Being Assertive with Acquaintances


One of the most telling exercises in my class Communicating, Dating, and Relating is what I call the “hand-on-the-knee exercise.” Most often I’m invited to provide this training to young women, but the situation this exercise presents has been known to cross gender and sexual orientation lines: it’s not just young, heterosexual girls who have trouble with setting this particular boundary.

Here is the scenario I present: You are at a party, where you are acquainted with some people, but not with everyone. You are introduced to a guy about your age by a mutual friend and find yourself sitting on a couch next to him having a pleasant conversation. This guy does not seem like a jerk. You do not get a creepy feeling about him. At some point in your interaction, he puts his hand on your knee or leg. You are not comfortable with this level of physical closeness from this person at this time. What should you do?

Having presented this scenario and question to thousands of participants in Esteem’s trainings over the last 20 years, I have found that there are generally two responses to this situation.

  1. The most likely response from both teens and adult women in this situation is to cross or re-cross their legs. For example, if the woman had her left leg crossed over her right knee, she would simply re-cross her legs, positioning the right leg over the left knee, thereby disturbing his hand, and creating a situation in which it sort of falls away from her body.
  1. The second most common response is for the woman to make up an excuse to leave the interaction. This might sound something like: “I’m a bit thirsty. I think I’ll go find something to drink.” She, of course, never returns and often feels a little sheepish and concerned all evening as she’s on the lookout for the “hand-on-the-knee guy.”


These seem to be effective solutions, but they’re only effective in the short term. Remember the second premise I present in the scenario: You are having a pleasant conversation. This guy does not seem like a jerk. You do not get a creepy feeling about him. Therefore, these are not good long-term solutions.

Here’s why these strategies are ineffective:

  1. Repositioning your legs doesn’t actually guarantee that the hand stays off the leg. As a matter of fact, many guys in this situation might not even realize a woman re-crosses her legs for this reason. So back goes the hand. This is not necessarily because this guy is a limit-pushing jerk (though there are a few of those out there). On the contrary, you’ve enjoyed his company and could likely continue to do so, but you probably don’t want to spend the evening shifting your legs around to avoid being touched. In this case, is it important to remember that boys and men are encouraged by our culture to show their interest in women by touching them. Research indicates that men and boys are less likely to pick up on nonverbal cues; avoiding clear verbal communication is like speaking a foreign language to this person you might be interested in!
  1. Making an excuse to get away only guarantees that you are now deprived of the company of someone you were interested in before he did something he didn’t know you didn’t want him to do. Sound ridiculous? It is. Moreover, you’re giving up your space and your power. Is it fair that you leave the spot you were in first because you’re uncomfortable? The feeling most women report having when taking this action is one of shame and embarrassment. They may not realize that the feeling of shame arises from their silence and their complicity. Meanwhile, he has no idea what’s going on or why the conversation stopped. As far as he’s concerned, you were having a great conversation and then it was suddenly over.

Both of these situations result in the same problem: he learned nothing, and she remained passive.

Esteem’s definition of assertiveness is “respectfully educating other people about how you want to be treated.”

In this scenario, an assertive response would be to look the person in the eye and say something along the lines of, “I was enjoying our conversation, but I’m uncomfortable with your hand on my knee. I need you to remove it.”


This response has three components:

Component #1: Establish rapport. Notice this response begins with a compliment, which can be a productive way to introduce a criticism. These words are intended to clarify that it’s not the person you dislike, but it’s one particular behavior you are not okay with. It is not necessary to begin with a compliment; it should be authentic.

Component #2: Share a feeling about a particular action. In this case, the woman is uncomfortable with his hand on her knee. This is direct and honest and cannot be refuted. No one can argue about your feelings. When you say it out loud (“I’m uncomfortable”), it actually helps to reinforce your feelings on the issue and to empower you.

Component #3: (Optional) Give directions. The last part of this response (“I need you to remove it.”) is not always necessary. It is often enough for the person to know your feelings to elicit an appropriate reaction; most people would remove the hand upon hearing about the discomfort. If not, state in very clear terms exactly what you want the person to do.

To help my students understand the power of this action, they all enact this very scenario in the workshop and find their own ways of communicating about the situation. Some find they prefer to say, “I don’t like” rather than “I’m uncomfortable with” or “I prefer not to be touched.” As long as they communicate clearly and assertively, and it gets the job done, I’m delighted.

Many women, who have been brought up to respond to situations in passive ways, fear that this direct communication style is aggressive. I want to be clear it is most definitely not aggressive. An aggressive response would be something like, “Get your friggin’ hand off my knee!” This is over the top and unnecessary in a situation with someone you have been having a pleasant interaction with. On the other hand, if a stranger touched you on a bus, I believe that would definitely be an appropriate response!

Understand that being assertive means finding the middle ground between passive and aggressive. Assertiveness is getting your needs met while being respectful of the needs of others. If more people adopted an assertive style of communication, we would all feel more respected, more heard, and definitely more understood.

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6 Responses to “Being Assertive with Acquaintances”

  1. Anonymous

    Great article!

  2. Jeanine

    I’m curious how the man will feel or respond when told to remove his hand. Will he want to continue the engaging conversation?

  3. Matthew

    Such a valuable collection of tools

  4. Jan

    Being assertive and setting appropriate boundaries is such an important topic. Given that October is both National Bullying Prevention and Domestic Violence Prevention month, these are important skills. Thanks for sharing!

  5. leslie

    Forwarding this to my daughter in college – great information.


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