For many, speaking up for oneself is easier said than done.
And while it may be uncomfortable, assertiveness is a communication style linked to a wide range of positive outcomes across multiple settings.
This article will describe what it means to be assertive, why it is so important, and how to enhance it. Ultimately, by increasing this valuable communication skill, more respectful, equitable, and fulfilling relationships may be realized.
This article contains:
- What Is Assertive Communication?
- 9 Characteristics of an Assertive Communication Style
- 10 Real-Life Examples
- Proven Benefits of Assertive Communication
- Assertive vs. Aggressive Communication
- Using Strategies and Role-Play
- Teaching Kids Assertive Communication
- 9 Ways to Foster It in the Workplace
- A Note on Assertive Communication in Relationships
- PositivePsychology.com Resources
- A Take-Home Message
What Is Assertive Communication?
Assertive communication is defined as “the ability to speak and interact in a manner that considers and respects the rights and opinions of others while also standing up for your rights, needs, and personal boundaries” (Pipas & Jaradat, 2010, p. 649).
Assertiveness is an effective and nonconfrontational way of expressing one’s disagreement with a particular situation or concept.
Pipas and Jaradat (2010) further note that assertive communicators can speak up for their rights (or those of others) honestly and elegantly, such that interpersonal conflicts are reduced and respect for others is maintained.
Assertiveness may involve rejecting demands (“No, I will not loan you money again”); beginning, continuing, or concluding a conversation (“I’d like to discuss my compensation with you”); asking for favors (“Will you please help me change my tire?”); and positive and negative feelings (“It hurts my feelings when you speak to me that way”; Pipas & Jaradat, 2010).
Overall, while assertive communication occurs in a variety of forms and situations, it generally involves achieving one’s goals without creating unpleasant scenes or jeopardizing relationships.
9 Characteristics of an Assertive Communication Style
Assertive communication involves various verbal and nonverbal qualities. Here are nine examples from Pipas and Jaradat (2010) and Bishop (2013):
- Direct eye contact shows that the speaker is strong and not intimidated.
- An assertive stance or posture with the right balance of strength and casualness. For example, standing rigid may come across as aggressive; whereas, slouching may be perceived as weak.
- Tone of voice. A strong voice conveys assertiveness, but raising one’s voice shows aggression and is likely to be met with anger.
- Facial expression. Expressions that are neither angry nor anxious are essential for sending the right message.
- Timing. Assertive communication must be executed at the right time (e.g., making requests from one’s spouse in the middle of a dinner party is not likely to be well received).
- Nonthreatening, non-blaming language. For example, language such as “If you continue to do that, you will be sorry!” is threatening rather than assertive.
- Clarity. For example, “Can you please not be that way?” is vague, while “Can you please not walk away when we’re talking?” more clearly conveys the speaker’s needs.
- Positive language. For example, making a negative request (“Will you stop leaving your papers all over the house?”) is less effective than a positive request (“Here is a divider I’ve set up. Will you please place your papers here?”).
- Language without criticism of one’s self or others. For example, phrases such as “I know I’m overly sensitive, but could you please not use that word?” and “Didn’t anyone ever teach you any manners?” are critical rather than assertive.
10 Real-Life Examples
It is easy to come up with many everyday examples where assertiveness is needed, such as:
- Inconsiderate drivers
- Pushy shoppers
- Phone solicitors
- Disrespectful children
- Unwanted requests from family
- Occurrences of social injustice
- People who refuse to practice social distancing during a pandemic
Delving a bit more into real-life examples, here are three situations often requiring assertive communication.
Dealing with bullies
Bullying continues to have devastating long-term consequences for many young people. Assertive communication is a skill that is useful for deterring such behavior before it escalates.
Anti-bullying programs such as Problem-Based Learning (PBL) have been implemented in school settings (Hall, 2005). Along with teacher and parent involvement, PBL teaches children assertiveness skills. This counseling approach helps children to practice strategies to reduce physical violence, name calling, and rumor spreading, as well as to develop action plans.
PBL has been found to increase problem-solving skills among targeted children (Hall, 2005). Such skills are also useful for teaching kids that bullying behaviors are not acceptable for any children. For example, children with assertive problem-solving skills are better able to stick up for a targeted child, invite them to participate in their activities, and tell a teacher what’s going on.
While many countries have passed nonsmoking laws, nonsmokers continue to be exposed to the undesirable effects of secondhand smoke. For example, users of public transportation hunkering under the shelter of a bus stop on a rainy day may find themselves breathing in the secondhand smoke of fellow riders.
Nonetheless, people confronted with secondhand smoke in a public venue often do not speak up. Assertive communication is more likely, however, when individuals perceive more significant risks from secondhand smoke and are higher in terms of self-efficacy (Bigman, Mello, Sanders-Jackson, & Tan, 2018).
In the field of nursing
Nursing represents an excellent example where assertiveness historically has not been encouraged (Timmins & McCabe, 2005), often leading to dissatisfaction and low self-worth among nursing staff. However, assertive communication is crucial for nurses, as they often work in high-stress environments that require effective teamwork (Balzer Riley, 2017).
