As a kid, whenever we went out to eat as a family I felt embarrassed by my dad.
Inevitably, as our hostess or waiter was showing us to our table, my dad would point across the room and ask: “Actually, could we sit at that table over there?”
I remember thinking to myself, This is embarrassing… Why can’t he just sit where they’re taking us? Or, That must be so annoying for our poor waiter. Or, Why’s he always so picky—it doesn’t really matter where we sit.
Fast forward 20 or so years. I still go out to eat with my dad sometimes, and he still requests a better table each time. But I have a much different perspective on things now.
I don’t feel embarrassed at all anymore. In fact, I feel a little proud of him. I’ve realized that my dad’s a great example of how to live out one of the most underrated and misunderstood aspects of mental health and wellbeing: Assertiveness.
In this article, I want to give a brief introduction to the concept of assertiveness. We’ll talk about what it is (and clarify some misconceptions about it), why it’s beneficial, some examples of how to start practicing assertiveness in your own life, as well as some of the most common obstacles to becoming assertive and maintaining a habit of assertiveness.
The 4 Communication Styles
“The only healthy communication style is assertive communication.” — Jim Rohn
As we’ll talk about later, assertiveness is more than a way of communicating. But assertive communication is a good place to begin to understand the more general concept.
There are 4 styles or types of communication:
- Passive Communication
- Aggressive Communication
- Passive-Aggressive Communication
- Assertive Communication
Whenever we communicate with people—whether we know it or not—we’re using one or more of these styles. Let’s briefly go through each and describe what it looks like and where it comes from.
1 | Passive Communication
The passive style of communicating is all about keeping our head down and avoiding conflict. It often takes the form of “going with the flow,” consistently giving into other people’s requests and demands, and avoiding expressing our own desires and preferences:
- Pizza tonight? Well… Okay, sure, that sounds great!
- Drive back into town to pick up a six pack for you? Yeah, no problem, I like driving anyway.
- Take on another new project and work on it all weekend? Yeah, of course, I can do it, boss!
Notice that passive communication doesn’t involve not communicating or saying nothing. Instead, it usually takes the form of going along with whatever someone else suggests.
Also, while the passive style of communication may appear somewhat passive in terms of what we say, it’s often anything but passive in terms of what we do. People with a passive style of communication often look extremely busy and active because they’re constantly rushing around and working hard to take care of everyone else’s requests of them.
2 | Aggressive Communication
The aggressive style of communicating is the reverse of the passive style. Rather than doing whatever is asked of us by others, when we use the aggressive style we try to force others to do what we want, even if it’s at the expense of their own wishes.
In the passive style we give up an unreasonable amount of control over our own lives, but in the aggressive style we try to take an unreasonable amount of control over other people’s lives:
- If I have to eat that goddamn lasagna one more time I’m going to lose it! You better find something else.
- Sometimes yelling’s the only way to get things done around here.
- Get out of my office and don’t come back ’till you’ve got something half-way intelligent to say.
A consistently aggressive style of communicating is almost always a response to feeling afraid or threatened on a deep level. Just like many playground bullies act the way they do in order to feel powerful and compensate for the bullying and fear they experience at home, most adults who use an aggressive communication style are acting out of a sense fear and helplessness.
And while aggressive communication can feel empowering in the short term, the long-term results are never satisfying and often make those feelings of insecurity worse (if for no other reason than that they tend to alienate themselves from other people over time).
3 | Passive-Aggressive Communication
Passive-aggressive communication is a combination of the passive and aggressive styles. It’s usually an attempt to get our way or express our frustrations and dissatisfactions while simultaneously avoiding responsibility for the consequences.
- Gossip—talking badly about people behind their back—is a form of passive-aggressive communication where we vent or undermine someone while trying to avoid the consequences of doing it directly.
- Sarcasm is a common form of passive-aggressive communication that lets us “get a jab in” at someone but avoid taking the blame because it was “just a joke.”
