How to improve assertive communication skills for better relationships

How to improve assertive communication skills for better relationships

Assertiveness is your power to take charge of your energy and life. If you feel like you are being taken away from yourself in many ways, then assertiveness is necessary for change. There are many benefits to assertiveness, including an improved sense of self-worth, better relationships with others, and greater productivity. But there is a dark side to assertiveness – it can also lead to feelings of guilt and powerlessness.

Passive assertiveness is the opposite of aggressive assertiveness. As a therapist and life coach, I have observed clients who suffer from low self-esteem because of past hurts and who feel that they have no control over their life. In the world of therapy and behavioral management, passive assertiveness is a way of communicating and a valuable skill to improve interpersonal relationships. However, there are individuals who use passive-aggressive behavior as a way to control others, exerting control and using others against them. They may think that they are not hurting anyone when they use this type of behavior, but they are in fact hurting themselves by denying their own feelings and beliefs.

Assertive does not mean selfish or dominant

Many people are afraid to speak assertively in different situations because they feel that they will appear selfish or dominant. But in reality, many people’s behaviors are a result of their own lack of self-awareness. When you speak out of line, you will usually hear what you say and understand where you are heading. Assertiveness doesn’t mean that you give other people the “right” to be mistreated, it just means that you are aware of the direction you are taking when you speak out in different situations. You have to learn to listen and respond to the needs of others, and this will help you empower yourself.

When I talk to clients who suffer from passive-aggressive behavior, I often find that they are in the habit of defending their own feelings and thoughts. Instead of taking the perspective that they are expressing as their truth, they take on the aggressive posture. This is actually a form of submission and can be very manipulative. If someone is dominating your thoughts and feelings, you don’t have the option of simply rejecting this behavior. Instead, you must either lie down and not speak at all, or decide to let the other person prevail and use your own words against you. However, if you are assertive in your communication, it shows that you are taking responsibility for your own emotions and are not vulnerable to manipulation.

How does assertiveness work?

When you communicate assertively, you will become self-confident in your own unique set of values and skills. You will also become aware of your internal and external relationships, as well as the interactions between all of your interpersonal relationships. Your self-confidence will increase your self-esteem, which in turn means you will feel less dependent upon others to validate your feelings and needs. You will also gain a better self-understanding, as you will be able to see yourself objectively instead of accepting the perspectives of others.

It is important to remember that when you make an assertive behavior or statement, it has to be delivered from your core value or belief. If you use your words to merely defend yourself from the emotional charge of someone else’s accusation, then you are not using self-confidence to its maximum potential. When you speak from your core value, your message will have all the power it can, because it will be coming straight from your heart and your deepest beliefs. As your message is delivered from your heart, you are increasing the likelihood of getting what you want from the interaction.

In some ways, simply making the decision to switch from being defensive to being more proactive in your interactions may help you avoid some relationship problems. By taking the time and effort to understand the dynamics of assertiveness and communication, you may be able to avoid trying to prove your point to the other person and becoming defensive all the time. Understanding the difference between assertiveness and communication may help you make the best possible decision.

Remember, that communication is never aggressive, it’s always supportive. It’s important to learn to talk to the other person in a supportive manner, rather than attempt to get your point across using force. The key is to understand how to communicate your needs and concerns using a healthy way of communicating. This is where you should begin your journey towards improving your relationships. So, take the time to learn more about assertiveness and communication and discover a healthy way of communicating with the people around you.

Perhaps the most valuable life skill that leads to personal and professional success is the ability to communicate assertively. Especially in this current climate in our country, in which we are exposed every day to more and more brashnessand insensitivity, going over the basics of healthy and respectful assertive communication will help therapists and clients alike in improving their own corner of the world.

Teaching our clients how to effectively communicate and offering guidelines to differentiate between assertive, aggressive, and non-assertive communication can provide skills that will improve the quality of their relationships with family, friends, co-workers, clients and othersthey encounter in everyday life.

I use either generic role plays that I make up, such as the case of someone being continually late for meetings or dates, or ask clients for their own real life situations. I use worksheets such as this communication handoutas a reference in helping clients see the difference between the three types of communication. Having handouts such as these to share with clients makes the criterion for healthy vs unhealthy communication more clear.

Most clients benefit from a mini-lesson on the three types of communication. The following are the basic three types of behavior:

Aggressive – The focus is on changing the other person and is characterized by you statements. Honesty is geared towards controlling or changing the other persons mind or behavior, or getting them to see a point of view leading to disrespect of the other person and communication is tactless and blunt.

The Aggressive motto is Im OK Youre not

Non-Assertive – The focus is on protecting oneself and people-pleasing. Fear of disapproval or conflict ends up with tension building and later blowing up or keeping feelings in, leading to depression and anxiety. Fear and inhibition reign.

The Non-Assertive motto is Youre OK but Im not unless you like me!

Assertive – The focus is on showing respect while expressing oneself. I statements are spoken, focusing on only expressing oneself, not changing others.

