and this person’s decision violates our business contract which jeopardizes the profitability of my business. I have a boundary surrounding people making decision that jeopardize my livelihood without consulting me.
  • Ex. This person is endangering my bodily safety with their decisions. I have a boundary concerning people making precarious selfish decisions in my presence.
  • Ex. This person is making me feel emotionally unsafe with his racist suggestions. I have a boundary pertaining to what emotionally harmful words can be said in my presence.



5.) What are all emotions that I am experiencing as a result of my boundary being violated?

  • For this question be sure to recognize that your emotion is related to a specific behavior and not to a person. Often when we accuse a person of creating our emotional disposition they get defensive… they are a bit less likely to get defensive if you suggest that it was their behavior instead.
  • The behavior made me feel ___________ (instead of) you made me feel ___________.
  • Ex. On the surface I am feeling simply angry and a bit deeper I am feeling belittled and patronized by the insistence that another person’s error was in fact my error.
  • Ex. I am feeling fear and a need to protect myself do to the treatment of my property.
  • Ex. I am feeling scared, unwanted, lonely and isolated because of these prejudice comments.


6.) What are a few possible solutions? What do you need in order for your boundaries to feel respected?

  • Ex I need my money back so I can go to another business or I need for you to fix the situation and take responsibility for the mistake.
  • Ex. I need for you to respect the business contract or I need you to ensure I do not lose any profits as we break our business agreement.
  • Ex. I need for that language to not be used in my presence or I will have to leave and report you.


Now take some time and make sure that you sit with your anger long enough so that you can use the anger instead of the anger using you.


Anger can bring clarity and right assertiveness when it is acknowledged and understood.


Anger controls us and encourages us to act outside of our best interests when we do not take the time to accept and understand our anger.


I am in not way suggesting that this will always work as some people are not in the right place to be able to appropriately interact with other people…

  • By engaging in this methodology you dramatically increase your chances of resolving the issue with the least resistance and/or repercussions.
  • We are all part of a collective… by being both empathetic and direct you encourage other people to do the same.



How do you compassionately assert your boundaries? Simply tell the person your answers to questions 1 – 6


Perhaps your reason for this action is (1) _____________.

You probably have the good intention of (2) _____________.

It would make sense to me if you were feeling (3) ___________ about the instance.

We are all different and I hope that you might understand that my boundary is (4) _____________.

Perhaps you can understand that I am feeling (5) ___________ about this situation.

the best way that I can imagine resolving this situation is to (6) _____________ .


I would suggest that this protocol has intrinsic value in that you are exemplifying compassion and ration.


Perhaps when you use this method it will not work out the way you wanted it to… but what if your children or a stranger was to see you acting in such a graceful way? Would people around you be more or less likely to be compassionately assertive?


What do you think about this method?


What are your reactions?


Could this be a helpful tool for society even if it did not work for you most of the time that your used the method?


Do acts of compassion increase compassion around the world… is compassion contagious?

William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.
William Hambleton Bishop
William Hambleton Bishop is a practicing therapist in Steamboat Springs Colorado.

3 thoughts on “Compassionately Assertive – Maintaining Boundaries without Aggression – using empathy and clarity to get your needs met

  1. I agree, we, in general, need to learn more assertiveness. But your method is too unrealistic.

    Many people won’t have the luxury of having the time and space to think their actions through when they are in a potentially explosive situation.

    If they are lucky, they will have assertiveness down pat and be able to stay present whilst dealing with a situation. But not everyone is in that position. So they tend to react rather than respond, especially if they have heavy egos.

    • I agree with you that somehow mindfulness has become a luxury… with mindfulness we can truly be emancipated from automaticity… without doing work on the ego and the basic mammalian drives it would indeed be very difficult to successfully implement this technique… you are correct that this technique is not an approximation or an easily accessible first step, but rather an end goal… my ending question remains the same… will using such a methodology spread compassion whether it is effective in the moment of conflict or not?

      I do work with people who are in more dire situations in which they need a more direct form of assertiveness to protect themselves… sometimes a less compromising and pacifist technique is necessary to balance out power dynamics. – so I agree with you this technique is more based in idealism than reality.

      thank you for reading… I always truly appreciate thoughtful responses such as yours

      • I do this both in my personal and professional life! It’s not unrealistic at all, but it certainly is uncomfortable at first but easier after months of practice, just like anything else. Emotional regulation is key in being assertive in order to stay self-aware and react in an assertive manner.

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