Assertive communication involves expressing your thoughts and feelings, your wants and needs in a direct and respectful way, knowing at the same time, that others have the same right. Assertiveness helps us be open in our communication and establish good relationships based on respect and honesty. Like any skill, assertiveness can be learned with practice.
In our previous blog post, we covered in detail what assertive communication is, compared it with two other common communication styles – passive and aggressive – and talked about its risks and benefits. But how exactly can you become more assertive? How to have that healthy confidence to stand up for yourself? What to do, what to say?
Here are 4 basic tips and principles that can help you on your way of becoming more assertive:
1. Recognize your values and your rights
Assertiveness is about standing up for your rights, beliefs, and values. It is about respecting ourselves enough to be OK with who we are and how we choose to live our lives. Thus, it’s important to define our values clearly and to realize that we have the right to live in line with them, as long as we do not violate the rights of others. When we are sure about our priorities and know we have the right to ask for what we want (which is not the same as necessarily getting it), practicing assertiveness becomes easier. Defining your core values and recognizing your assertive rights will help you make decisions with more confidence.
2. Practice saying NO
Rejecting someone’s request is uncomfortable for most people. However, learning to say no in a respectful way is necessary for setting healthy boundaries with others and with ourselves. A helpful first step toward feeling less guilty for saying no may be to recognize that you are rejecting the request, not the whole person, and that your wants and needs are as important as wants and needs of others. In the end, practice saying no with the simple realization that you are going to feel uncomfortable. The whole point is to build tolerance to this discomfort.
3. Communicate clearly and respectfully
Assertiveness is a golden middle between passive and aggressive behaviour. Thus, it is important to learn to express your wants and needs in a way that is direct enough, but not aggressive. The key is in confidence and honesty with respect toward others.
While paying attention to the words you say, don’t forget to keep your body language in check. Assertive communication is marked by open body language – straight posture, relaxed facial expression, kind but firm tone of the voice, smiling. If you communicate passively, your body language will be closed, stiff, you’ll avoid eye contact. On the other hand, in an aggressive communication style, there is are frequent head shakes in disagreement, eye rolls, loud or threatening voice, quick body movements.
If your tone of the voice, facial expressions, and gestures are incongruent with the words you say, people will tend to believe non-verbal signs over your verbal message.
4. Take responsibility
It is important to keep in mind that everybody is responsible for their behaviour. It is not your job to control how other people act or feel, but you are responsible for your own actions and feelings. Nobody can make you behave or feel a certain way – other people choose their actions, and you chose yours.
So how does assertive communication look like in practice? How to phrase what you want to say without shying away or coming off as too pushy? This little cheat sheet of assertive communication may be helpful on that:
Step 1: Address the behaviour, not the person
You can start by clearly describing specific actions that you are not OK with in a non-judgmental way. While doing this, it’s crucial to avoid pointing fingers and trying to induce feelings of shame or guilt in them. Describe the situation as you see it but try to be as objective as possible. Don’t exaggerate by using words such as always or never. For example, instead of saying “You are always late”, you may try saying something like: “You are 15 minutes late for the third time this week”.
One mistake that is often made in conflicts is labeling the person instead of addressing the behaviour. When the focus is on what someone is perceived to be rather than the behaviour they exhibit, the productive communication usually shuts because the person feels attacked and in need to defend their character. Instead, talking about specific actions in a non-judgmental way increases the chances of the other person focusing on solving the problem instead of becoming defensive and feeling the need to protect their sense of self.
For example, instead of saying: “You are so selfish”, you may try with: “I think that this specific action you did was inconsiderate”. See the difference? Starting the conversation in this manner does not guarantee that the person will not get defensive at all, but it can decrease the chances of this happening and increase the possibility of coming to a positive result.
Step 2: Use “I statements”
Sometimes describing the behaviour that you don’t like and asking for it to change is enough. However, it can often be useful to let the other person know how you feel and what you need in a particular situation. Express your feelings and needs in a clear and open manner that’s at the same time non-blaming and non-critical. While doing this, you should be careful to frame the communication from your perspective, describing how you feel.