Assertive communication among nurses promotes effective decision making, direct and appropriate confrontation, speaking in a mutually respectful way, and the use of verbal and nonverbal behaviors that suggest confidence, warmth, and firmness (Balzer Riley, 2017).
For example, an assertive nurse who works in a hectic ER with a demanding supervisor will engage in fair and direct communication with coworkers, perform in a manner that exudes self-confidence, and speak openly about their needs without self-deprecation. Moreover, they will expect to be treated with respect, act in the best interest of the patient, and have a reasonable workload and equitable wage.
Proven Benefits of Assertive Communication
There are many proven benefits of assertive communication (e.g., Bishop, 2013; Pipas & Jaradat, 2010). Here are 18:
- Greater self-awareness
- A more positive self-image
- An increased likelihood of finding positive solutions
- Greater self-confidence
- Higher self-esteem
- More respect for others’ opinions and viewpoints
- Greater self-control
- More effective communication skills
- Higher self-respect
- Increased ability to avoid interpersonal conflicts
- Greater self-disclosure
- Reduced anxiety
- Greater self-worth
- Reduced likelihood of being exploited or coerced
- An enhanced ability to control stress
- Reduced depression
- Stronger relationships
- Better health
Assertive vs. Aggressive Communication
Sometimes people confuse assertive and aggressive communication.
There are important distinctions between the two, as highlighted in the table below:
|Assertive communication||Aggressive communication|
|Promotes equality||Denies the rights of others|
|Is respectful||Is demeaning or hurtful|
|Uses firm but gentle speech||Uses loud or menacing speech|
|Is in control||Is out of control|
|Communicates confidence||Communicates haughtiness|
|Uses a relaxed stance||Uses a rigid stance|
|Respects personal space||Violates personal space|
|Shows a calm affect||Shows an agitated or emotional affect|
|Reflects supportive behavior||Reflects competitive behavior|
|Is honest and forthright||Is deceitful or manipulative|
|Uses a relaxed facial expression||Uses a tense facial expression|
|Involves requests||Involves demands|
|Aims to express needs||Aims to win|
|Is respectful of rules||Does not value rules|
|Results in problem solving||Creates more problems|
Using Strategies and Role-Play
Role-play is a behavioral change strategy that involves acting in a predetermined role that is consistent with real-life challenges. It is often used as part of assertive communication training.
For example, an individual who is having difficulty standing up to a boss might role-play assertive verbal and nonverbal communication with a counselor. Role-playing may also be done alone – perhaps in front of a mirror, with trusted family and friends, or using virtual reality technology.
Empirical studies evaluating the impact of role-playing on assertive communication have reported its effectiveness across various situations, such as among:
- Psychiatric inpatients (Silverman, 2011)
- Nursing students (Kesten, 2011)
- Young women in response to sexually threatening situations (Jouriles, Simpson Rowe, McDonald, Platt, & Gomez, 2011)
- Adolescent boys in boarding centers (Parvaneh & Fahimeh, 2019)
- Sixth-grade children working toward conflict resolution (Borbely, Graber, Nichols, Brooks-Gunn, & Botvin, 2005)
- Children with type-I diabetes (Grey & Berry, 2004)
Additional strategies used to promote assertiveness include Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, positive self-talk, stress management, hypnosis, relaxation training, cognitive restructuring, guided imagery, and biofeedback.
Teaching Kids Assertive Communication
We are not born assertive.
Instead, assertiveness is a skill taught by parents, teachers, counselors, and other vital influencers in children’s lives.
Assertive communication skills are critical early in life, as they promote quality family and peer relationships, enhanced learning, student engagement, emotional intelligence, and self-worth.
Children with strong social–emotional skills such as assertive communication are also less likely to experience bullying (Casel.org, 2009).
Fortunately, effective communication skill packages have been designed to enhance children’s social skills.
For example, the TALKABOUT curriculum (Kelly, 2020) has been applied in various contexts, primarily among children and teens with social skill deficits. Created by a speech and language therapist, TALKABOUT promotes social skills, self-awareness, self-esteem, and friendship skills.
The curriculum contains a specific component (Level 4) on assertiveness skills with various worksheets and communication activities aimed at improving assertive communication (e.g., expressing feelings, complaining, apologizing, standing up for oneself, refusing, etc.).
Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) programs, which teach a core set of social and emotional skills such as self-awareness, self-management, and relationship skills, have also helped to increase positive outcomes among children worldwide (Casel.org, 2009).
Parents can also increase assertiveness skills in children by doing the following:
- Providing role models of assertive, nonaggressive behavior
- Role-playing challenging scenarios such as asking to join in a game with peers
- Setting consistent boundaries, which shows that parents value their importance
- Reinforcing assertive behavior such as when a child makes an assertive request
- Providing children with picture books that teach assertive communication
- Teaching assertive alternatives to those that are aggressive
- Teaching and modeling assertive body language
- Providing children with opportunities that promote self-efficacy
9 Ways to Foster It in the Workplace
Although bullying is most often associated with school environments, it is also a problem in the workplace that impacts job performance and satisfaction (Fisher-Blando, 2008).