- Intentionally doing a task or project poorly so that we won’t be asked to do it again in the future is passive-aggressive since it allows us to get what we want and avoid the discomfort (or possible rejection) that comes from asking for it.
Passive aggressive communication often “works well” in the short term, but almost always leads to poor results in the long run: The people around us eventually become so frustrated and upset with us that it can cause major relationship strife and loss.
And because people who regularly use the passive-aggressive style understand that they’re not being totally honest in the way they relate with people, chronic guilt can build up and become crippling.
4 | Assertive Communication
Assertive communication means that we clearly and respectfully ask for what we want and say no to what we don’t want.
- Pizza tonight? Actually, I’m kind of tired of pizza… How about Mexican food?
- This report still needs a lot of work. Why don’t you take a closer look at it with Tom from accounting and get back to me in a couple days.
- Hey boss, I’m having some trouble collaborating with Julie on the Johnson account. I think it might help if we had more clearly defined roles and objectives on the project.
Many people mistake the directness of assertive communication for aggressive communication. Usually because they were trained early on in life to be overly accommodating or deferential.
These people hear the term assertiveness or imagine themselves being assertive, and it feels pushy, rude, or somehow disrespectful. This is because they don’t have much experience with the assertive middle ground between passive and aggressive.
Assertiveness is almost always the most effective way of interacting with people because it’s A) an honest expression of how you feel and what’s important to you, but also B) respectful of others.
In other words, assertive communication means respecting yourself and other people in the way you communicate.
Why It’s Difficult to Be Assertive
“Yet there’s no one to beat you | No one t’ defeat you | ’Cept the thoughts of yourself feeling bad” — Bob Dylan
Of course, communicating assertively isn’t easy for most of us, at least not all the time and in every situation. Most of us have a hard time communicating assertively because—in one way or another—we’re afraid.
- We communicate passively and just go with the flow because we’re afraid that people with think badly of us or judge us if we express what we really want. Or because we don’t want to deal with the drama and guilt tripping that would go along with standing up for what we want.
- We communicate aggressively and put others down because it makes us feel powerful and confident and alleviates our deeper insecurities.
- We communicate passive-aggressively because we want the satisfaction of expressing our anger or hurt without taking responsibility for or accepting the consequences of it.
In each case, we tend to avoid assertive communication because we’re afraid of how we or others might feel as a result. And while employing one of these three less optimal styles may help us avoid conflict or negative feelings in the short-term, they almost always lead to negative results in the long-term:
- In the passive style, we feel chronically dissatisfied with ourselves, ashamed that we can’t stand up for what we want or believe, which leads to increasingly low self-confidence and self-esteem.
- In the aggressive style, we become socially isolated, lonely, and even depressed because people in our lives are afraid to interact with and open up to us.
- In the passive-aggressive style, people lose trust in and respect for us and often are chronically frustrated and irritated because of our indirect and responsibility-avoidant behavior.
On the other hand, there’s often temporary discomfort and blowback when we act or speak assertively:
- Speaking up for what we want produces anxiety and nervousness.
- Sharing how we really feel leaves us vulnerable and may expose our insecurities and fears.
- Taking responsibility for our actions is difficult and requires a lot of work sometimes.
The initial discomfort of assertiveness can be even stronger when the people in our life aren’t used to us acting this way. Others may say or imply that we’re selfish by not going along with their requests. Or our attempts at being more direct and respectful may be met with initial doubts or mistrust.
But ultimately, the habit of communicating assertively—of clearly and respectfully expressing our wishes and feelings—leads to the best outcomes in the long-run.
The Benefits of Learning to Be More Assertive
“The conquest of anxiety depends on the occurrence of overt acts of assertion.” — Joseph Wolpe
The benefits of becoming more assertive are too many to list entirely. But here are a few of the most common and compelling reasons to work on becoming more assertive:
- Decreased social anxiety and need for approval. As we become more skilled at expressing our own beliefs, wants, and needs in a direct and respectful way, we gain valuable evidence that we don’t need to worry as much about disapproval as we imagine.