Avoid focusing on the other person, or trying to blame them for how you feel. Instead, share your emotions and your needs in the context of their actions. For example, instead of saying: “You don’t help enough around the house”, you may say: “When you don’t help out with the housework, I feel overwhelmed”. This way, you take responsibility for your emotions (because don’t forget, nobody can make us feel the way we feel; we respond to what is happening according to our thoughts and beliefs), but simultaneously address the problematic behaviour.
Note that, sometimes, these “I statements” can seem like emotions, but they are really just about other person’s actions. For example, when you say something like: “I feel…manipulated, ignored, mistreated”, you don’t express genuine emotions. What you’re really saying is: “You manipulate, ignore, mistreat me”, which is, again, describing other person’s behaviour or, more precisely, how you understand their behaviour. “You statements” can sound overly blaming and critical, which, again, moves the focus of communication from finding a solution to self-protection.
Step 3: Listen actively and put yourself in other people’s shoes
Just listening is not enough for good communication. We need to be actively listening. Active listening means that we are fully engaged in a conversation, that we are trying to truly understand the message the other person is trying to convey, and that we are putting effort into making the other person feel heard, understood, and safe to speak. This means that we will show interest in what the other person has to say by, for example, nodding, leaning forward, not interrupting them, etc.
The key is listening to understand, not to respond. When we are focused on what we want to say next, we are focused on ourselves, not on the other person. That can prevent truly hearing and understanding their message, which can further lead to misunderstandings, bitter feelings, and overall unproductive communication.
Trying to see things from another person’s perspective and to acknowledge how they understand the situation can be incredibly helpful in creating a productive dialog. It can make the other person feel heard, understood, and respected, which makes them more likely to listen to you openly, and less likely to get offended.
Step 4: Offer a solution
People can’t read your mind. You can state what you’d like to happen next, or invite the other person for a discussion to find a mutually satisfying solution. You can say something like:
“I would like…”
“I think… What do you think?”
“I appreciate your concerns, what do you suggest we do? How can we get around this problem?”
Putting it all together, here are some examples of assertive communication:
“This is the fourth time this month that I’m doing extra work because you have fallen behind. I understand that you are busy, and I want to be a team player, but I am under a lot of stress when this happens. What can we do to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”
“I completely understand what you are trying to say, but I will have to disagree. I see the situation this way. How can we find a common ground?”
“When you are late to our dates, like you were the last three times, I feel frustrated because I need to wait. Also, I feel hurt because it seems to me like I am not a priority. I would appreciate it if you would respect my time and arrive promptly the next time.”
“I understand that you need my help, and I would like to help you, but I really need to take care of myself today because I feel run-down. How about tomorrow?”
“No, thank you” (Yes, this is perfectly fine to say, no need for excuses or explanations)
Assertive communication can feel stressful at first, especially if you’re used to another form of communication. Remember your assertive rights, take a deep breath, and dive into it. It becomes much easier with practice, and the benefits are numerous.
Do you find it difficult to communicate assertively? What are your experiences with this style of communication? Let us know in the comment section below. Additionally, be free to share this article on your social media; who knows, maybe someone finds it useful and get inspired to improve their communication skills.
Duckworth, M. P. (2009). Assertiveness skills and the management of related factors. General principles and empirically supported techniques of cognitive behavior therapy, 124-132.
Duckworth, M. P., & Mercer, V. (2006). Assertiveness training. In Practitioner’s guide to evidence-based psychotherapy (pp. 80-92). Springer, Boston, MA.
“Being assertive means that you are willing to hold up for yourself fairly – without attacking others.”
– Albert Ellis
We can all think of times when our boundaries were violated but we didn’t know how to protect them. When we knew we should speak up, but we didn’t. When we sensed that we are being taken advantage of, but we just accepted it, unable to say NO. These are not pleasant situations, and they can easily leave us feeling neglected and powerless, seeming like whatever we do – confront or comply– we won’t feel good about ourselves. But there is a way to actually not feel guilty for expressing your thoughts and feelings and defending your rights. The key is – learning how to communicate assertively.
