Use assertive communication and be heard

“How” you say something is as important as “what” you say when it comes to communication. Being assertive means you express your opinion and stand up for yourself in an honest and respectful way while also maintaining consideration for others’ thoughts and feelings. When expressing yourself, it’s important to be assertive—that is, neither aggressive nor passive.

Assertive people offer up their perspectives, are able to say “no” without feeling guilty, and ask for what they need. Assertive communication gives you the best chance at effectively conveying your message, and it’s a way to further build your self-confidence. Being assertive and a good listener leads to healthy, productive communication.

Passive and aggressive communication

Passive communication happens when people just accept things the way they are. Passive communicators opt to avoid conflict and try to be easygoing. They shy away from offering up perspective often, even when asked. The challenge here is that the passive person ends up conveying to others that his or her ideas, thoughts, and opinions don’t matter, and they aren’t worth being voiced. Being too passive can lead to stress and resentment over time, and you feel like you’re not being heard or considered.

When people issue directives, however, that’s considered aggressive communication. It conveys a lack of consideration for other’s thoughts, feelings, and opinions. Aggressive communicators dominate the conversation and might criticize, blame, or dismiss others. An aggressive style also can lead to a lack of trust where mutual respect isn’t established. Forcefully stating your opinion without regard for how others might respond to it breaks down communication and your relationships.

Communication examples

You and “Quinn” have been friends for a while. Recently, it seems you both haven’t been keeping in touch as much as usual. It’s unclear why this is so, but you know you’d like to hear from Quinn and hang out together more often. You can address this situation in an aggressive, passive, or assertive way.

The direct, aggressive approach might include saying, “Quinn, you’re going to lose me as a friend and ruin our relationship. You need to call me and keep in touch. Don’t make me do all the work to keep up our relationship.” It might make sense to you that Quinn needs to initiate communication and keep in touch, but addressing the issue this way runs the risk of Quinn reacting defensively instead of hearing your message. What’s missing here is an exploration of why your relationship has gotten to this point—and how you can both work to fix it.

And here’s the overly cooperative, passive approach: When Quinn admits to never calling, you respond with, “No, it’s okay, whatever you want is fine. You must be really busy. I understand. You have so much going on; we can just talk whenever you have time.” In reality, it’s not okay, and you don’t understand—but in an attempt to avoid conflict and downplay your own wants, you might passively let the issue go. Over time, frustration and confusion about your relationship with Quinn might build, but you never address it. What’s missing here is expressing your true thoughts on the state of your relationship and what you hope can be done to improve it. Sharing your perspective is important to sustaining a friendship, and a good friend will want to know what’s on your mind.

Lastly, an assertive approach might sound like, “Hey Quinn, I wish we could talk more, but I know you’re busy. Still, our friendship is important to me. What can we do to get in touch more often?” The approach is basically a combination of “This is what I need” and “Let’s work together to find a solution.” It’s straightforward and mutually empowering, opening the door for real communication. Use assertive communication to build healthy relationships and reach mutually beneficial solutions together.

Resources

Chentsova-Dutton, Y. E., & Vaughn, A. (2011). Let me tell you what to do. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 43(5), 687–703. doi:10.1177/0022022111402343

Harrell, M. C., Lim, N., Werber, L., & Golinelli, D. (2004). Working Around the Military: Challenges to Military Spouse Employment and Education. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation.

Mayo Clinic Staff. (2017). Being assertive: Reduce stress, communicate better. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/assertive/art-20044644

Olson, L. N., & Braithwaite, D. O. (2004). “If you hit me again, I'll hit you back:” Conflict management strategies of individuals experiencing aggression during conflicts. Communication Studies, 55(2), 271–285. doi:10.1080/10510970409388619

United States Department of Veterans Affairs. (2013). Learn to Communicate Assertively at Work. Veterans Employment Toolkit. Retrieved from https://www.va.gov/vetsinworkplace/docs/em_eap_assertive.html