- Become more relaxed and less stressed. One of the ironies of the 3 unhelpful communication styles is that they require a lot of work and energy. Once the initial emotional blowback of being more assertive fades, it’s a far more efficient and relaxing way to go about life.
- Increase self-confidence and self-respect. Every time we avoid expressing what’s genuinely important to us, we communicate to our own brain that our own wishes are not really that important. Do this enough, and we start to train our own brains to believe that we’re not that important generally. On the other hand, when we’re willing to honestly express how we feel and what we want, we’re reinforcing to our own brains that we are important and valuable. And ultimately, that’s the source of genuine self-confidence and self-respect.
- Become less resentful of others. When we use the 3 unhelpful styles of communication, we tend to project our own disappointment with ourselves at not being honest onto other people in the form of frustration and resentment.
- Improved relationships and partnerships. It’s a truism in couples counseling that all relationship problems are communication problems. And when it comes down to it, all communication problems are problems of assertiveness. When we learn how to communicate assertively—especially with spouses and romantic partners—just about every aspect of our relationships improve.
Assertiveness Is About More Than Communication
“To know oneself, one should assert oneself.” — Albert Camus
While assertive communication is the most common form of assertiveness, it’s important to know that assertiveness is bigger than a style of communication and speech.
At its core, assertiveness is about values. At its most complete, assertiveness means that we live our lives according to our values not someone else’s.
It’s about respecting ourselves enough to be genuinely okay with who we are and to live our lives accordingly. And while this may take the form of speech and communication, it’s about how we act more generally.
- Keeping our word. When we lie or flake out on commitments we’ve made to other people, we not only decrease their trust and good faith in us, but we undermine trust in ourselves. We create another piece of evidence that we’re not really reliable or consistent, which over time severely weakness our self-confidence and self-image.
- Not second guessing our decisions. When we make a reasonable decision but then spend hours, days, or weeks mentally ruminating and second guessing that decision, we’re communicating to our own brains that our decisions can’t be trusted. On the other hand, when we abstain from worry and second guessing, we demonstrate confidence and belief in ourselves.
- Following through on goals. Assertiveness means being careful about the goals we set. Because every time we set a goal and then don’t follow through on it, we communicate to ourselves that we’re not the type of person who follows through on what’s important to them. But when we are thoughtful and set reasonable goals that truly matter to us, and then work hard to achieve them and follow through, we reinforce the powerful idea that we’re a competent, reliable person.
- Defending our beliefs. If you really want to see good examples of passive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive communication at work, observe how people act and communicate when politics, religion, or other strongly held beliefs are on the line. Many of us either avoid expressing and defending our beliefs because the imagined conflict “isn’t worth it” (that’s me 🙋♂️), or we become irrationally aggressive and/or indirect in defending our beliefs and end up being disrespectful or inflexible in the way we engage with people who differ from us.
- Asking for and giving feedback. Most people are terrified both at giving or receiving feedback because they lack self-confidence and are afraid of how they’ll feel (shame, embarrassment) or how others will feel about them (anger, disappointment). But to someone who’s assertive, feedback is a wonderful thing because it leads to growth and new insights.
Small Ways to Practice Being More Assertive
“It is a mistake to look at someone who is self assertive and say, “It’s easy for her, she has good self-esteem.” One of the ways you build self-esteem is by being self-assertive when it is not easy to do so. There are always times when self-assertiveness requires courage, no matter how high your self-esteem.” — Nathaniel Branden
Assertiveness is a skill that needs to be built and developed over time. If you’ve read this far, hopefully you have a good understanding of what assertiveness is and why it’s important. But putting it into practice is an entirely different thing.
Becoming more assertive takes sustained effort and commitment. So start small. Work on being more assertive in lower stakes situations. As you improve and it becomes more natural, slowly work up to assertiveness in bigger and higher stakes situations.
