Assertive Communication

Assertion is a style of communication. We all have learned different styles of communication as we have adapted to the various situations of our lives. If some of our styles of communication do not work well in our current situation, they can be changed and replaced with new behaviors. Though there are times when it is best to be passive and times when it is best to be aggressive, in most situations it works best to communicate assertively.

Types of Communication:


  • Violating your rights by not honestly expressing feelings, thoughts, and beliefs. This often results in expressing your thoughts and feelings in an apologetic, self-effacing manner that others can easily disregard or dismiss.
  • The basic message of passivity is "My feelings don't matter - only yours do. My thoughts aren't important - yours are the only ones worth listening to. I'm nothing - you are superior."
  • The goal of passivity is to appease others and to avoid conflict at any cost.


  • You directly stand up for your personal rights and express your thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in a way that is hostile, inappropriate, and violates the rights of others.
  • The basic message of aggression is: "This is what I think - you're stupid for believing differently. This is what I want - what you want is not important. This is what I feel - your feelings don't count."
  • The goal of aggression is domination and winning, forcing the other person to lose. Winning is ensured by humiliating, degrading, belittling, or overpowering other people so that they become weaker or less able to express and defend their needs and rights.


  • You stand up for your personal rights and express thoughts, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest, and appropriate ways that do not violate another person’s rights.
  • The basic message of assertion is: "This is what I think. This is what I feel. This is how I see the situation."
  • The goal of assertion is communication and mutuality. It involves getting and giving respect, asking for fair play, and leaving room for compromise when the rights and needs of two people are in conflict.

The importance of the process:

The major impact of interpersonal communication comes not from what we say (content) but from how we say it (process). If you have assertive content but present it through a passive process, it communicates passivity.

Some examples of important process variables include body posture:

  • Assertive: Direct but non-invasive eye contact, modulated voice, respect for spatial boundaries, use of illustrative gestures, and an erect but relaxed posture. Speak clearly and audibly.
  • Passive: No eye contact (or indirect evasive eye contact), soft/whiny/or muffled voice, cringing/or physically making yourself small, and use of nervous or childish gestures.
  • Aggressive: Invasive/angry staring-eye contact, loud strident voice, invasion of spatial boundaries, use of aggressive gestures (parental finger), stiff, “muscled up”, posture, and towering over others.

Ideas to keep in mind:

  1. Assertive behavior is often confused with aggressive behavior. However, assertion does not involve hurting the other person physically or emotionally.
  2. Assertive behavior aims to equalize the balance of power, not to “Win the Battle” by putting down the other person or rendering them helpless.
  3. Assertive behavior includes expressing your legitimate rights as an individual. You have a right to express your own wants, needs, and ideas.
  4. Remember: Other individuals have a right to respond to your assertiveness with their own wants, needs, and ideas.
  5. An assertive encounter with another individual may involve negotiating an agreeable compromise.
  6. By behaving assertively, you open the way for honest relationships with others.
  7. Assertive behavior is not only determined by “what you say”. A major component of the effect of your communication depends on “how you say” it.
  8. Your communication style is a set of learned behaviors. Assertive behavior is a skill that can be learned and maintained with practice.

Asking for behavior change

One specific type of assertive behavior is a request for behavior change. For example: You may need to ask a roommate to turn down the stereo so you can study. It is necessary to request that others change behavior that does not work for you, but it is often difficult for people to make such requests:

  1. You have a right to ask for behavior change from others. (They also have the right to refuse.)
  2. When you do not ask others to change a problem behavior, you risk allowing the behavior to continue and your relationship to be strained. This may result in you waiting until you are “fed up” and starting a fight.
  3. Requests for behavior change protect your rights, at the same time they build clear communication and more effective relationships.

When asking for behavior change, consider the following six steps:

  1. Describe the one specific behavior you want changed. "When you..."
  2. State the problem their behavior causes you. "It causes a problem for me because..."
  3. Outline the change you would like to see. "I would like you to..."
  4. Explain the reason or benefit to you. "That will help me..."
  5. Get their commitment. "Can you do that for me?"
  6. Summarize and provide thanks. "Thank you for being willing to..."