Effective communication can improve literally every relationship in our lives, from the bond with a romantic partner to camaraderie among office colleagues. At its best, your communication style allows you to connect with people in meaningful ways—at worst, it can derail a budding relationship or cost you important professional opportunities.
One of the most important communication skills is assertiveness: The ability to confidently speak up for yourself, without putting others down. Assertive behavior can get you a second date, a follow-up interview for a new job, a salary boost—you name it. Many good things can come from being self-assured, yet also respectful to others.
However, not everyone feels comfortable boldly and clearly stating their needs, wants and feelings, and could benefit from some form of assertiveness training. In fact, for many of us, being assertive and exuding a form of self-confidence is not even close to our go-to communication style. Instead of being upfront, you might hold in your true feelings until finally blowing up over something small. Or you might be passive aggressive by default, instead of being direct.
Depending on your family or origin and how you learned to communicate, you may feel strange just coming right out and saying how you feel and what you need at any given moment. But this essential effective communication skill can be adopted with some self awareness and practice.
Here’s what you need to know about assertiveness and how you can start using assertive communication in your relationships.
What is assertive communication?
In short, assertiveness is being direct. It’s not rude. It’s not mean. Being assertive means you can face conversations, even conflict, head-on in a way that shows respect to yourself and to the other person you’re speaking with.
Assertive communication is coming forward with your feelings and needs calmly, while considering the other person’s point, emotions and perspective as well. Whatever it is you’re communicating, you’re speaking in a way that’s thoughtful without downplaying or invalidating your emotions or reality. (Or the other person’s, to boot.)
Why is assertiveness important?
Assertive people are better able to communicate with those around them, creating more respectful, balanced relationships. When you practice assertive communication, you usually avoid the problems that can come from passive communication, like feeling resentment or anger toward others. In a way, being assertive is a form of stress management, and a healthy part of self esteem.
By being direct without resorting to aggressive responses, assertive people feel less of an internal conflict between what they’re thinking and what they’re saying to other people. This inner conflict can often lead to high levels of stress and anxiety, not to mention diminish the honesty within a person’s relationships with others.
When you present one version of yourself to other people that’s not really true or watered down, no one can fully understand the real you. But by doing small things like learning to maintain eye contact, acting in a self confident manner, and even learning how to project confident body language, you will find yourself well on your way towards a positive change.
Assertive behavior vs. Aggressive behavior
Assertive communication is often associated with a go-getter attitude—someone who’s assertive is thought to be a confident, bold individual who chases down what they really want in life. Being assertive is very much tied to being diplomatic.
Assertiveness goes hand-in-hand with mutual respect. When you’re being assertive, this means that you respect yourself enough to share your real thoughts and feelings and that you respect others enough to be considerate of their perspectives as well.
Being assertive isn’t “just telling it like it is” or having a “sorry, not sorry” attitude. These are the hallmarks of aggressive people, who do things like shaming, ignoring, talking over people or being pushy in general. An aggressive person makes themselves out to be better than others and may even try to intimidate others as well by trying to be physically threatening.
Then, there’s passive-aggressive communication. When you’re being passive aggressive, you might use sarcasm to mask your true feelings. Instead of being direct, you might sidestep a given issue but then lash out at someone with your behavior or by making comments to other people about the situation.
When you’re uncomfortable being upfront and honest, you might say yes to someone or something when you’d rather say no. Over time, your relationships, and your self-worth, will undoubtedly suffer if you continue to be passive-aggressive.
The benefits of being assertive
The change doesn’t necessarily happen overnight, but assertiveness can have a number of positive effects, both personally and professionally. Here are just a few of the benefits you’ll start to see when you adopt a more assertive communication style:
This is likely the most important benefit to assertiveness. Being assertive means being direct but it also means that you can listen actively and show consideration to other people.
Assertive people can call others out in kind and respectful ways, and they can admit when they’re wrong and own up to their mistakes, fairly engaging with the point of view of others in a positive way. By staying in control of their feelings—and expressing these feelings in healthy ways—assertive people don’t lash out at others. What you see is what you get.
Respected by others
Being assertive is being your true self. When you show your real self to others unapologetically, you’re going to be more respected for keeping it real. People don’t need to second-guess you—you are who you say you are. And when you make a commitment, people know that you’re going to show up.