The Assertive motto is Im OK Youre OK

Along with general informational handouts, I like to use worksheets to offer skill-building practice forclients to change You messages into I messages. This worksheet geared for children offers children and adults alike a model of how to reframe “you” statements to “I” statements.

Handouts such as these can help clients practice assertive communication in individual as well as group settings. A group therapy setting is especially helpful to practice improvingcommunication skills with other group members representing challenging people in their personal lives, within the support and guidance of the group setting. Use role-play regularly throughout the groups duration, so that members get to practice new skills learned, while gainingvaluable feedback and practice as they fine-tune their communication skills.

Whether communication skill education is used in individual or group settings, your clients will learn valuable tips to improve their relationships with others in their lives, offering them skills to last a lifetime.

Last medically reviewed on January 30, 2017

  • Communication

There are many factors that play a role in leading groups to solutions (which can also be defined as achieving success), but how a leader communicates with his or her group is an especially pertinent one.

Two common communication styles are “aggressive” and “assertive.” Although they may appear similar at first glance, the differences in both the approach and the results of these two styles are dramatic. Here is a closer look at these two styles and how practicing assertiveness enables one’s leadership to become more natural, positive, and effective.

Aggressive vs. Assertive

Though generally aimed at influencing the behavior of another person, assertive communication is very different from aggressive communication:

Aggressive Communication
  • Denies the rights of others
  • Insults
  • Wins at all costs
  • Is emotionally charged
  • Lacks consideration and empathy for others
  • Damages others’ self-esteem
Assertive Communication
  • Does not use inappropriate anger or emotion
  • Does not try to hurt others
  • Is honest, fair, and direct
  • Allows others to save face
  • Expresses emotion using eye contact and positive body language
  • Practices good listening behaviors

The differences between these two communication styles are significant, and the outcomes of each are markedly different:

Outcomes of Aggressive Communication

  • Makes others feel disrespected
  • Triggers aggression in others
  • Builds walls
  • Escalates situations
  • Leads to negative interactions

Outcomes of Assertive Communication

  • Makes others feel valued and respected
  • Builds team players
  • Opens the door to collaborative solutions
  • Minimizes stressful situations
  • Improves relationships

The Assertive Communication Model and Non-verbals

Now that we know the basic differences between aggressive and assertive communication and their respective outcomes, let’s take a closer look at how business leaders can expand their communication skills. By following The Assertive Communication Model while leading groups to solutions, not only will problems be addressed and solved, but the personal affirmative qualities of leadership will be enhanced.

Step 1: Open the discussion in a non-threatening way by acknowledging the other person by name and engaging in small talk. Then, describe the facts of the specific problem (do not use the word “you” and do not label the other person with adjectives). Do this in a non-judgmental, positive way. Ask easy, neutral questions about the situation without being confrontational, and keenly observe the other person’s body language.

Step 2: Describe your own feelings in accurate, specific words and explain why you feel the way you do. Use “I feel” statements. Express your point of view, but be neither overly dramatic nor too passive. Share your goals, concerns, dilemmas, and values. Be humble.

Step 3: Explain why you feel the way you do in an articulate, respectful way. Share your interpretations, inferences, and impressions while providing relevant background information. Respect the other person’s perceptions and opinions while managing your own emotions and keeping an open mind.

Step 4: Explain what you want to happen next. Describe your needs, wants, and ideas. Clearly explain your expectations (who, what, where, when, and why) and ask for others’ input on a solution. Look for common ground and opportunities to use their ideas, and give credit where it’s due.

Non-verbals are the communication cues that you send alongside (and in between) the words you speak. They are just as important as what you actually say, if not more so. To ensure that you are communicating your words and emotions accurately, continually monitor the non-verbal messages you may be sending by asking yourself the questions below:

  • Are you maintaining reasonable eye contact?
  • Are your facial expressions properly signaling your state of mind?
  • Are you using hand gestures respectfully?
  • Are you refraining from tapping your fingers or feet?
  • Are you remaining fluid and using positive body positions?
  • Are you aware of the tone, inflection, and volume of your voice?

Communication Barriers vs. Constructive Openness

Now let’s look at the differences between communication barriers (habits that get in the way of effective communication) and constructive openness (habits that improve communication in relationships).

By increasing our awareness of our own bad habits, we can unlearn them and replace them with more positive and effective approaches. Barriers can include impatience, analyzing instead of listening, controlling the conversation, needing to “win,” believing there is only one “right” way, inflexibility, and unwillingness to adapt or compromise.

When it comes to communicating openly and honestly, most people get scared. We are fearful of hurting other people and making them angry, or we worry that we will be rejected. Because of these overarching fears, not only does the other person remain unaware of our feelings, we also fail to realize the impact that our actions are having on others. This is how small annoyances turn into big issues down the road.

Instead of allowing this negative cycle to continue, be honest with yourself about your emotions and then share them as both temporary and changeable feelings. This allows the other person to see and better understand your frustration, but also your sincere desire to improve the relationship.

