Do you frequently struggle to be more assertive?
- Maybe you wish you felt more comfortable expressing your views and opinions in front of others?
- Or maybe you wish you could be more confident saying no and setting boundaries?
- It could be that you simply want to get better about asking for what you really want.
As a psychologist, it’s my firm belief that assertiveness is the most underappreciated skill in all of mental health and wellbeing.
Everything from burnout and anxiety to procrastination and low self-esteem are a direct result of not being assertive enough.
In this guide, you will not only learn how to be more assertive, but you’ll also discover a deeper understanding of what assertiveness is, how it works, and why it’s so in almost every aspect of your life from relationships and work to hobbiesand spirituality.
Feel free to jump to any section using the following links:
- Assertiveness and the 4 Communication Styles
- Why It’s So Hard to Be More Assertiveness
- The Benefits of Becoming More Assertive
- The True Meaning of Assertiveness
- How to Be More Assertive
- Summary and Key Points
Assertiveness and The 4 Communication Styles
As we’ll talk about later, assertiveness is more than just 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 you communicate with people—whether you know it or not—you’re using one 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 communication is all about keeping your head down and avoiding conflict.
It often takes the form of “going with the flow,” consistently giving in to other people’s requests and demands, and holding back from expressing your own desires and preferences:
- Pizza tonight? Well… Okay, sure, that sounds great! (Even though you really wanted Indian.)
- Drive back into town to pick up a six pack for you? Yeah, no problem, I like driving anyway. (Even though you’re exhausted and spent all day running errands.)
- Take on another new project and work on it all weekend? Yeah, of course, I can do it, boss! (Even though you promised your family you’d go hiking on Saturday.)
Notice that passive communication doesn’t mean not communicating at all or saying nothing. Instead, passive communication usually takes the form of going along with whatever someone else suggests despite not actually wanting to.
Also, while the passive style of communication may appear somewhat passive in terms of what you say, it’s often anything but passive in terms of what you do.
People with a passive style of communicating 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 communication is the reverse of the passive style: Rather than doing whatever is asked of you by others, you try to force others to do what you want, even if it’s at the expense of their own wishes.
Put another way: In the passive style you give up an unreasonable amount of control over your own life, but in the aggressive style you try to take an unreasonable amount of control over other people’s lives.
A few examples:
- If I have to eat that goddamn lasagna one more time I’m going to lose it! You better find something else for dinner and quick.
- Obviously yelling is the only way to get anything 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 communication is almost always a response to fear and insecurity.
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 of fear and helplessness (although they’re often in denial about it).
While aggressive communication can feel empowering in the short term because it’s an ego boost, the long-term results are never satisfying and often make those feelings of insecurity worse.
For example, over time, most people who overuse aggressive communication end up alienating the most important people in their lives and feeling increasingly alone and isolated, which only feeds their insecurity
3. Passive-Aggressive Communication
Passive-aggressive communication is a combination of the passive and aggressive styles.
It’s usually an attempt to get your way or express your frustrations and dissatisfactions while simultaneously avoiding responsibility for the consequences.
- Gossip, or talking badly about people behind their back, is a form of passive-aggressive communication where you 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 you “get a jab in” at someone but avoid taking the blame because it was “just a joke.”
- Intentionally doing a task poorly so that you won’t be asked to do it again in the future is passive-aggressive since it allows you to get what you want and avoid the discomfort (or possible rejection) that comes from asking for it directly.
Passive-aggressive communication often works in the short term, but almost always leads to poor results in the long run. This is because the people around you eventually become so frustrated and upset with you 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 and anxiety typically build up over time.
4. Assertive Communication
Assertive communication means that you 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 rudeness or aggressive communication. Usually, this is because they were trained early on in life to be overly accommodating or deferential.
These people imagine themselves being assertive, and it feels pushy, rude, or somehow disrespectful. But if you grew up thinking passive was good, than anything more direct than that is, of course, going to feel wrong.
Still, 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.
