There are three primary communication styles, passive, aggressive, and assertive. In most situations, assertive communication is the best choice. Assertive communication balances being respectful and considerate of others while placing importance on our own needs and goals. Everyone has the ability to learn and develop assertive communication skills.
What Is Assertiveness?
Common qualities of assertive communication include being:
Interested with the needs of both parties, our own and the other persons
Clear and direct expression of needs, wants, thoughts, feelings, opinions, and beliefs
Respectful of self and others, even in times of frustration and disagreement
Comfortable asking for help when needed
Confident and able to make choices
Able to say no to people when the situation warrants
Responsible for the our own feelings, rather than blaming others
Characteristics of assertive nonverbal communication may including::
Comfortable eye contact
Standing up straight with appropriate posture
Speaking at a normal rate, tone, and volume
Nodding to show engagement to what the other person is saying
Smiling or having a relaxed facial expression
Assertive communication skills are an excellent relationships building tool. Being well practiced with assertive communication makes us more likely to use the skills in difficult situations. When faced with complex, challenging, or emotionally triggering situations or people, it may be easier to slip into problematic communication styles.
Using assertiveness does not mean problems and disagreements won't happen, but it can assist in minimizing conflict and boosting healthy relationships with friends, family, and coworkers. Assertiveness can also reduce unwanted feelings like anger and hostility while better meeting a person’s needs.
Assertiveness vs. Passivity & Aggression
If communication styles exist on a spectrum, passive is one one side, aggressive is on the other, and assertiveness exists in the middle. Although they are not commonly the best option, passivity and aggression are not all bad. Assertiveness could be said to incorporate the most commonly helpful qualities of the other styles and excludes the characteristics that are most commonly unhelpful.
Assertive vs. Aggressive
Aggressive communication is a style solely focused on achieving our own needs and wants with no regard for the feelings or well-being of the other person. A person using this form may be loud, angry, and display signs of verbal aggression by using harsh language and calling people names. Aggression is rarely the best option, but does have its place. For example, if someone is potentially dangerous and assertiveness is not working to stop them.
Aggressive communication might include the following:
High emotional expression, including anger, frustration, irritability, and hateful speech
Telling other people what to do or how to feel
Bullying and manipulating others
Continuing the conversation, even when the other parties are done
Being rude and insulting
People using aggressive communication may excuse their speech and behavior by saying they are only being “honest” or telling people the truth. Often, aggression is actually being used by someone to get what they want without respect or regard for others.
Nonverbal signs of aggression may including:
Glaring or overly intense eye contact
Assuming a dominating or threatening position by standing close or over someone
Speaking loudly and frequently interrupting
Moving around, pacing, or hitting items
Assertive vs. Passive
Passive communication is at the opposite end of the spectrum from aggressive communication. While an aggressive person bluntly states their wants without regard for the other person, a passive person can be so worried about hurting other people’s feelings that they never state their opinions.
When we use passive communication, we may:
Give in to the requests of others, even if it results in an unwanted outcome for ourselves
Struggle to say no
Be uncomfortable making decisions or giving points-of-view
Avoid conflict and confrontation
Nonverbal cues of passive communication may include:
Poor eye contact and looking down
Sitting or standing with poor posture
Speaking quietly or saying little
Leaving a situation that requires opinions or honestly
What About Passive-Aggression?
Passive-aggression does not fit into the passive, aggressive, assertive model of communication because passive-aggressive communication involves many shifts and changes from one problematic style to another.
In practice, passive-aggressive communication shares more similarities with the selfishness of aggressive communication, but since the person struggles with direct confrontation, they often offer sarcasm and indecision.
A person using passive-aggressive communication may present one way to a given person only to present completely different opinions and beliefs to another. This lack of consistency is the most notable difference between assertive and passive-aggressive communication.
Why Is It Important to Be Assertive?
Showing high levels of assertiveness in communication is extremely important and beneficial for all parties involved in the communication. When a person is being assertive, they increase the chances of being understood, valued, and respected.
Other advantages of displaying assertive communication include:
A stronger and healthier relationship between the people communicating
An increased sense of power and control in life
Helping to understand own thoughts, feelings, and goals
Decreased risk of confusion, confrontation, or conflict
Improved self-worth and confidence
When people use assertive communication, they have the best chance of having the best outcome from the situation. Whether they are focused on tangible or symbolic changes, assertiveness is a wonderful tool to use.3
Perhaps most importantly, being assertive results in less stress. Aggressive communication can lead to tension and poor relationships, while passive communication may end with too many obligations from an inability to say no. Either way, a person is burdened with more stress, worry, and anxiety. On the other hand, assertive communication establishes appropriate boundaries to reduce and resolve stress.5
Are There Any Risks to Being More Assertive?