In Conclusion

Effective communication is vital to a leader’s success, which also supports the success of the business. By routinely using The Assertive Communication Model, continually monitoring your non-verbals, breaking down communication barriers, and practicing constructive openness, your true qualities of leadership will shine.

How to improve assertive communication skills for better relationships

As a leader, you understand the importance of building healthy personal and professional relationships. Using assertive communication allows you to not only build relationships but to exude confidence, persuade others, diffuse conflict, motivate your team, and provide feedback.

Assertive communication is a method of productively promoting ideas while recognizing the thoughts and feelings of those impacted by the discussion.

People who initiate assertive conversations are actively engaged and interested in the discussion, and strongly assert their position while expressing empathy at the same time. While there are many technical components and cultural norms involved in assertive communication, my foreign clients have asked for a blog post that focuses on tips and best practices in the United States. This is my attempt to satisfy that request and, as always, I invite your thoughts and feedback.

In an assertive conversation, it is common to hear phrases like: “I understand your difficulty, but I cannot agree with your solution. Let’s discuss this further and look at other options.” In these types of conversations, everyone is eager to participate and there is a show of empathy. Assertive communication is different than aggressive communication where one or more participants may feel harassed, threatened, shamed, or bullied.

Assertiveness involves non-threatening body language and vocal information that opens the door to healthy communication.

Body language includes eye contact, posture, gestures, and facial expression. Vocal information includes intonation, volume, pace, and emphasis. Let’s look at how to enhance each of these skills so that you can have a greater impact on your relationships.

How to improve assertive communication skills for better relationships

  • Eye contact: Maintain reasonably steady eye contact but remember that it’s not a stare-down. Direct and unbroken eye contact can be perceived as aggressive, but no eye contact can appear as weak and submissive. Break eye contact naturally, maybe to view notes, or something relevant to what you are talking about. Try not to break eye contact to view a point behind the person you are talking to, the clock, or your watch. This gives the impression that you are not interested, not listening, and in a hurry to wrap up the conversation.
  • Stance/posture: Try to maintain a position of about 45 degrees to the person you are talking to, and do not stand directly face to face or turn away from them. Do not stand above the other person, especially if they are sitting and you are standing. Try to maintain a distance of at least two feet from the other person. Any closer and you may be invading their personal space, which could seem aggressive. (You can experiment with this by standing closer than two feet and watch the other person automatically back away). Keep your hands away from your face and (women) do not flip or touch your hair. These habits can make you look passive, nervous, or flirty. Remain relaxed but do not slouch.
  • Signs and Gestures: Use open hand gestures and extend the hands toward the other person. This shows a willingness to share and understand. Avoid pointing your finger at someone or clenching your fists. Although, in the right context, the clenched fist can show passion and commitment to a point of view. Be aware of shrugging your shoulders as this can show a lack of commitment or interest.
  • Facial expression: Movement is the key. Tense facial muscles, like frowning or tight lips, demonstrate aggression, whereas a totally relaxed face shows no commitment and boredom. Biting the lip will demonstrate insecurity and, therefore, weakness. Whenever possible, use a variety of facial expressions with lots of movement.
  • Intonation: Use a variety of tone, as it demonstrates interest and enthusiasm. This supports a willingness to understand others while demonstrating a real belief and commitment in your own point of view. Avoid raising the tone on the last word or words of a sentence, as this turns a statement into a question and suggests you are asking for consent rather than making a definite statement. This is sometimes referred to as “uptalk.” Try saying the following statement, first, taking the intonation down on the words “two o’clock,” then taking the intonation up on the words “two o’clock.”

… and I will call you back tomorrow afternoon, at two o’clock.

See how the first states that you will telephone at two o’clock, and the second asks if it is OK for you to telephone at two o’clock.

  • Volume: Shouting can be aggressive but being too quiet shows a lack of certainty and weakness. Keep the volume strong but not too loud.
  • Pace: Talking too quickly can demonstrate nervousness or appear dismissive or arrogant, whereas hesitancy or interrupted speech shows a lack of confidence in your own position. Try to keep a controlled pace – not too fast but moving through what you have to say with confidence.
  • Emphasis: Emphasize words that say what you are going to do, rather than what you are not going to do. When making requests emphasize what you want the other person to do, instead of what you want them not to do. Put an emphasis on words of recognition, words that support your position, and words that clearly state what you want to happen.

Using assertive communication will enhance your relationships, improve your confidence, and help you persuade and motivate others. Which of these skills can you start practicing immediately?

How to improve assertive communication skills for better relationships

How to improve assertive communication skills for better relationships

In This Article

Communication is the basis for a healthy marriage. It’s how you and your spouse connect, share your thoughts and views, and settle disputes. Relationship communication skills don’t come easy for everyone. Some couples will have to work on their techniques for years. But over time, they will be able to speak openly and honestly with one another.

