Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Assertive Communication: Honest-Appropriate-Respectful-Direct

Assertive communication is really about hitting that sweet spot between passive communication and aggressive communication, but it can be a very difficult spot to hit. It’s essential, however, to become proficient at directly and appropriately communicating your needs in order to help reduce your overall stress and to avoid resentment and irritation in the relationships in your life.

Communication styles are typically categorized as passive, assertive, aggressive, and passive-aggressive, but I find that the majority of people miss the assertiveness sweet spot by communicating too passively, so I’m going to address that and then discuss strategies for assertive communication. In passive communication, often people don’t express their needs or desires at all to others, or if they do try to express their wishes, they do so in a round about, beating around the bush, hinting sort of manner that isn’t effective at all.

I talk to many people who would like more help from their spouse/partner or children at home, or who feel that things get unduly dumped on them at work, or who feel they are treated poorly by someone with whom they have a relationship. It would obviously make things easier if these family members, bosses/coworkers, or friends would just pick up on the hints the person drops, or if it were the case, as I often hear, that the other person “should just know what I want and just do it without me having to ask”. But the reality is, people often don’t understand the indirect, hinting messages and don’t just “know” what you want.

Or sometimes, people might know what you’d like but don’t respond to the hints or lack of a clearly stated directive. Either way, the passive communicating person doesn’t get their needs met and frequently ends up feeling resentful and hurt. They often end up feeling overly stressed as well, because they haven’t received help they needed or because they didn’t clearly communicate that they didn‘t want to do something or have time to do something, and ended up taking on too much.

So why would people not express their desires and needs when failing to do so results in a significant build up of stress, resentment, and hurt feelings?! The number one reason I hear for not being assertive is that people want to avoid conflict, not create waves, and not risk having the other person get mad or upset with them.

Well, sure, most people want to avoid an argument and not have somebody get mad at them, but where is the evidence that being assertive causes conflicts or typically results in negative emotion from the other person? It often goes quite well! And most healthy functioning people are perfectly able to tolerate someone being direct and honest in communicating with them……most people even appreciate this because they don’t have to waste energy figuring out hints, reading between the lines, and trying to read the other person’s mind!

Even on the occasion that the respectful and direct communication isn’t received well, that is diagnostic of something going on with the other person that they chose to get upset or create an argument. Perhaps you’ve learned something valuable about that other person and their difficulty in handling assertive communication effectively or appropriately. But ultimately, you haven’t done anything wrong in communicating your needs/wishes; if the other person wants to get themselves upset or to try to create an argument, then that is their responsibility.

And really, the passive person often is only temporarily avoiding conflict anyway, because in addition to being stressful, the irritation and resentment of not communicating your needs and not having your needs met will build up over time. Eventually it gets difficult to keep the lid on the frustration, and when the lid blows, the resulting expression of upset and emotion often flips over to the aggressive side of communication and doesn’t work very well either.

So, the benefits of assertive versus passive communication are clear, and there are several general strategies to follow to communicate assertively. A good acronym to remember to help steer your communication is that it can be HARD to communicate assertively (Honest, Appropriate, Respectful, and Direct). If you are able to assess what you’ve said to someone and it meets these components, then you’ve hit the sweet spot of assertiveness. Telling someone, “No thanks, I don’t want to do that” meets HARD, as does, “I would like some help with this please”, or, “I ordered this without mayonnaise, could you please take it back”.

When attempting to tell somebody that they are doing something that you don’t like, the usual model is “I feel _______ when you _________”. For example, I feel frustrated when you don’t follow through with what I’ve asked you to do; or, I feel upset when you speak in that tone of voice to me, could you please stop.

As is the case with most things, effectively communicating directly and clearly takes considerable practice, but becoming more proficient at assertive communication should result in the significant benefits of reducing stress, resentment, and frustration while increasing the likelihood of getting your needs met. Look for your practice opportunities to communicate assertively, and even though it may feel risky at first for the reasons mentioned in this article, go ahead and assert yourself repeatedly until it becomes comfortable and automatic for you.


  1. This is a great one Ken!! Thanks for sharing with all of us..

  2. This communication style is one that I am working on, and I appreciate the framing outlined in your blog. This communication style can feel "HARD" at first, but boy does it make life "EASY" (Essential, Affirming, Simple (with practice), and a Yell of a lot clearer!) Thanks for reminding us.

  3. EASY!!! That's great....thanks for posting!