What Is Assertiveness?
Assertiveness is a skill of communicating your opinions, wants, and needs in an open and honest way, while also considering the opinions and needs of others. It refers to being able to recognize our rights whilst still respecting the rights of others. Assertive people don’t shy away from defending their points of view or standing up for their goals but do that in a respectful and polite way.
Assertiveness starts with recognizing two main things: your core values and your (and other people’s) assertive rights.
Your core values are the fundamental beliefs and principles that guide your behaviour. They reflect what is important to you, who you want to be, and how you want to live your life. Your core values help you set priorities and provide direction and criteria that influence your personal decisions. When we live in alignment with our core values, we derive a sense of fulfillment and, often, a higher level of confidence in our choices. Thus, defining your personal core values is critical for setting priorities and feeling self-confident when setting boundaries or standing up for your rights.
Assertive rights highlight people’s freedom to be themselves and take responsibility for their choices. When you are assertive, you know your rights and also know that others have them too. From there, you are self-assured and draw power from this to get your point across firmly and fairly, without disrespecting others.
Assertiveness As a Sweet Spot Between Passive And Aggressive Communication
Assertiveness is a core social skill because it dramatically helps in delivering your message successfully. If your communication style is too passive or too aggressive, your message may get lost because people either won’t recognize or acknowledge your rights and needs, or will be too busy defending themselves.
With a passive communication style, you’re sending the message that your needs, thoughts, and feelings are less important than the needs, thoughts, and feelings of others. Not being able to express yourself honestly, or doing it over-apologetically and feeling guilty about it, putting yourself down and shying away from saying NO are all signs of passive communication style. Although your intention may be to keep the peace and increase the chances of other people liking you, this kind of behaviour easily permits others to disregard your wants and needs, which can quickly lead to building up stress, resentment, and anger, which can damage your relationships.
On the other hand, with an aggressive communication style, you don’t have the problem to state your thoughts, needs, and feelings, and do so in a very open way. However, this style sends the message: “I am right and you are wrong!” The main difference between assertiveness and aggression is that the first is about balance, while the second is about winning. Being assertive means you consider your rights and the rights of others as equally important. There is a big difference in the words used, the tone of the voice, and in body language used. Assertive people are firm without being rude. Aggressive people demand what they want while dismissing others’ wants and needs and violating their rights. You can make choices for yourself, and that is what assertiveness is about. But when you make choices for others, that is aggressive.
- Being open about your thoughts and wishes, and encouraging others to do the same
- Being solution-oriented
- Realizing you have the freedom but also the responsibility for your decisions and actions
- Being able to admit mistakes and apologize
- Having the confidence to stand up for your rights when they are violated
- Behaving as equal to others – not above, not below
Assertiveness is a sweet spot between passivity and aggression, and like any skill, it can be developed and improved through practical exercises and experience.
Benefits And Risks of Practicing Assertiveness
Learning assertiveness skills can help you:
- Politely and effectively say NO
- Negotiate win-win situations
- Feel good about yourself and others
- Decrease stress and anxiety
- Set healthy boundaries
- Communicate more clearly and openly
- Develop your leadership skills
- Protect yourself from being taken advantage of
It’s important to note that assertiveness is not a tool for “getting what you want”. Being assertive is about choice, responsibility, and healthy boundaries. It may increase the chance of getting what you want by promoting open communication and respect, but is by no means a guarantee for a positive outcome.
Sudden use of assertiveness may be mistaken for aggressiveness by others, especially by individuals with a passive style of communication. Also, be aware that some organizations and cultures prefer people to be passive, and can find assertive communication rude or offensive.
An Assertiveness Training can teach you how to speak assertively, use appropriate body language, understand your rights in interpersonal situations, give you the opportunity to practice, and much more. If you think assertive training is something that you need, be free to contact us for more details.
If you like this blog post, please be free to share it on your social media.
What is your communication style? How difficult do you find being assertive? Let us know your opinion in the comment section below!
Smith, M. J. (2008). When I say no, I feel guilty. Pacifica Tape Library.