Assertive Communication: How to Do It (And Why It Matters)

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Learn how to confidently get your point across in a way that respects both others and yourself.

[Featured Image] An professional practices assertive communication as she speaks to her manager.

Assertive communication is a form of communication through which an individual expresses their feelings and personal needs in a direct but respectful manner [1]. Researchers have linked assertiveness in communication to improved outcomes in everything from the educational success of elementary school children to the job satisfaction of professional nurses [2,3]. 

In this article, you’ll learn more about assertive communication, what distinguishes it from other communication styles, and how you can become more assertive yourself.  Read on to find out how speaking up respectfully can help you level up your personal and professional relationships and achieve your goals.  

What is assertive communication? Definition, style differences, and examples

Assertive communication is often confused with other forms of communication. In this section, you will learn what assertive communication is and how it differs from aggressive and passive communication. 

Assertive communication definition

Assertiveness in communication is the ability to directly state your feelings and needs in a respectful manner. An assertive communication style neither shirks from speaking up nor aggressively forces a perspective on someone else. Assertive communication is directed by the three Cs of effective communication [2]:  

  • Be clear: you communicate in a straightforward way that directly states your thoughts and feelings without dressing up your language.  

  • Be consistent: what you say today reflects what you said yesterday, rather than changing daily without explanation. 

  • Be courteous: you respect your listener and communicate in a manner that doesn’t pass judgment on them or presume ill-intent. 

By maintaining clear, consistent, and courteous communication, assertive communicators can speak up and voice their perspectives without disrespecting others. 

Assertive vs. aggressive vs. passive communication

On the spectrum of communication styles, assertiveness lies between passive and aggressive communication without falling into passive-aggressiveness. 

Aggressive communication occurs when a speaker is concerned with only their perspective and personal goals rather than considering those of their listener. Individuals who exhibit aggressive behavior are often focused on reaching their goals immediately without considering possible long-term negative consequences [2]. While aggressive communicators might succeed in having their voices heard, they also alienate those around them and negatively impact their own success in the long haul.

Passive communication occurs when an individual doesn’t voice their own perspective, feelings, or needs and routinely conforms to the preferences of others. Unlike aggressive communicators, passive communicators consider the potential consequences of their communication style but end up sidelining themselves for others. Research suggests that passive communicators might end up feeling depressed, helpless, and tense as a result of their communication style [2]. 

Assertive communication examples

Assertive communication bridges the gap between aggressive and passive communication. The chart below explains the differences between assertive, aggressive, and passive communication by illustrating different responses to common situations. 

ScenarioAggressive responsePassive responseAssertive response
A friend shows up late to a movie you really wanted to see, causing you both to miss it.“You are always late and never think about anyone else but yourself!”“It’s fine. I didn’t want to see it that much anyway!”“I’m really disappointed we missed the movie because I really wanted to see it. Next time, I’d like us to pick a time that works better for your schedule.”
A person cuts ahead in a line you have been waiting in.“What’s wrong with you? I’ve got to be somewhere!”“Don’t worry about it!”“Pardon me, but I have been waiting in line for a while and have to be someplace soon. Would you mind waiting your turn?”
A friend expects you to pay for dinner for the second time in a row.“I always have to pay for you! All you ever do is take!”“I’ve got it, don’t worry.”“It frustrates me that I am paying for dinner again because I have been running low on cash. Next time, I’d appreciate it if you paid for us.”

How to be assertive in communication: tips and examples

Assertive communication is all about getting your point of view across to others without causing conflict. While every situation is unique, there are some consistent methods you can use to maintain respectful assertive communication with others. 

1. Use “I” Statements

“I” statements are a form of communication in which the speaker describes their own beliefs and feelings rather than attributing motives to a listener. The opposite of “I” statements are “you” statements, which shift blame from the speaker to the listener through accusatory language.  

A common formula for “I” statements is:

“I feel ____ when ____ because ____. What I need/ want is _____.”

For Instance, “I feel sad when you don’t call me back because I would like to hear from you. Could you let me know the best time to talk?” 

Using “I” statements allows you to diffuse tension with a listener by offering insight into your internal feelings. This can help the listener see how their actions made you feel and redirect their focus on solutions, rather than projecting accusatory motives for their actions that only further heighten tensions. 