No matter how connected you and your spouse are now, there is always room to strengthen and grow your relationship .

Here are 10 relationship communications skills that will save your marriage:

1. Give your partner your full attention

Don’t text and talk. Whether your spouse is telling you a joke or revealing a deep family secret, you should be giving them your undivided attention.

Put away distracting technology, mute or turn off the television, and lean in towards your partner. This will show them you care about their information. Nodding and maintaining eye-contact are both excellent ways of showing your partner you are listening .

You can create a spot in your home where the electronics can be placed to limit the technological distractions.

2. Don’t interrupt your partner

Being interrupted is the quickest way to escalate an argument. When communicating with your partner, it’s important that both parties feel they have a chance to speak and to be heard.

It may feel tempting to squeeze in your own opinion while your partner is still talking, especially if you feel they have a fact wrong, but it is important to wait.

Giving your partner your attention while staying focused and connected shows your partner respect .

3. Create a neutral space

Communicating isn’t always easy. Many couples find it beneficial to tackle “tough” martial topics in a neutral space, such as the kitchen table. It may sound silly, but discussing your partner’s lack of sexual prowess while in bed can make them feel attacked and can cause them to view the bedroom in a negative light in the future.

Arguing at a relative’s house is another example of one partner feeling like they have the proverbial “high ground” in the argument.

4. Speak face to face

One of the best communication skills in relationships you can use is always speaking about important topics face to face. Texting is certainly not the avenue for having serious relationship conversations or for making big decisions since the tone of voice cannot be determined through text messages.

Instead, choose a time when you can be face to face with your partner. This way you can both give one another your full attention and you can read one another’s non-verbal cues. When things are said in person, there is little room for things getting “lost in translation” through tech.

5. Use “I” statements when problems arise

One problem couples run into when they are arguing is attacking each other.

By using “I” statements, you take the pressure off your partner.

Instead of saying “YOU did this and it made me angry”, try communicating “I feel that when THIS occurred, my feelings were hurt.”

See the difference? You made the problem your own, instead of attacking your partner.

This simple, yet effective technique prevents either of you from going into attack-mode or becoming needlessly defensive with one another.

6. Be honest with your spouse

Being honest isn’t always easy, but it is the key to a healthy relationship .

One study about “ 12 Healthy Dating Relationship Qualities ” found that good communication, honesty, and trust were listed as some of the highest qualities.

Being honest means telling your partner when you feel there are issues that need to be talked about. It also means admitting when you were wrong and apologizing instead of making excuses.

Not only does honesty help foster genuine open communication between you and your spouse, but it also helps build trust.

7. Talk about the little things

One of the great communication skills in relationships is when you and your partner can talk about the little things as well as the big things. You can strengthen your marriage by talking about your day, your thoughts, or share funny stories from your week.

When you are married, every topic should be open for discussion. There shouldn’t be anything that is too awkward or uncomfortable to share. By talking about the little things you will make it easier to talk about more important topics in the future.

8. Use the 24-hour-rule

When two people are married and living together, there are bound to be bumps in the road.

Some days you are going to feel like rainbows and butterflies float through your home when your partner is near. Other times, you’ll feel a headache coming on when your spouse is near.

If you are feeling frustrated with your partner and are about to voice your complaint, pause for a moment. Practice the 24-hour rule.

So she didn’t empty the dishwasher or he didn’t pick up his socks. Is it really the end of the world? Will it matter to you in 24-hours? If not, consider letting it go.

9. Make physical contact

No matter what tone your conversation is taking, physical contact is important. Low-intensity stimulation of the skin, such as touching a partner or stroking their arm, promotes the release of oxytocin. The love hormone promotes bonding and empathy in romantic partners, and it can also act as an anti-stress agent and promotes cooperative behavior .

10. Make communication fun

Communicating is how you talk about family and financial matters , problems and their solutions, and how you and your spouse make decisions. But, don’t forget that communicating should be fun, too.

Talking with your partner means sharing funny stories, dreams for the future, and sharing in deep conversation. These are the moments that create a deeper emotional connection and boost oxytocin and dopamine.

Always make time to check in with your spouse verbally, whether the conversation that follows is serious or silly.

Communication is the key to a happy, healthy relationship. You can improve your communication in marriage by being open and honest about your physical and emotional needs, remaining an open book regarding money matters, and giving your partner your full attention.

Try these 10 effective communication skills in relationships and experience the difference in your marriage soon.

How to improve assertive communication skills for better relationshipsCommunication is so important that it can make or break a relationship, is critical to success, and instantly reflects your self-esteem to listeners – for better or for worse. Assertive communication commands respect projects confidence and inspires influence. It’s respectful, direct, honest, open, non-threatening and non-defensive. It’s not demanding, aggressive, or manipulative.

Communication is learned. With practice, you can learn to communicate assertively, which will raise your self-esteem and self-assurance and improve your relationships and professional performance. Research has established that even fetuses can learn to communicate with their mothers. Dysfunctional communication is a symptom of codependency. Learning assertiveness is essential to recovery.

