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.”

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