“You” statement“I” statement
You never clean the dishes!”I feel frustrated when I come home and find a pile of messy dishes because I want to come home to clean space. I’d like us to work on it.”
You are always late!”I feel disrespected when you show up late because my time is very valuable to me. I want us to use our time well together.”

2. Stick to the facts

When disagreements arise, conversations can occasionally get heated and veer off course. To help keep things civil when you are voicing your perspective to another person, focus on the facts at hand rather than letting your feelings cause you to speculate about the other person’s motives. 

In keeping attention on the facts, you focus the conversation on things that can be handled at the moment and work towards solutions that benefit everyone. At the same time, keeping your focus on what you know to be true helps minimize the negative emotions that can arise from speculating about another person’s motives. 

Emotional speculationSticking to the facts
“My meeting was a disaster because you didn’t deliver the report. You’re terrible at this job.”“I wish you had delivered the report to me before the meeting, but I understand you’ve been swamped. I think we should work out a new schedule, so we can support each other better.”

3. Learn to say “No”  

It can often seem much easier to say “yes” to more responsibilities than to decline someone’s request for help – even when you know you have other concerns that require your attention. 

In fact, saying “no” to more responsibilities is sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves and our employers. Researchers found that overwork can not only lead to health problems like depression, sleeplessness, and heart disease but also impair judgment and decrease productivity [5]. Ironically, saying “yes” to everything can actually create more problems than it fixes. 

A good way to decline someone’s request is simply to say “no” and offer a brief explanation for why you can’t help. If the other person attempts to push the issue further, simply tell them “sorry” and reiterate that you don’t have the time. In some cases, you may also be able to redirect them to another person or an external resource that you feel might be able to help. 

4. Maintain a calm tone

The way you communicate a message is often as important as the message itself. As a result, it is important to maintain a calm tone of voice when you are asserting your perspective, feelings, or needs in conversation with someone else. 

Whether we realize it or not, our tone of voice greatly impacts how we are perceived by others. According to research conducted by behavioral psychologist Dr. Albert Mehrabian, approximately 38 percent of how others receive our communication is based on our tone of voice [6]. How we sound matters.

To communicate assertively, you should focus on maintaining an even tone of voice that remains calm and free of aggressive emotions. By using this technique, you will get your message across to the listener without exacerbating any possible tensions. 

5. Be aware of your body language 

Another aspect of how others receive your communication is through your body language. Do you close yourself off and turn away when someone is talking to you or do you open up and give them your undivided attention? 

The choices we make with our body language greatly impact how others receive what we are saying. The aforementioned study conducted by Dr. Albert Mehrabian found that 55 percent of how a message is received depends on body language [6]. The way we hold ourselves during communication often speaks louder than words. 

To embody assertive body language, stand tall in a straight but relaxed way, maintain eye contact, and keep your body open with uncrossed arms. Showing interest with an open demeanor will highlight both your respect for them and yourself. 

Next steps

Good communication is the cornerstone of good personal and professional relationships. If you are looking to hone your communication abilities, you might consider taking the University of Pennsylvania’s short online course on Improving Communication Skills or their longer Achieving Personal and Professional Success Specialization

With good communication strategies, you’ll be more effective in every aspect of your life – from your workplace to your home.

Related articles 

Article sources

1. APA Dictionary of Psychology. “Assertiveness, https://dictionary.apa.org/assertiveness.” Accessed February 16, 2022.

2. MDPI. “Communication Styles and Attention Performance in Primary School Children, https://www.mdpi.com/2076-328X/11/12/172/htm.” Accessed February 16, 2022. 

3. NCBI. “Development and evaluation of a modified brief assertiveness training for nurses in the workplace: a single-group feasibility study, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5461750/.” Accessed February 17, 2022. 

4. Psychology Today. “The 3 C's of Effective Communication, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/high-octane-women/201304/the-3-cs-effective-communication.” Accessed February 16, 2022. 

5. Harvard Business Review. “The Research Is Clear: Long Hours Backfire for People and for Companies, https://hbr.org/2015/08/the-research-is-clear-long-hours-backfire-for-people-and-for-companies.” Accessed February 16, 2022. 

6. Forbes. “Strong Nonverbal Skills Matter Now More Than Ever In This "New Normal, https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbescoachescouncil/2020/08/24/strong-nonverbal-skills-matter-now-more-than-ever-in-this-new-normal.” Accessed February 17, 2022. 

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