The Six Keys to Assertiveness

Assertiveness is the foundation for the harder task of setting boundaries. This is especially important when Dealing with a Narcissist or very defensive person. To learn the keys to assertiveness discussed below, remember the 6 C’s:

1. Congruency
2. Courtesy
3. Conciseness
4. Clarity
5. Cognizance
6. Claim yourself

Communication has many elements. You communicate with more than your words. You relay information with your entire body through:

1. Gesture
2. Eye contact, movement, moisture, expression, and focus
3. Posture
4. Physical appearance
5. Voluntary and involuntary bodily movement, including muscular tension
6. Facial expression
7. Skin color (e.g. blushing) and perspiration
8. Body smell

Additionally, your voice communicates through:

1. Volume
2. Pitch
3. Cadence
4. Tone and emphasis
5. Fluidity
6. Enunciation


What you don’t say, your body reveals. Customs’ agents are expert at reading body language to spot liars. Key to effective communication is authenticity, meaning honesty and congruence. Truthfulness is about facts. Honesty has more to do with intent and feelings. Say what you think or feel, and mean what you say. You probably assume you already do this, yet dishonesty is more common than you might guess. I’m not referring to overt lies, but about times you outwardly agree, but inwardly don’t. Some reasons are:

1. You want to spare someone’s feelings.
2. You want to avert conflict.
3. You want to be liked and avoid judgment or criticism.
4. You’re afraid of making a mistake.
5. You don’t want to impose or burden someone.
6. You don’t want to jeopardize a relationship, or
7. You don’t want to spend the time.

The last one is tricky. Imagine you’re at a party and someone asks you a personal question that you don’t want to get into then and there. You might avoid the question in many ways, including ignoring it and changing the subject, or walking away to get a drink. You might think the reason is no. 7, but ask yourself why you wouldn’t directly say, “I prefer not to talk about that now (or here),” or “I don’t know you well enough to discuss that.” If you think the real answer is no. 1, think again. The foregoing assertive answers are less hurtful than impolite behavior.

When your words don’t match your insides, you’re sending a mixed message. A common example is when you say you’re fine, but your body language reveals the truth that you’re unhappy. Or, the opposite – you smile while imparting a sad story. In either case, your listener is confused and doesn’t know how to respond and/or may not feel that he or she can trust you.


The purpose of communication is to impart information and feelings, not to vent, avenge, or scold. If you’re discourteous to listeners, you’ll lose them. To be effective, you want to engage your listener. To do so, treat him or her with respect. Criticism that is constructive and delivered assertively is more likely to be heeded.


The impact of your speech is inversely related to its duration. Your impact wanes with words. Your listener will want you to cut to the chase and get to the point. When you beat around the bush, it belies insecurity and/or lack of knowledge. When you’re afraid for any of the reasons mentioned above regarding incongruence, you might be tempted to have a long introduction or disclaimer. Don’t. If you’re fearful, sort out the reasons why, practice what you’ll say out loud, and weigh the long term repercussions of saying nothing or what you want.


Be direct. Don’t ask questions, give hints, or speak in the abstract. Instead of “Do you want to go to a movie?” which is ambiguous as to whether you want to go, state, “I’d like to see a movie tonight.” Make a clear statement of what you think, feel, need, or want. Most communication comes down to those four essentials. You can also explain why.


Cognizance of your audience is essential. You must hear in order to be heard. To be an effective communicator, listen with attention and respect to what others have to say. Genuine listening engages them and helps you attune your message so that others will be receptive. This is attentive, active listening. Paraphrasing and repeating what was said to you will show them that you care and are interested. In turn, they’ll be more receptive when they believe they matter to you.

Timing is critical. Don’t start an important conversation in the car, or when he or she is watching TV, is on the computer, or otherwise occupied, without his or her permission. You’re being discourteous and interrupting their attention. You’ll be disappointed and are setting yourself up for an argument.

Claim Yourself

This is the hardest element. You must take responsibility for your opinions, thoughts, feelings, and needs. That means you don’t blame or talk about the other person. Don’t tell them what they should do, or what some expert said. Use “I” messages and claim what you think and feel. That doesn’t mean to say, “I think you’re inconsiderate,” which labels and judges their behavior, without revealing how you feel or how it affects you. Applying all these rules, you might say “I feel disregarded (or “unimportant” or “angry”) when you didn’t return my calls,” or “I don’t like it when you…”

When you state your feelings or take a position, others don’t feel as great a need to defend and justify themselves, because you are only talking about yourself. This is particularly difficult to do when you’re emotional. It’s better to wait and think about what you feel and what outcome or behavioral changes you want before having the conversation. Consider your bottom line.

Learning assertiveness so that it comes naturally can take years of practice, but it is empowering and worth starting now. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll begin raising your self-esteem. For more on assertiveness and setting boundaries, get my webinar, How to Be Assertive or ebook, How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.

