Assertive communication involves clear, honest statements about your beliefs, needs, and emotions. Think of it as a healthy midpoint between passive communication and aggressive communication. When you communicate assertively, you share your opinions without judging others for theirs. You advocate for yourself when necessary, and you do it with politeness and consideration because assertiveness involves respect for your own ideas and those of others. This communication style is pretty useful for solving conflict collaboratively. Whether you have a significant concern you want to discuss with your romantic partner or simply need to let a coworker know you can’t offer assistance with a project, assertiveness communication allows you to express your needs productively and work with the other person to find the best solution.
What it looks like
Not sure what makes communication assertive? The following scenarios can help you get a clearer picture.
With a friend
One of your close friends has a crush on your roommate, and your roommate seems to have some interest in them. Lately, when you make plans with either of them, they always ask if the other will be there (which you find just a little irritating). You have some unpleasant experience with roommates and friends dating and feel a little concerned about how this might play out. Plus, you know your roommate doesn’t want a serious relationship, while your friend definitely does. One day, your friend finally asks, “Would be all right if I asked your roommate out?” Gathering your courage, you say:
I’m worried that could affect our friendship, especially if it doesn’t work out. This happened to me in the past, and it made my living situation more complicated and led to the loss of a good friend. Plus, my roommate is looking for something more casual.
Your friend seems a little disappointed but not angry. In fact, they agree about not wanting to damage your friendship and acknowledge the situation could get a little sticky.
Your boss has mentioned a large, upcoming project several times, saying they want you to work on it since it’s for clients you’ve assisted before. “This will be great to add to your portfolio in preparation for moving up,” they confide. “You’re absolutely ready for that.” When they finally give you the project materials and a due date, your heart sinks. You have a few essential pieces of work you can’t put off, and there’s no way you can complete everything yourself. At the same time, you don’t want to let your boss or clients down, and you really want that promotion. You set up a meeting with your boss and explain the situation:
I want to prioritize this project, but I’m afraid if I take it on, all of my work will suffer. I’d like to show you what I can do with this, but I want to be able do my best work.
Your boss agrees you have too much on your plate. Together, you determine one of your larger projects could go to someone else, freeing you up to handle the new project.
With a partner
You’ve started dating someone seriously. While you like them a lot and enjoy spending time together, there’s one problem. They’re extremely messy. Every time you visit, you notice dishes in the sink and laundry on the floor. The floor usually isn’t swept, and the bathroom is never very clean. So far, you’ve dropped a few hints but haven’t said anything outright. Instead, you just invite them to your house, since you feel more relaxed in your own (clean) space. One day they ask, “Why don’t you like coming over?” You don’t want to hurt their feelings, but you want to be honest, so you say:
I feel stressed in messy spaces, and that distracts me from enjoying your company. Would you be willing to do dishes and laundry and clean up a little before I come over? That would help me feel more comfortable.
Your partner doesn’t feel judged or like you’re demanding them to change. They want you to be comfortable and agree to tidy up a bit.
Why it’s worth the effort
Though assertive communication often takes more time and consideration than passive or aggressive communication, this extra effort is generally worth it in the end. Here are some key ways passive communication benefits you and your relationships because:
It protects your needs
Boundaries allow you to respectfully set limits around things you don’t feel comfortable doing. By communicating assertively, you can express emotions clearly and use these feelings to guide boundary-setting in any relationship. When you make choices for yourself about what you will and won’t do, you honor your needs. Creating firm boundaries, and reminding others of them when necessary, helps you maintain control in potentially challenging situations and reduces feelings of resentment and frustration.
It builds trust
If honesty really is the best policy, then assertive communication is the way to go. People are more likely to trust you when they know you’ll give open, direct answers. Passive communication often leads to white lies or lies by omission. Maybe you aren’t directly lying, but deliberate vagueness can still cause some harm. If you hedge around the truth to avoid sharing your opinions, people may get the sense you aren’t telling them everything. Even if you do this to spare their feelings or prevent conflict, they may have a hard time trusting you again. Aggressive communication, while not dishonest, can frighten or alienate others, which can also damage trust.
It prevents stress
Think back to the example of workplace communication. Instead of passively agreeing to take on more work, you spoke up about your existing workload. Maybe you could have completed everything to your satisfaction, but probably not without plenty of stress. Passive communication keeps you from stating your needs and sticking to your boundaries. This usually leads to stress, resentment, overwhelm, even burnout over time. Aggressive communication can also trigger stress. People often have less inclination to work with someone who doesn’t seem to care about their needs or feelings. Instead of supporting you, they might leave you to handle things on your own.
It helps prevent conflict
What if you gave the friend who wanted to date your roommate an aggressive response? “No way. You can’t date them. That would be terrible for me.” Chances are, they’ll just resent you for telling them what to do, and the resulting conflict might strain your relationship. A passive response, such as “Sure, whatever, I don’t care,” might prevent conflict in the moment. But if your friendship does end up suffering due to them dating, your frustration might grow until it explodes into a huge fight. Annoyance (toward them and yourself, for not speaking up) often leaks out in passive-aggressive behaviors — slamming doors when you notice your friend and roommate together or making sarcastic remarks. Expressing your opinion honestly helped you avoid both of these potentially harmful scenarios.
