Assertive Communication 101: Finding Your Voice

by Morgan Concepcion, LCPC

I am passionate about interpersonal boundaries, and in my experience to have good boundaries, telling others about them is imperative! 

Assertive communication is crucial to being able to set, clarify, and protect your boundaries as well as consider the impact of boundaries in relationships.  I am passionate about assertive communication. I speak to clients about it regularly and wanted to reach a broader audience with some of what I have learned.

Can you recognize assertiveness?

Below are different examples of the same words, each expressing a different communication style. Which, do you think, is most assertive?

  1. Could you pass me the salt?
  2. Pass the salt.
  3. Can you share the salt over, here, please?
  4. Please pass the salt.

(Body language, including gestures and tone of voice, is also key to assertiveness and I will include these points later in the article.) 

Key to Assertive Communication

Notice how you might react to each of these statements.  For most people, each elicits a slightly different feeling and and response (when spoken or heard). That is because at a subtle level they are communicating the same request slightly differently.

Here are the keys to defining different communication styles: 

Passive: uses conditional language, could, just, might, would. (Statement 1)

Aggressive: gives a command, often “tells” instead of asks. (Statement 2)

Passive-Aggressive: implies a feeling along with the message, think “double-talk/over-asking for the obvious”/ “smart-aleck.” Of course a person has the ability to share table salt. The hidden question is, “Will they give it to you now?” (Statement 3)

Assertive: a request or statement that is polite, clear and to the point. (Statement 4)

Why does assertiveness matter?

Many of my long-standing clients will likely know this answer: 

“It helps you get what you want without provoking an unwanted reaction in the other person.”

Assertive communication includes a clear statement of:

1) What you want and/or how you feel

2) What happened to cause the desire or feeling

3) The reasons why this matters in the relationship.

Example:

 “I want you to put your dirty clothes in the hamper instead of on the floor, because the last few times I picked them up, I started to feel over-worked and resentful.”

Stating directly and politely what you want may be difficult. You may not ask directly for what you want out of fear that you will hurt someone else’s feelings or be aggressive. 

Here are the differences between assertive and aggressive communication: 

Assertive Communication:

  • shares your view while allowing for the other person’s as well.
  • is open to compromise. 
  • shares equal power and responsibility for communicating. 

Aggressive Communication:

  • forces one view as the dominant view of a situation.
  • wants to win: the other side has to lose.
  • leads to an abuse of power and bullying. 

How to tell the subtle difference between styles: 

  • Aggressiveness posing as Assertiveness: “I hate that you’re always late.”  

Using words like always & never, begins the process of generalizing and often turns into aggressive or passive aggressive communication.  An assertive version of this statement might be: “I hate that you are late tonight.”

  • Passive-Aggressive: “I want you to be on time for once.”

This one starts assertively, but ends with a bite.  Said assertively, “I want you to be on time.”

  • Passive Communication: “I just want you to be on time for me.”

Using words like ‘just’ turn an assertive statement into a plea or passive statement.  Here’s the same phrase without the word ‘just’: “I want you to be on time for me.”

Equation for Assertiveness: 

  • Person + Action:
    • “When you were late in picking me up” / “After I saw the dishes on the counter”
  • Descriptive Feeling (version of MAD, SAD, GLAD, HURT, DISGUST):
    • “I felt angry and hurt” /  “I was really annoyed”
  • Reason Why It Matters:
    • “Because the message that sent to me was: ‘You’d rather do something else than be here on time for me.”   / “Because I asked you to do the dishes and you didn’t. 

Assertive Body Language Tips

  • Standing tall vs. slumping: How you carry yourself can send a message of confidence or uncertainty. Sitting instead of standing can help you feel and convey  confidence.
  • Loud or soft voice tone vs. clear and distinct voice tone: People need to hear your communication.  Speaking in a loud voice may suggest to some that you are angry. Speaking softly may be read as ignorance, shyness or fear.  Speaking a in a clear tone of voice at a moderate volume makes it easier for people to focus on what you are saying, the content or message.   When you speak quickly, hesitantly, softly or loudly people automatically focus on the unintended communication and will form perceptions of your emotional state or motives instead of what you are saying.
  • Facial expressions: Are you smirking, looking down and to the side, or looking someone straight in the eye with a calm and interested facial expression? Again your facial expressions communicate unintended messages that your listener then blends into your stated message. 

Choosing assertiveness takes active awareness and regular practice. Communicating assertively won’t guarantee good behavior from other people… that requires Interpersonal Boundaries! 

There is much more that can be said about assertive communication, and in particular with regard to setting interpersonal boundaries. You can read that in my next installment about boundaries: 

How to Set Boundaries : Define and Defend What You Want

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One Response to Assertive Communication 101: Finding Your Voice

  1. Catherine Sue Wilson says:

    Great reminders Morgan!
    Strong work.

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