How to improve assertive communication skills for better relationships

Peter Dazeley / Getty Images

An aggressive communication style is characterized by high emotion, low empathy, and a focus on “winning” the argument at any cost.   It’s a style of communication that is favored by narcissists and bullies, but it can show up in conversations anywhere. You might hear aggressive communication from parents, friends, co-workers, romantic partners—or you might even use it yourself.

When a person uses aggressive communication, the rights of others are not even allowed to surface. When this happens, others feel victimized and relationships suffer. In that way, relationship aggression is bad for the aggressors as well as the recipients of the aggression.

Aggressiveness is a mode of communication and behavior where one expresses their feelings, needs, and rights without regard or respect for the needs, rights, and feelings of others.

Examples of an aggressive communication style include saying things like:

  • “This is all your fault.”
  • “It’s my way or the highway.”
  • “Do what I say.”
  • “I don’t care what you have to say.”
  • “You never do anything right.”
  • “I don’t agree with you so I don’t have to listen to your opinion.”
  • “Everyone has to agree with me.”
  • “I’m right and you’re wrong.”
  • “You owe me.”
  • “I’m entitled to this.”
  • “I’ll get my way no matter what.”

Negative Impact

The toll that relationship conflict takes in terms of stress can affect us in many ways. It can affect our stress levels, health, and happiness. Aggression and conflict can also damage relationships in a wide variety of ways. Aggressive communication can lead to:

  • Aggressive responses from others
  • Barriers to communication
  • Distrust
  • Fear of sharing
  • Feelings of disrespect
  • Greater stress
  • Lack of connection
  • More conflict
  • Negative interactions
  • Poor goal achievement
  • Secrecy

Assertive Communication

A powerful tool to use in the face of aggressive communication is assertiveness. Assertiveness is sometimes mistaken for forceful communication, but it is important to distinguish between assertiveness and aggressiveness.

Assertiveness involves expressing one’s own needs and rights while respecting the needs and rights of others and maintaining the dignity of both parties.

Assertiveness results in healthier relationships and increased life satisfaction. While communication styles aren’t the only way that aggressiveness can surface in relationships, those who endeavor to change their aggressive communication patterns to assertive ones tend to be open to other improvements as well.

Tries to dominate others

Relies on criticism and blame

Low tolerance for frustration

Loud, overbearing, demanding

Tries to form connection with others

Relies on respect and clarity

Calm, clear, relaxed

Listens without interruption

Your Communication Style

If you want to work on your communication, it is helpful first to understand how you tend to communicate with others. What do you know about your habitual communication style? Are you prone to aggressiveness, assertiveness, or passivity? Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • Am I upset if others don’t agree with me?
  • Do I check in with people to see if they’re comfortable, or do I force my own agenda?
  • Do I know how to disagree without being disagreeable?
  • Do I know how to get my needs met without violating the needs of others?
  • Do I know how to stand up for myself?
  • Do I put people down?
  • Do I seek out other people’s opinions, or just share my own?
  • Do I talk over people or interrupt frequently?

The above questions can help you get started thinking of whether you are comfortable standing up for yourself, too comfortable walking all over others, or have perhaps found a comfortable middle ground. Research suggests that learning about your style and finding ways to replace aggressive responses with more assertive ones can improve your communication style.  

How to Be More Assertive

Some things you can do to be more assertive in your communication:

  • Ask for what you need rather than expecting others to guess.
  • Calmly express your feelings.
  • Explain your feelings and needs.
  • Let other people know that you recognize their needs.
  • Listen well to what other people have to say.
  • Listening to and respecting others’ needs.
  • Look for win-win solutions rather than win-lose ones.
  • Try to understand others’ needs
  • Voice your needs

Assertiveness may feel aggressive at first to those who are used to a passive style of communication. Conversely, it can feel passive to those who are accustomed to an aggressive style of communication.

If you weren’t raised in a family where assertiveness and respect for others was the norm, it can feel particularly difficult. It may require some practice to find the balance between steamrolling over other’s needs and allowing them to trample yours, but it’s well worth the effort. Once you find that balance, it’s easy to continue being assertive in all of your interactions, which can prevent conflict and resentment in the future.

A Word From Verywell

Aggressive communication can damage your relationships in all areas of your life, including school, family, and work. Even if this is your dominant way of communicating, there are things that you can do to replace aggressive behaviors with more productive and assertive ones.

If you’re not sure what your communication style is, you might want to consider whether you might be guilty of some common conflict resolution mistakes such as criticizing and shutting others down. You can also learn more about healthy communication techniques you can use with the many people in your life, including listening carefully and trying to see things from other people’s perspectives.

“Assertiveness is all about being present in a relationship,” according to Randy Paterson, Ph.D, a clinical psychologist and author of The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and in Relationships. In other words, you’re able to articulate your wants and needs to the other person, and you welcome their wants and needs as well.

