Assertive communication can strengthen your relationships by reducing stress from conflict and providing you with social support when facing difficult times.1 A polite but assertive ”no” to excessive requests from others will enable you to avoid overloading your schedule and promote balance in your life.
An understanding of assertive communication can also help you handle difficult family, friends, and co-workers more easily, reducing drama and stress. Ultimately, assertive communication empowers you to draw necessary boundaries that allow you to get your needs met in relationships without alienating others and without letting resentment and anger creep in. This helps you to have what you need in relationships while allowing your loved ones to have their needs met too. Although many people equate assertive communication with conflict and confrontation, assertiveness actually allows people to be closer.
Assertive communication does take practice. Many people mistake assertiveness for aggressiveness, but assertiveness is actually the balanced middle ground between aggressiveness and passivity. Aggressiveness leads to hurt feelings and fractured relationships.3 Passivity leads to stress and resentment,4 and sometimes even lashing out in the end.
Improve Your Communication Style
Learning to speak assertively enables you to respect everyone’s needs and rights—including your own—and to maintain boundaries in relationships while helping others feel respected at the same time. These steps can help you to develop this healthy communication style (and relieve stress in your life in the process).
1. Be Factual About What You Don’t Like
When approaching someone about a behavior you’d like to see changed, stick to factual descriptions of what they’ve done, rather than using negative labels or words that convey judgments. For example:
Situation: Your friend, who habitually runs late, has shown up 20 minutes late for a lunch date.
Inappropriate (aggressive) response: “You’re so rude! You’re always late.”
Assertive communication: “We were supposed to meet at 11:30, but now it’s 11:50.”
Don’t assume you know what the other person’s motives are, especially if you think they’re negative. In this situation, don’t assume that your friend deliberately arrived late because they didn’t want to come or because they value their own time more than yours.
2. Don’t Judge or Exaggerate
Being factual about what you don’t like in someone’s behavior, without overdramatizing or judging, is an important start. The same is true for describing the effects of their behavior. Don’t exaggerate, label, or judge; just describe:
Assertive communication: “Now, I have less time to spend at lunch because I still need to be back to work by 1:00.”
3. Use “I” Messages
When you start a sentence with “You…”, it comes off as a judgment or an attack and puts people on the defensive. If you start with “I,” the focus is more on how you are feeling and how you are affected by their behavior.
Also, it shows more ownership of your reactions and less blame. This helps minimize defensiveness in the other person, model the act of taking responsibility, and move you both toward positive change.5 For example:
You Message: “You need to stop that!”
I Message: “I’d like it if you’d stop that.”
When in a discussion, don’t forget to listen and ask questions. It’s important to understand the other person’s point of view.
4. Put It All Together
Here’s a great formula that puts it all together:
“When you [their behavior], I feel [your feelings].”
When used with factual statements, rather than judgments or labels, this formula provides a direct, non-attacking, more responsible way of letting people know how their behavior affects you. For example: “When you yell, I feel attacked.”
5. List behavior, results, and feelings.
A more advanced variation of this formula includes the results of their behavior (again, put into factual terms), and looks like this:
“When you [their behavior], then [results of their behavior], and I feel [how you feel].”
For example: “When you arrive late, I have to wait, and I feel frustrated.” Or, “When you tell the kids they can do something that I’ve already forbidden, some of my authority as a parent is taken away, and I feel undermined.”
Try to think win-win: See if you can find a compromise or a way for you both to get your needs met. In the case of the always-late friend, maybe a different meeting place would help them be on time. Or you can choose to make plans only at times when your schedule is more open and their lateness won’t cause you as much stress.