To get a better sense of what assertiveness is let’s try to visualize it…
The Assertiveness Matrix
One way to better understand the four communication styles is to visualize them in terms of two key dimensions: Respect for Self vs Respect for Others.
If you think of communication as being either high or low on each of those dimensions, you get the four styles of communication.
I call this The Assertiveness Matrix:
Assertive communication is usually the ideal way of communicating because it’s the best of both worlds: You’re high in respect for yourself and your own wants and needs, but also highly respectful of the other person.
Of course, just because it’s ideal doesn’t mean it’s easy to do. Far from it. There are some very real obstacles to communicating more assertively as well see.
Why Is It So Hard to Be More Assertive?
Of course, communicating assertively isn’t easy for most of us, at least not all the time and in every situation.
Most people have a hard time communicating assertively because—in one way or another—they’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 fake guilt 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 fears and insecurities.
- We communicate passive-aggressively because we want the satisfaction of expressing our anger or hurt but we’re afraid to take full responsibility for expressing it.
In each case, we tend to avoid assertive communication because we’re afraid of how we or others might feel as a result—angry, guilty, anxious, disappointed, etc.
And while employing one of these three less optimal styles may help you avoid conflict or difficult 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 poor 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 flaky 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 and believe in 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. After years of you just “going with the flow” whenever your spouse suggests a family vacation, they might be surprised when you all of a sudden say no and suggest an alternative
Others may say or imply that you’re selfish by not going along with their requests. Or your 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 your wishes and feelings—leads to the best outcomes in the long-run.
The Benefits of Learning to Communicate Assertively
The benefits of learning how to be 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 in your communication:
- 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. Learning to be more assertive is the best way to improve your social anxiety.
- Become more relaxed and less stressed. One of the ironies of the three 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. Becoming more assertive is one of the best ways to decrease chronic stress and burnout.
- Increase self-confidence and self-respect. If you chronically avoid expressing what’s genuinely important to you, you’re teaching your brain that your own wishes and values are not really that important. Do this enough, and you start to train your own brain to believe that you’re not that important generally. On the other hand, when you’re willing to honestly express how you feel and what you want, you’re reinforcing to your own brain that you are important and valuable. And ultimately, that’s the source of genuine self-confidence and self-respect.
- Become less resentful of others. When you rely on the three unhelpful styles of communication, you tend to project your own disappointment with yourself for not being honest and assertive onto other people in the form of chronic frustration and resentment.
- Better relationships. It’s a truism among couples counselors that all relationship problems are communication problems. And when it comes down to it, all communication problems are problems of assertiveness. When you learn how to communicate assertively—especially with spouse or partner—just about every aspect of your relationships improve.
The True Meaning of Assertiveness
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.
Ultimately, assertiveness is about values—it 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. Sticking with our commitments is one of the most important forms of assertive behavior.
- 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,” 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.
At the end of the day, being more assertive means the willingness to go after what’s important to you even when it’s hard. It means your decisions, speech, actions, and goals are all driven by your values rather than the passing whims and fears of the moment.
How to Be More Assertive
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 simple ways to get started being more assertive in everyday life:
- Make imperfect decisions. When you’re faced with a 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. It’s the simplest thing in the world—asking for a different table. But for many of us, it feels really uncomfortable! But don’t worry, worst case scenario, they say they can’t and you end up where you would have anyway. The outcome isn’t what’s important—what matters is that you practiced asking for something uncomfortable.
- 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. Stop. Other people’s emotions are neither your responsibility nor something you can control.
- 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. Of course, start practicing this in small, lower-stakes situations until you feel more confident then gradually work your way up.
- 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. Be a good listener, validate their emotions, but don’t take responsibility for them.
Remember: 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: Watch Out for Fake Guilt
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.
Feeling guilty is not the same thing as being guilty.
Many of us—especially those of us with a more passive style of communicating—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.
You might be afraid of them thinking badly of you. But that’s a very different thing than you actually being and feeling guilty.
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 resilience to it.
Summary and Key Points
- 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 as a result.
- 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 essential because subtle guilt-tripping is the most common reason many of us have a hard time being assertive.