Assertive Communication 101: Finding Your Assertive Voice

Assertive pose
Photo Credit: Wonder Woman slash by Jason Keath via Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

by Morgan Concepcion, LCPC

I am passionate about interpersonal boundaries, and in order to have good boundaries, you need to tell others about them! 

Assertive communication is crucial to being able to set, clarify, and defend your boundaries and their consequences in relationships.  I’m also motivated to write due to how many times I talk about this topic in therapy sessions every week!

Can you recognize assertiveness?

Below are different examples of the same words: all in different communication styles. Body language, including gestures and tone of voice, is also key and I will include these points later in the article.  

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

These are confusing, right?

Here are the keys to defining different communication styles: 

Passive: uses conditional language, could, just, might, would. (2)

Aggressive: gives a command, often “tells” instead of asks. (4)

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?” (3)

Assertive: a request or statement that is polite, clear and to the point. (1)

Why does assertiveness matter?

Any of my longer-term clients will likely know this answer: 

“It helps you get what you want without the other person reacting.”

Assertively communicating will include 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 what you want may be difficult out of fear that you will hurt someone else’s feelings or be aggressive. 

Here are the differences between assertive and aggressive: 

  • Assertiveness shares your view while allowing for the other person’s as well.
  • Assertiveness is open to compromise. 
  • Assertiveness shares equal power and responsibility for communicating. 
  • Aggressiveness forces one view as the dominant view of a situation.
  • Aggressiveness wants to win: the other side has to lose.
  • Aggressiveness 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, start generalizing and turn into aggressive or passive aggressive communication.

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

This one starts assertively, but ends with a bite.

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

Using words like ‘just’ turn an assertive statement into a passive statement. 

Here’s the same phrase without ‘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. 

Body Language Mixes Things Up:

  • Standing tall vs slumping: How you carry yourself sends a message of confidence vs uncertainty. Sitting vs standing can also help with confidence.
  • Loud tones vs soft tones vs clear and distinct tones: People need to hear you, not assume you are angry or ignorant or shy or scared, etc.
  • Facial expressions: Are you smirking or looking down and to the side, or looking someone straight in the eye with a calm and interested facial expression? 

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 setting interpersonal boundaries. You can read that in my next installment about boundaries: 

How to Set Boundaries : Define and Defend What You Want