How to Learn Assertiveness

Assertiveness is your ability to communicate authentically and respectfully.

Assertive communication can be thought of both as a shield to protect your sense of well-being, as well as a sword to cut through the noise created by poor communicators. It allows you to reduce the internal stress caused by not being honest while also decreasing the external stress often caused by inappropriate or insincere communication. 

Assertive communication is best learned by comparing it to Passive, Passive-Aggressive, and Aggressive communication:

  • Passive: Inauthentic and Respectful
  • Passive-Aggressive: Authentic and Slightly Disrespectful
  • Aggressive: Authentic and Disrespectful
  • Assertive: Authentic and Respectful

Consider the following examples:

  • Passive: “Maybe we can find a way to get done on time without having to work overtime?”
  • Passive-Aggressive: “I guess it’s just expected that we’re supposed to work overtime.”
  • Aggressive: “If you think I’m working overtime, you’re out of your mind.”
  • Assertive: “Working overtime is not a sustainable option, so we need to find another way to get done on time.”

Another example:

  • Passive: “I don’t know if we can change our process right now.”
  • Passive-Aggressive: “We never stick to our decisions, so we might as well change our process.”
  • Aggressive: “There is no way we’re going to change our process, so you might as well think of something else.”
  • Assertive: “Our process is good enough for right now.”

Yet another example:

  • Passive: “We might not be able to get everything done if we have missing requirements.”
  • Passive-Aggressive: “Once again, we’re being told we need to get something done without being told what to do.”
  • Aggressive: “How do you expect us to do our job if you can’t even tell us what to do?”
  • Assertive: “To build the product you need, you will need to tell us what you want.”

Learning assertive communication requires practice and that practice is better done in low-consequence social situations than high-consequence professional settings. For example, you can practice being assertive while deciding where to eat with a group of people:

  • Passive: “I’m OK with whatever everyone decides.”
  • Passive-Aggressive: “No one cares what I think, so I’ll go with what the group decides.”
  • Aggressive: “Whenever you people choose, the place ends up being terrible, so I’m going to choose.”
  • Assertive option #1: “I feel like Sushi today.”
  • Assertive option #2: “I prefer Sushi.”
  • Assertive option #3: “I’d like to get Sushi.”
  • Assertive option #4: “We should get Sushi.”
  • Assertive option #5: “I’m going to get Sushi.”

With practice, you will develop a better instinct for which option offers the best mix of authenticity and respectfulness as you get better at phrasing.

When you communicate assertively, no matter how respectful you attempt to be, you will always run the risk of offending someone. This is often beyond your control, as it is difficult to anticipate what someone will find offensive. For example, people with low self-confidence may find assertive communicators egotistical and arrogant, where people with high self-confidence may embrace them as a valuable collaborator and future leaders. Ultimately, you will have to decide how much of your authentic self-expression you are willing to sacrifice in an often futile attempt to avoid offending people.

For you personally, the main benefit of assertive communication is it allows you to be authentic. No matter what people may think of you, everyone respects someone who is presenting themselves authentically. An example of this phenomenon can be seen in statements such as:

“They are always so blunt, but at least they know how to speak their mind and say what everyone else is thinking.”

3 thoughts on “How to Learn Assertiveness

  1. It sounds like a tough balance ^^

    What do you think of adding “I think”, could or should elements? Would it make it too passive, or improve the assertiveness/phrasing?

    • Assertiveness is one of the toughest phrasing challenges there is. Consider a hostage negotiator and how they have to walk the line between passive, assertive, and aggressive statements. If they chose the wrong phrasing, there could be dire consequences.

      Regarding the use of “Could” or “Should,” when used in a question, then I don’t believe they could be considered assertive. To follow my example, “Could we get sushi?” or “Should we get sushi?” doesn’t communicate effectively that you want to get sushi. If used in a statement such as “We could all get sushi,” I still don’t think it’s very effective at communicating what you want. “We should get sushi” starts to approach the border between assertiveness and aggressiveness, as you are telling other people what they should be doing rather than what you want to do.

      The question of, “I think,” however if challenging to answer. I believe, “I think” crosses into cultural idioms and becomes heavily reliant on inflection. For example, “I think I want sushi” implies that you’ve not made up your mind on the topic of what you want for lunch. However, “I think you should stop pointing that gun at me” delivered in a mirthless monotone certainly conveys that you believe that they should stop pointing the gun at you. To say it another way, you are not debating with yourself that maybe pointing a gun at you might be a good idea. I’m not sure how much of this interpretation comes from cultural idioms, as you can imagine someone who is not from another culture and speaks English as a second language might take you literally and reply, “Well, make up your mind!”

      My conclusion, therefore, is that “I think,” could, and should elements drift you away from for assertiveness and outside of specific well understood cultural idioms might be misinterpreted as being passive or borderline aggressive.

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