What is assertive communication and how do you use it to improve your relationships?
Imagine that you’re on a tight deadline for a specific project (e.g., a school assignment or work task) and have a full plate. One of your close friends asks you to do a last-minute favor for her. You want to say no so that you stay on track, but you also don’t want to come off as a bad friend. What would you do?
Perhaps you would yell at her for bothering you when you’re so busy. Or maybe you assertively tell her that you’d love to help, but you just can't. Or, maybe you say you’ll do it even knowing that you’ll be stressed and resentful for doing so. Each of these communication styles reflects our personal style, but one of them is likely to help us feel the best in the longer term: the assertive style.
Assertive communication has been defined as “the ability to speak and interact in a manner that considers and respects the rights and opinions of others while also standing up for your rights, needs, and personal boundaries” (Pipas & Jaradat, 2010, pp. 649). It includes the following characteristics:
Direct eye contact: communicates that the person is not intimidated
Assertive posture: balance between looking too aggressive and too weak
Tone of voice: should be strong, but not aggressive
Facial expression: important to not express anger or anxiety
Timing: the person must be socially aware to assertively communicate at the right time (e.g., asking for a raise in the middle of a business meeting is not great timing)
Clarity: using specific words that clearly communicate needs
Non-threatening: the person should not blame or threaten the other person
Positive: framing a request in a positive way is most effective
No criticism: although it might be tempting, it’s important to not criticize yourself when trying to be assertive
Assertive communication is different from aggressive or passive communication. With passive communication, the person is usually scared about offending the other person. With aggressive communication, the person is overly loud, angry, or judgemental. Assertive communication is clear and confident, yet polite.
Assertive communication has several benefits (e.g., Pipas & Jaradat, 2010; Bishop, 2013) including greater self-confidence, improved social skills, and a greater sense of control. According to researchers, assertiveness can also be a “tool [used to make] your relationships more equal” (Alberti & Emmons, 2017, pp. 14).
Ways to Communicate More Assertively
Make direct and clear requests
Speak up at the right time (instead of waiting and becoming frustrated)
Speak privately with others when wanting to be assertive
Refrain from apologizing when requesting something
Practice role-playing to build assertive communication skills (e.g., Silverman, 2011; Kesten, 2011; Grey & Berry, 2004).
Ways to Communicate More Assertively in Relationships
Reflect on your position in the relationship: take back your power and reflect on what you deserve in the relationship.
Identify your wants and needs: think about the changes you would like for a positive and successful relationship that will fulfill your needs.
Respectfully communicate this to the other person: use a calm, clear approach to share your needs.
Assertive communication can seem hard at first, but it is well worth taking the steps to practice because it may result in better self-esteem, enhanced relationships, and fewer conflicts.
Bishop, S. (2013). Develop your assertiveness. London, UK: Kogan Page Limited.
Grey, M., & Berry, D. (2004). Coping skills training and problem solving in diabetes. Current Diabetes Reports, 4, 126–131.
Kesten, K. S. (2011). Role-play using the SBAR technique to improve observed communication skills in senior nursing students. Journal of Nursing Education, 502, 79–87.
Pipaş, M., & Jaradat, M. (2010). Assertive communication skills. Annales Universitatis Apulensis Series Oeconomica, 12, 649–656.
Silverman, M. (2011). Effects of a single-session assertiveness music therapy role-playing protocol for psychiatric inpatients. Journal of Music Therapy, 483, 370–394.