Being assertive is starkly different from being passive or aggressive. Paterson has a helpful analogy that distinguishes the differences. He explained:

In the passive style, all the world is allowed on stage but for you — your role is to be the audience and supporter for everyone else. In the aggressive style, you’re allowed on stage but you spend most of your time shoving the others off, like in a lifelong sumo match. With the assertive style, everyone is welcome onstage. You are entitled to be a full person, including your uniqueness, and so are others.

“Assertiveness involves advocating for yourself in a way that is positive and proactive,” said Joyce Marter, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance, LLC. It also means being clear, direct and honest, she said.

For instance, if you’re upset with your boss over your performance review, you’re able to express your opinion in a diplomatic and professional way, she said. Again, this is very different from the other styles. If you’re passive, you might swallow your feelings and become resentful, which can chip away at your self-esteem and boost stress and anxiety, she said. If you’re aggressive, you might curse out your boss and quit. If you’re passive-aggressive, you might call in sick and give your boss the silent treatment, she said.

Why Some People Aren’t Assertive

Why are some people assertive while others aren’t? Many factors may contribute. Stress is one. “The fight-or-flight response is an evolutionary adaptation that pulls us toward aggression or avoidance, and away from calm, relaxed assertiveness,” Paterson said.

A person’s belief system also plays a role. According to Paterson, these assertive-sabotaging stances include: “Being nice means going along with others” or “It doesn’t matter if I’m assertive, no one will pay attention anyway” or “He’ll leave me!” That’s why it’s so important to become aware of these beliefs. “[This way you] can examine them clearly and rationally and decide what to do,” he said.

People with low self-esteem may feel inadequate and have a hard time finding their voice, Marter said. Others might fear conflict, losing a relationship, criticism or rejection, she said.

If you’re a woman, you might’ve been raised to set aside your needs and opinions and support and agree with others, Paterson said. If you’re a man, you might’ve been raised to react aggressively with a “my way or the highway” view, he said. Or just the opposite, you might want to be completely different. “[These individuals may be] fearful of provoking aggression when they are present in relationships, or of being ‘a jerk like my father was.’”

How to Be Assertive

Assertiveness is a skill that takes practice. It may always be easier for you to swallow your feelings, scream at someone or give them the silent treatment. But assertiveness is a better strategy. It works because it respects you and others.

As Paterson writes in The Assertiveness Workbook:

Through assertiveness we develop contact with ourselves and with others. We become real human beings with real ideas, real differences…and real flaws. And we admit all of these things. We don’t try to become someone else’s mirror. We don’t try to suppress someone else’s uniqueness. We don’t try to pretend that we’re perfect. We become ourselves. We allow ourselves to be there.

These are some ideas to get you started.

1. Start small. You wouldn’t try to scale a mountain before reading a manual, practicing on a rock wall and then moving on to bigger peaks. Going in unprepared just sets you up for failure. Paterson suggested trying to be assertive in mildly tense situations, such as requesting to be seated at a different spot at a restaurant. Then gently work up to tougher situations such as talking to your spouse about infidelity issues, he said.

2. Learn to say no. People worry that saying no is selfish. It’s not. Rather, setting healthy limits is important to having healthy relationships. Here are 10 ways to build and preserve better boundaries, along with 21 tips to squelch being a people-pleaser.

3. Let go of guilt. Being assertive can be tough — especially if you’ve been passive or a people pleaser most of your life. The first few times it can feel unnerving. But remember that being assertive is vital to your well-being. “Assertive behavior that involves advocating for oneself in a way that is respectful of others is not wrong — it is healthy self-care,” Marter said.

Sometimes, you might be unwittingly perpetuating your guilty feelings with negative thoughts or worries. “Replace negative thoughts — such as ‘I am a bad person for not loaning my friend money’ — with a positive mantra [such as] ‘I deserve to have financial stability and not put myself in jeopardy,’” she said.

Deep breathing also helps ease your worries and anxiety. “Breathe in what you need — peace, strength, serenity — and breathe out feelings of guilt, anxiety or shame.”

And if you still feel uncomfortable, put yourself in a compassionate parent or best friend’s shoes. “Sometimes it is easier to think about speaking up for somebody else who we love than it is for ourselves,” Marter said.

4. Express your needs and feelings. Don’t assume that someone will automatically know what you need. You have to tell them. Again, be specific, clear, honest and respectful, Marter said.

Take the example of ordering food at a restaurant, she said. You’d never just order a “sandwich.” Instead you’d request a “tuna on rye with slices of cheddar cheese and tomatoes.” If you’re worried of upsetting someone, use “I” statements, which usually make people less defensive.

According to Marter, instead of saying, “You have no clue what my life is like, and you are a selfish ass,” you might say, “I am exhausted and I need more help with the kids.” What also helps is tempering your anger and speaking from a place of hurt, she said, such as: “I feel so lonely and need you to spend time with me.”

“Focus on the real issue, not the minutiae,” she said. In other words, “are you really mad that the toilet seat was left up or that you were up with the baby five times the night before?” If it’s the baby — and it likely is — be clear and specific: “I am upset that I was up with the baby five times last night and need for you to get up at least twice a night.”