Here are a handful of ideas for getting started practicing assertiveness in small ways:
- Make imperfect decisions. When you’re faced with trivial joint decision with someone—like which show to watch on Netflix with a friend or partner in the evenings—just pick the first thing that comes to mind and say that’s what you want to watch. Don’t worry if you’re not totally sure if that’s what you really want to watch or how the other person may or may not feel. Just say, I’d like to watch Detectorists. Or, Let’s watch Planet Earth.
- Whenever you’re being seated at a restaurant, ask for a different table.
- Stop apologizing when you haven’t actually done anything wrong. Often times we say we’re sorry because we’re uncomfortable with the fact that someone else is uncomfortable, and so we say we’re sorry in an attempt to “make things better” and relieve the discomfort of the situation.
- Get comfortable saying no. If someone asks a favor that’s either unreasonable or that you simply don’t want to go along with, simply say no. Understand that you’re going to feel uncomfortable afterward, and that the whole point is to build up your tolerance for that discomfort.
- Stop trying to manage how other people feel. Instead of offering solutions to or doing things to try and make people feel better, try simply acknowledging that they’re having a hard time and leaving it at that.
Remember that as you practice being more assertive—even in small ways—it’s going to feel uncomfortable for you as well as the people around you who are used to you being less assertive. It’s important that you expect this so that at least you’re not caught off guard by it in the moment.
One Final Tip for Becoming More Assertive
“I encourage people to remember that “no” is a complete sentence.” — Gavin de Becker
Here’s one final tip as you work toward becoming more assertive. If you can remember this, you’ll be far less likely to fall off the assertiveness wagon and back into old habits.
Being guilt tripped and feeling guilty is not the same thing as being guilty.
Many of us—especially those of us with a more passive style—have a hard time being assertive because we worry about how guilty we’ll feel as a result of not going along with what other people want.
This is a classic trap that many people who struggle to be assertive fall into—they have a hard time distinguishing true guilt from fake guilt.
Imagine a pushy family member giving you a hard time about the decision not to host Christmas again this year. Imagine how you might feel as they describe how no one else will do it and how important it is to keep the family together and how much they all depend on you to do this, and how hurt they would be if you “let them down.”
This is guilt tripping. And your pushy family member is doing it because they know on some level that the discomfort you feel as a result may be so strong that you’ll end up hosting Christmas just to avoid having to feel the fake guilt they’ve so generously heaped upon you.
The key is to recognize that this guilt is not legitimate. Guilt is the emotion we experience when we’ve done something wrong, not when someone else says (or implies) that we’ve done something wrong.
Try to get better at recognizing these two versions of guilt. When you find yourself feeling guilty, ask yourself, Have I actually done something wrong? Then, practice tolerating the discomfort of that fake guilt and building up a resilience to it.
“Assertiveness is not a strategy for getting our own way. Instead, it recognizes that you are in charge of your own behavior and that you decide what you will and will not do.” — Randy J. Paterson
By far the best resources I’ve ever come across for learning about assertiveness and working to become more assertive is The Assertiveness Workbook by Randy J. Paterson.
Nothing else comes close.
Summary and Takeaways
- Fundamentally, to be assertive means that we’re honest with ourselves about our own values and willing to act according to them.
- More specifically, assertive communication means that we’re willing and able to express our wants and feelings directly and respectfully.
- Less helpful styles of communication include passive communication, aggressive communication, and passive-aggressive communication.
- Being assertive can be difficult because other people often react negatively, and we can feel afraid or uncomfortable.
- The benefits of assertiveness are almost too numerous to list, but some of the most important include increased self-confidence, lower anxiety and dependency, improved relationships, and less resentment toward others.
- Some small ways to practice being more assertive include making decisions despite not being totally sure, saying no to unreasonable requests and tolerating the resulting discomfort, and asking for what you want—like a different table at a restaurant or another bag of peanuts on a plane flight.
- Feeling guilty is not the same thing as being guilty. Learning to tell the difference is essentially because subtle guilt tripping is the most common reason many of us have a hard time being assertive.