It promotes confidence and satisfying relationships
Communicating assertively can do wonders for your self-esteem and increase satisfaction in your relationships. When you feel comfortable asserting yourself, you’re more likely to develop relationships with people who respect your needs and feel safe expressing their own feelings.
Techniques to try
If assertive communication doesn’t come naturally to you, don’t worry. These techniques can help you get used to speaking up for yourself.
First, note where you have trouble with assertiveness
Some people who have no trouble making opinions known to loved ones might struggle to advocate for themselves around new people. Others might respond aggressively when they feel threatened or when conversations get heated. Perhaps you feel confident sharing your thoughts with your romantic partner but communicate more passively with other people. Or, maybe you communicate very aggressively at work since that’s the only way others seem to listen. Identifying these areas can help you take the first steps toward a more balanced communication approach.
Learn to recognize your own feelings
It’s tough to express needs and opinions when you don’t have a defined idea of exactly what those are. Taking some time for self-discovery can help you get more in touch with your feelings. If you struggle to name them, try paying a little more attention to your internal experience each day:
- What makes you feel good?
- What makes you feel unhappy or stressed?
- What do you enjoy doing?
- What do you wish you didn’t have to do?
Paying attention to situations where you stifle your instinctive response can also help. Of course, you don’t always want to say the first thing that comes to mind, especially if it’s less than tactful. But emotional awareness and assertiveness are skills that often develop together. Increasing emotional awareness can help you learn to recognize when to let something go and when to offer a (respectful) disagreement or compromise.
Ask for what you want
Just as you have the right to express your needs respectfully, you also have the right to make requests of others when you need something, whether that’s help with a task or a change in their behavior. Keep in mind they may say no — everyone has the right to refuse. Even so, simply making the request could begin a conversation that leads to a good compromise.
When making a request or expressing your feelings, try to use I-statements. I-statements focus on your needs and feelings, rather than assuming those of others. People generally feel more willing to accommodate requests when they don’t feel blamed or judged. If your mother wants your help, for example, try saying: “I’ve had a busy week, so I need some time to relax. I’ll help you clean the garage, but this weekend won’t work for me. How about next weekend?” This will probably get a better response than saying something like, “No, you’re not respecting my time and everything else I have to do.”
Practice with loved ones first
It can feel a lot safer to practice assertiveness with people you trust. Getting comfortable making requests and expressing your opinions to family and friends can help you prepare for more difficult conversations, like those that might come up at work. If you tend to lean toward more aggressive communication, ask loved ones to help point out when they feel attacked or unheard. This can help you recognize when to tone down your approach.
Assertive communication can be tricky, especially when you worry others will think you’re selfish or bossy. People do sometimes interpret assertiveness as aggressiveness, especially when they don’t fully understand the difference in these communication styles. This doesn’t mean you should avoid assertive communication. Instead, try these tips for more successful conversations.
A polite “No, thank you” isn’t aggressive, and you don’t have an obligation to offer anything more. That said, a little explanation can help soften a refusal. If your relationship with the other person matters to you, consider providing a reason. When a coworker invites you to lunch, you might say: “No, thanks. I’m trying to cut back on eating out.” This lets them know your refusal has nothing to do with anything they’ve done.
Pay attention to body language
Communication doesn’t just involve words. Gestures, posture, and tone of voice can all say a lot about the intent behind your words. Say your roommate keeps forgetting to take out the trash.
- crossing your arms and raising your voice to say something like “you never remember to do your chores” to express your disappointment
- stomping through the kitchen to do it yourself, grumbling under your breath
Consider offering a polite reminder in a calm voice:
- “Remember, you’re on trash duty this week.”
- “Would you mind taking out the trash? We can switch chores if that one’s a problem for you.”
Don’t forget to ask how they feel
It’s important to take care of your own needs, but assertiveness doesn’t mean drowning others out when speaking up for yourself. Healthy, productive communication goes both ways. Considering another person’s perspective shows respect for their thoughts and ideas.
Once you’ve stated your needs, you might say:
- “What do you think?”
- “How do you feel about that?”
- “What would you suggest?”
Then, listen actively without interrupting. They deserve a chance to assert themselves, too.
It’s very normal for emotions to come up in charged or stressful situations. But instead of expressing your distress with body language, exaggerations, or judgments, try using words (especially I-statements) to describe how you feel.
- “I feel frustrated when…”
- “I feel sad when…”
- “I feel disappointed when…”
Managing your emotions can reduce tension and make successful communication easier. If you feel overwhelmed, a few deep breaths — or even a short break — can help you relax and feel more prepared to express needs and make a request.
The Bottom Line
Some people see assertiveness as impolite or unhelpful, especially in sensitive situations. When done skillfully, however, assertive communication is usually the best approach in any situation. It’s never wrong to express your feelings, and there are plenty of ways to do so with tact and respect.
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