5. Check out resources on assertiveness. In addition to Paterson’s The Assertiveness Workbook, Marter recommended Your Perfect Right: Assertiveness and Equality in Your Life and Relationships (9th Edition) by Robert E. Alberti and Michael L. Emmons and Assertiveness: How to Stand Up for Yourself and Still Win the Respect of Others by Judy Murphy. Paterson also suggested taking a course on effective communication.

How can you make discussions with your partner more productive?

From the age of about 2, people start earnestly practicing the skills of persuasion and debate. Of course, our earliest oral arguments are typically sentences of just a single word or two. Hearing the plaintive “Noooooo” or the emphatic, “MINE” issued at full volume by a toddler can be quite jarring in its intensity and passion.

Unfortunately, some of us grow up in homes where we learn that a loud voice and unshaking commitment to a position can win the war. Some children are more than willing to “hold their breath until they turn blue.” Parents fret and give in just to keep the peace. Other children may grow up in homes where their opinions and desires are given no consideration and they take the position of “one down” as adults, not expecting others to acknowledge their wishes.

Diplomacy is a Desirable Quality

In a perfect world, we would all learn early that “give and take” communication can be much more productive than trying to unilaterally stake claims without taking others’ feedback into consideration. Diplomacy is a skill that is well worth learning. The need of diplomacy isn’t felt just in international relations; it’s also highly valuable in “domestic relations,” including your own personal nearest and dearest relationships, as well.

Strong Communication in the Living Room = Higher Sexual Satisfaction in the Bedroom

One of the most frequently focused on area in couples therapy is communication skills. Regardless of your age or the length of your relationship, being able to engage in effective discussions with your partner will probably result in higher relationship and sexual satisfaction. A study of college-aged couples (Mark & Jozkowski, 2013) indicated that they valued effective communication and its presence heightened their pleasure in the relationship overall.

If you don’t know how to ask for what you need, you are less likely to have your needs met. Luckily, it is never too late to enhance your communication skills and increase your chances of being both heard and understood. Effective communication requires the mastery of active listening; this skill is a standard part of the curriculum in most every helping profession preparation program, but it also is useful for anyone trying to improve their effectiveness in negotiations and relations.

10 Steps for Discussing the Trivial to the Traumatic with your Partner

  1. Get comfortable – and if it’s a difficult topic you plan to discuss, someplace relatively “neutral” works best. Don’t talk about money in bed, for instance.
  2. Give your partner your full attention. Turn off or put down any distracting technology. Lean in towards your partner a little bit. Let your body language send a message of connection–especially if you are concerned that topic may create distance, at first.
  3. Look at your partner and make eye contact. Don’t try and “stare down” your partner, but don’t send a message that you’re afraid to face your partner, either. If your eyes wander, bring them back to your partner’s face.
  4. Open up with an “I statement” that takes the pressure off your partner. This doesn’t mean something like “I need you to change,” either! Own your own feelings and use language that indicates your awareness that each of us is responsible for our own thoughts and behavior.
  5. Invite your partner to share her perceptions that the use an open question (one that doesn’t invite a one- or two-word answer).
  6. Don’t interrupt! Stay focused, attentive, and connected. Even if you particularly like or simply don’t agree with what is being said. Hang in there and keep your focus on the overarching goal of honest communication—a better relationship.
  7. Reflect back to your partner what you think your partner is saying—check in with your partner to make sure you are hearing the overall message, not just the words. Check back in with your partner, “What I hear you saying is…” or “If I understand you correctly, then I think you feel…” This lets your partner know that you really care about the message being conveyed and that you are invested in making sure you heard it accurately. It also helps you empathize with your partner’s perspective — it’s amazing how different a relationship can look to two different people!
  8. Use collaborative language and recognize that when the two of you are in a room, there’s a third entity present—the relationship. Couples counselors are taught that working with a couple means there are “three clients in the room, each member of the couple and the relationship itself.” What you or your partner thinks “best” for yourselves or one another may not reflect what is “best” for the relationship.
  9. If there’s a problem that you are trying to solve, communicate your ideas for solutions with tentativeness. Maybe something like, “Well, perhaps we could try…” Or, “What if I did . and you did . ” Or, maybe even better yet, “I’m stuck. What do you think we need to do next?”
  10. Keep the communication flowing, be willing to listen, make sure you are really hearing the message your partner is sending, and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know.

Research Study: How are your adult sibling relationships working out?

Be a part of a new research study exploring adult sibling relationships. Some of us learn about friendships through our early relationships with siblings. If you are still working through sibling drama or enjoying sibling harmony, please share your stories here.

Mark, K. P., & Jozkowski, K. N. (2013). The mediating role of sexual and nonsexual communications between relationship and sexual satisfaction in a sample of college-age heterosexual couples. Journal of Sex & Marital therapy, 39, 410-427.