Being assertive is a desirable quality and is always a good thing, so as long as someone is staying within the bounds of assertive communication the risks are limited. Sometimes, though, there is a mistaken belief that too much assertiveness is a problem, but this is not the case.
There could be some growing pains that come with shifting towards assertive communication. People that are familiar with a person’s passive or aggressive communication skills could protest a shift to more assertive patterns for fear that they will no longer have the power to manipulate or control the changing person.
For example, a friend that regularly takes advantage of a person’s passive nature may complain by saying:
You’re rude now
You act like you don’t even care about me
I liked the “old” you better
These people are not really concerned about the other’s well-being or happiness. They are only worried about how these changes will affect them.
Examples of Assertiveness
There are many different ways to be assertive, and each situation can quickly shift to passive or aggressive with a few simple changes. Consider these examples of assertiveness to serve as a guide.
Scenario 1: Can You Babysit?
Passive people are inundated with requests for their time, effort, and energy. These tasks often offer nothing in return and zap a person’s resources and patience.
A person who is regularly asked to watch a loved one’s child without compensation could respond with: I’m happy to help you, and I appreciate you trusting me. The problem is that when I am helping you, I cannot take care of my own plans and goals. If you are not willing to pay me for my time, I will have to reduce my availability each week. I want to tell you now, so you can make alternative plans.
Scenario 2: Issue With Housework
When people become annoyed and frustrated, they could either turn their feelings inward and stay passive or become aggressive in communication. Either option is undesirable, so assertiveness should always be the goal.
In the case of a spouse who is frustrated with the lack of assistance with housework, they could control the conversation by saying: I first want to thank you for all you bring to this relationship and household, but I am finding myself feeling more resentful about the chore imbalance. I would like to discuss ways to find more balance, so we can both feel happy.
This option focuses on managing the conversation when frustrations are low to help avoid the poor communication that comes with irritability.
Scenario 3: Can You Do My Homework?
At school, other students may try to take advantage of other’s intelligence and work ethic by asking to copy notes or homework. Whether the tendency is towards passivity or aggression, choose assertive communication. After all, it’s best for all people involved.
When a classmate surprises another with this request, they could say: I understand that copying my work would make your life easier, but it’s not really in either of our best interests. If you need some assistance, I’d be happy to work on this class together. Otherwise, you’ll need some outside tutoring.
How to Become More Assertive: 7 Tips & Techniques
No matter where your communication stands currently, chances are great you could become more assertive. Fortunately, the process is simple and streamlined. It only requires some practice.
The best ways to become more assertive include:
1. Keep It Clear
When people try to improve their communication, they can over complicate the situation. The best assertive communication is simple, direct, and clear. There is no need for flowery language or long monologues. You want the other people to leave the situation knowing exactly where you stand on the issue.
2. Provide Options & Ask for a Choice
Sometimes the people you are talking to will reject your communication if you demand a certain outcome, so you could find more success when offering several choices that you are comfortable with. Giving people an “either/ or” option creates the illusion of control for them. As long as either option is desirable for you, you stay in an assertive position.
3. Keep It Consistent
A communication mistake that often sidetracks assertiveness is being inconsistent. If a person believes you will change your mind with a little nagging or persistence, they will continue to test your boundaries. To combat this, practice the broken record technique of expressing yourself in the same way over and over until the message is received.
4. Be Mindful of Your Body Language
Body language can change your communication and the way other people perceive your style. Be sure to maintain comfortable eye contact, sit or stand in open ways, nod to show you are listening, and avoid any overtly passive or aggressive movements to increase your success.
5. Be a Communication Robot
Expressing your emotions is a great way to establish your point of view, but becoming overly emotional tends to decrease your ability to be assertive. Limit your feelings and focus on the facts of the situation to maximize the potential for the other people to validate your needs. It is too easy for people to discount your stance when you become emotional. By being a communication robot, you can ensure the other people hear you without thinking you are “just upset.”
6. Manage Your Mental Health
Several mental health conditions can significantly impair your level of communication. Depression, anxiety, and high stress can make assertive communication seem impossible, so seeking treatment to address these issues can indirectly boost your assertiveness.
7. Be a Great Listener
Being a great listener is a frequently overlooked part of assertive communication. If you have no idea what the other person is saying, there is no way to respond or progress the conversation effectively. Stay calm, slow down the process, and listen to achieve the best possible outcome.
When to get professional help
Many people struggle to find the best balance of communication skills to practice assertive communication. If you struggle with the skills, some professional treatment could improve your abilities while addressing any mental health conditions that are influencing your levels.
If conflict, confrontations, and poor communication are at the center of your stresses, getting help for assertiveness could be helpful.
(From, Choosing Therapy. https://www.choosingtherapy.com/assertiveness/, Retrieved 8/2022.)
If you think Still Waters might be the right place for you to get help, we would be delighted to talk it over with you.