Maintain healthy boundaries
Assertive people say yes when they want to say yes and they say no when they want to say no. They’re not hung up on impressing others or doing things to appease other people. Because they work on pleasing themselves first and foremost, they don’t make decisions based on what other people think they should do.
Find common ground
Since assertive people are able to see both sides of a particular issue or conversation, they’re adept at finding win-win solutions. They’re able to find compromises easily and work with others to create common ground. As natural problem solvers, assertive people want to find workable solutions in all areas of their lives.
Be less stressed out
Because they’re true to themselves and to others, those who are assertive usually are less anxious and stressed. They don’t feel victimized or taken advantage of by other people. They don’t feel threatened or less-than than other people either.
Assertive people are self-assured and they continually practice this confidence in every relationship they have. Because they’re continually standing up for themselves in everyday scenarios, they’re able to enjoy a highly positive sense of self. Never underestimate the power of positive thinking. They make their needs their first priority and this practice enables them to truly value themselves.
The risks of being assertive
The benefits of being assertive far outweigh the risks. Yet, there are a few minor negative possibilities to keep in mind when you’re working on your assertiveness.
First, not everyone understands being assertive, especially people who tend to be more passive or passive aggressive. Because these people have a hard time being direct, sometimes they feel threatened or caught off guard when someone is able to clearly express their thoughts, needs and feelings.
This, of course, is not your problem. But if you get pushback from people when you’re expressing yourself in an assertive way, you may need to work harder to find common ground with them.
Also, if your personality and communication style has been on the more passive side, you may surprise close friends and family members with your newfound assertive nature. This is particularly true if you tended to defer to others’ options, didn’t set clear boundaries or rarely spoke up for yourself.
While you may have some relationship growing pains with these people at first, your bonds will become stronger, and more respectful, when you can clearly articulate your needs.
How to become more assertive
Just like you’d repeatedly lift weights at the gym to become more physically strong, you can work on being more assertive by continually practicing certain exercises in your daily life. As you adopt these habits, you’ll be able to speak more directly to others and express yourself in more self-assured ways.
Build your confidence
First, work on your self-love. It’s hard to be assertive when you feel unsure of yourself. Take stock of your positive qualities, your achievements and the things you love about yourself. You might even make a list and tape it to your mirror as a reminder. When you believe that you’re worth it, you’re better able to voice your needs and feelings.
Adopt confident body language
Sometimes, you’ve got to fake it ‘til you make it. Make eye contact when you’re talking to someone. Stand tall and lean in. Smile at other people—and at your own reflection. Acting confident will oftentimes incite confidence within you. As you adopt a more self-assured way of being, your attitude will follow.
Practice “I” statements
When you disagree with someone or need to give someone negative feedback, frame the statement with “I” instead of “you.” Rather than saying “You need to do X,” you might say “I would like some help with X.” This opens up the conversation for collaboration and mutual problem solving rather than creating blame and conflict.
Say no more often
This is a great way to start setting boundaries with other people and to protect your time from activities and commitments you don’t truly enjoy. You don’t need to provide long explanations. Something simple like, “No, I won’t be able to do that,” or “No, I can’t attend this time,” is perfectly sufficient.
Be direct and you won’t feel resentful for doing something you wished you didn’t. (Or, you won’t need to cancel last minute with a made-up excuse that will only backfire on you down the road when you can’t remember the lie you told.)
Practice cooling down
Assertive people know that talking in the heat of the moment doesn’t do much good for either person involved. Start to recognize what happens in your body when you’re getting overloaded emotionally—what do you feel when you’re angry, frustrated or on the verge of tears?
Learn to ground yourself by feeling your feet firmly on the floor and wait for the emotion to dissipate. This way, you can come to the conversation feeling rooted and steady, not overly emotional.
The power of a clear communication style
Learning to be assertive takes time and practice. You won’t go from being more passive to being totally assertive overnight. Give yourself a chance to try on this communication style in all sorts of scenarios.
You might even rehearse important conversations or write out a script to help you feel more confident in your communication abilities. Or, at the same time you could enlist a friend to help you role-play situations so you can become more comfortable clearly stating your needs and practice your active listening skills.
A final thought
With time, you’ll feel more and more secure with expressing yourself assertively. Know that this skill is well worth the effort you put in. By being direct with the people in your life, you’ll strengthen all of your relationships, including the one you have with yourself.
This change in your life is right around the corner!