Assertiveness and Communication

What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a way of thinking, behaving, communicating with other people. When you are assertive, you are able to express yourself (your feelings, thoughts, beliefs, emotions and opinions) in an open way, while still being able to respect the rights of other people.

Assertiveness may appear to come naturally to some people, but like all skills, it is something that can be learned. When you think about growing up, you changed and adapted your behaviour based on responses you received from people around you (such as parents, friends, classmates, teachers, employers, authority figures, etc.)

Perhaps when you growing up, you were taught that you should always try to please others, or that you shouldn’t express negative emotions such as anger or sadness…

What styles of communication are there?

You might find that you can be assertive in certain situations but not in others. For example, you may be able to be assertive with co-workers but have a hard time saying no to family members or close friends. Assertiveness is one style of communication, and a style that we should strive for. Other styles of communication include being passive, being aggressive, and being passive-aggressive.

Styles of Communication

Communication typically not simply either passive or aggressive. Given that it is not black and white, it should be considered as if on a continuum with aggressiveness and passivity on each extreme. Assertiveness lies in between the two.

Passive <------------------------------------> Aggressive

Assertive Style

Communicating assertively means being able to stand up for your own needs in a simple and direct manner. It does not attack or negate the needs of other people. You stand up for yourself and take responsibility for getting your needs met in a way that is beneficial for yourself and others. When you are being assertive most people will respect you for your honesty and directness. Here are some characteristics of an assertive style:

• Sincere and clear voice
• Firm voice
• Open to listening to the other person
• Good eye contact
• “I” statements

Passive Style

Passiveness (also called submissiveness) is a communication style where you violate your own rights by not standing up for what you need, or expressing yourself by communicating your needs are less important than others’ needs. Because people don’t know what your wants or feelings are, they can’t respond in any way. This may lead you to feel unvalued by others and lead to feelings of worthlessness, guilt, anxiety and depression. Here are some characteristics of a passive style:

• Apologizing inappropriately to the other person, when you really shouldn’t have to
• Dismissing yourself “it really doesn’t matter” (when it actually does matter to you)
• Putting yourself down
• Poor eye contact
• Your facial expression on the outside doesn’t match how you really feel inside


Aggressiveness is a communication style that ensures your needs are being met but violates the rights and needs of other people. This can involve communicating in a demanding way, being hostile to others, and even threatening to others. Intimidation is often used by people with an aggressive communication style. Here are some examples:

• Blaming
• Threatening Gestures such as clenching fists
• Staring the other person down
• Being sarcastic or putting down the other person
• Asking questions in an angry, hostile way
• Intruding on a person’s space
• Being cold and withdrawn

Advantages and Disadvantages of Each Communication Style

• The advantage is that you get praised for being a good sport; you get protected and looked after by others
• The disadvantage is that you get taken advantage of by other people; you may end up having to take care of too many excessive demands from other people; the buildup of stress can make you angry, depressed or anxious

• The advantage is that you are able to see, hear, love others more easily; you get your needs met; you have confidence
• The disadvantage is that there is no guarantee things will work out; there are sometimes people who are uncomfortable with you being direct and honest

• The advantage is that you feel powerful, you often get what you want, and people leave you alone
• The disadvantage is that people leave you alone because they don’t want to be around you; you end up feeling lonely and have problems in your relationships at home and work

What is your primary communication style?

Think about yourself and some of your experiences. Ask yourself how you may have
learned your style of communication.

How did your family and friends teach you to deal with conflict?

In what ways did you learn to get what you wanted without directly asking for it? Examples
could include yelling, crying, making threats, etc.

Do you still use these ways today?

What is the price and pay off for your use of communication?

Assertiveness and Communication

Becoming more assertive

Being assertive is more than talking about your needs and wants. In order to be assertive it is also important to recognize your thoughts and feelings. If you are not clear about what you are feeling and what you want/don’t want then it can be difficult to act assertively. If you are not sure about what you want or need then take the time to talk to someone.

Acting assertively can be learned. There are many skills and techniques that you can practice so that you increase your own assertive behaviour. First, try practicing in a neutral and safe environment. As you become more confident and skilled then begin to use these new skills in a more difficult or challenging environment or situation. Be patient; it takes time to learn new skills. If you make a mistake, think about what went right and wrong, how you might do it differently next time, and try again.

1. Pick a situation in which you want to be more assertive. Think about how you normally react to these situations and what you normally do or say to people. For example, is this a situation that you tend to react in a passive or aggressive manner?

Situation: Monica often cancels our Friday morning coffee time at the last minute.
Reaction: I pout and sulk; I avoid calling Monica; I avoid answering the phone when she calls. I act in a passive-aggressive manner; I say bad things about her behind her back.

2. Identify the unhelpful thoughts that you have associated with these situations.

Usually there are thoughts that we have that get in the way of acting in an assertive manner in these situations. For example, you might think that friends and family will dislike you if you do not do what they want you to do.
Try to identify these unhelpful thoughts and the emotions that are tied to the thoughts. It is more helpful to write this down, rather than trying to remember and process everything in your head.
Unhelpful Example: She’s ditching me to spend time with her other friends; she only wants to see me if she has nothing better to do; she doesn’t really like me

Develop some new and assertive ways of thinking about the situation.

In a separate column, right down assertive ways of thinking about the situation.

Helpful Example: Monica works really late on Thursday and it is difficult for her to make commitments on Friday morning; Monica has many family commitments; Monica’s children may be home from school today.

3. Identify the unhelpful behaviours that you used in the past. Remember to think about both verbal and non-verbal behaviours.

Example: I cheerfully say “that’s okay” on the phone to Monica and quickly make an excuse to hang-up; I stomp around the house; I lay on the couch and watch TV infomercials.

4. Develop a behaviour that is more helpful

Think of your verbal and non-verbal behaviour.

• I could say something like, “I’m really sorry that you couldn’t make it. I had the time scheduled, so it was really too bad you weren’t able to make it.”
• If she missed my coffee date, its probably because something came up with her, so I could ask, “Is everything okay? Is there anything I can do to help out?”
• If I get the sense that Monica is trying to avoid me, I could ask, “Monica, is everything alright? Have I done something?”
• If I get the sense that Monica honestly does still want to see me, I could ask, “Monica, is there a better time that would work better? Would you like to meet somewhere else?”
• If Monica really doesn’t want to see me, then its still best for me to be polite, and I could just say, “Okay, well, have a good week. Take care, and I’ll talk to you later!”

Before practicing the behaviour, write down what you will do and say. Remember, practicing the behaviour is very helpful.

Take one of the situations you identified and apply your new knowledge. Then try out what you have been practicing. It can be helpful to try this out in a safe environment first, consider role-playing with a friend or spouse.

6. Give yourself praise.

Regardless of how things turn out, give yourself praise for doing the task and think about what went well. Then, think about how you would like to adjust it for the next time and write down what you want to improve. Be kind to yourself when you think of how you want to adjust the task and remember that all new behaviours require practice and patience.. Keep practicing..

What went well?

What would I like to try differently for next time?

About this Document

Adapted from an original article written by Keith Dobson, Depression Pathway Study, Calgary, Alberta.


This information is offered ‘as is' and is meant only to provide general information that supplements, but does not replace the information from a qualified expert or health professional. Always contact a qualified expert or health professional for further information in your specific situation or circumstance.

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