Individuals who experience workplace bullying or are lacking in assertive communication are likely to experience difficulties asking for a raise, declining unacceptable requests, speaking up when mistreated, requesting reasonable working conditions, asking questions, and making independent decisions.
Assertive communication in the workplace may be enhanced in the following ways:
- Hiring assertive managers who are honest and forthright without denying the rights of others
- Offering assertiveness training workshops to employees
- Not apologizing for wanting equitable treatment
- Checking in with trusted family or friends if something doesn’t seem right
- Making direct and clear requests
- Knowing your worth (e.g., by researching salary levels for your level of experience and education)
- Speaking privately with your supervisor when another coworker isn’t pulling their weight
- Avoiding aggressive tactics (e.g., asking for a raise versus demanding one)
- Finding a counselor if your lack of assertiveness is creating a consistent problem at work
For more useful literature in this regard, see our post on building resilience in the workplace.
A Note on Assertive Communication in Relationships
Assertiveness has been described as “a tool for making your relationships more equal” (Alberti & Emmons, 2017, p. 14).
According to Alberti and Emmons (2017), intimate relationships characterized by mutual satisfaction require honest assertive expression.
The authors further describe the following key elements of assertive communication in relationships:
- It is direct, firm, positive, and persistent.
- It promotes an equal balance of power.
- It acts in one’s own best interests.
- It involves standing up for oneself.
- It involves exercising personal rights.
- It does not involve denying the rights of others.
- It involves expressing needs and feelings honestly and comfortably.
By communicating in a way that is consistent with the above concepts, individuals are more likely to enjoy lasting and fulfilling positive relationships based on mutual respect.
PositivePsychology.com offers various helpful resources for promoting assertiveness. For example, The Quick Guide to Assertiveness includes numerous tips about what it means to be assertive (e.g., seeking equality) and its many benefits (e.g., increased self-esteem).
The article also helps readers choose the best timing for assertive behavior, describes differences between assertiveness and aggression, and provides techniques for learning assertiveness such as cognitive-based assertiveness training.
The PositivePsychology.com Toolkit also includes many useful exercises designed to enhance effective and assertive communication; here are three examples:
Make an Effective Request for Action helps clients formulate effective action requests. Readers are instructed to describe an action requested of others, to study the key ingredients of effective action requests (e.g., promotion focused, specific, and presented as a question versus a demand), and to formulate an effective action request.
For example, effective action requests are as follows:
“Please pick up your toys in the living room.” (promotion focused)
“Please do your schoolwork between 3:00 and 4:00 p.m. today.” (specific)
“Would you be willing to weed this afternoon?” (non-demanding)
The Four-step Nonviolent Communication Process provides an overview of nonviolent communication processes aimed at increasing empathy and compassion in communication.
Setting Boundaries in Difficult Conversations is designed to equip clients with the capacity to set personal boundaries.
A Take-Home Message
Assertive communication is essential for standing up for one’s rights and maintaining boundaries. It is associated with various verbal and nonverbal qualities and does not involve aggressive communication, which denies the rights of others.
There are many structured techniques for teaching assertiveness, such as SEL programs in school, as well as ways for parents to promote assertive behavior in children. Excellent tools for enhancing assertive communication are also available right here at PositivePsychology.com.
Taking steps towards becoming a more assertive communicator is worth the effort, as assertive communication is linked to a wide array of positive outcomes such as enhanced self-image, better relationships, reduced anxiety, greater self-respect, and reduced conflicts.
Assertive communication at work is also associated with a more satisfying career life.
Practicing assertiveness on behalf of our neighbors and community members is also crucial for creating social structures in which all individuals are deemed equally worthy of fair, ethical, and compassionate treatment.
As a society, each of us is capable of fostering these objectives by following the lead of American champion of civil rights John Lewis, who said:
When you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up. You have to say something; you have to do something.
Assertiveness, therefore, is not only about ourselves; it is about creating a voice in support of justice for all of us.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. If you wish to learn more, check out our Positive Relationships Masterclass©.
This masterclass is a complete, science-based training template for practitioners and coaches that contains all the materials you’ll need to help your clients improve their personal and professional relationships, ultimately enhancing their mental wellbeing.
- Alberti, R., & Emmons, M. (2017). Your perfect right: Assertiveness and equality in your life and relationships. Oakland, CA: Impact Publishers.
- Balzer Riley, J. (2017). Communication in nursing. St. Louis, MO: Elsevier.
- Bigman, C., Mello, S., Sanders-Jackson, A., & Tan, A. (2018). Speaking up about lighting up in public: Examining psychosocial correlates of smoking and vaping assertive communication intentions among U.S. adults. Health Communication, 1–11.
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