Assertive Communication

Assertive communication--that's where you punch out someone you don't agree
with, right? Maybe not... Assertiveness is often confused with aggressiveness.
There is a big difference between these two concepts, however. It
is useful to think of a continuum (below) along which the whole
range of human behavior lies. Some behavior is extremely passive
(at one end of the continuum), some is extremely aggressive (at
the other end), and some (assertive) lies somewhere in between:


The asterisks on each side of "Assertive" mark the approximate range of assertive behaviors--quite a bit of latitude before one acts either passively or aggressively. Most of us who are concerned with becoming more assertive feel like we are too passive; it is difficult to stand up for ourselves in situations in which it would be justified and appropriate. In fact, a definition of assertive communication might be, "the appropriate and honest expression of our views
or feelings to another person, while respecting that person's rights as well." Being assertive does not mean stomping on another's turf or toes--that is aggression. It does mean that we say and do what we need to, but not to gain revenge or hurt another person.

So what keeps us from communicating assertively, and what's the problem if we don't? Most people report that what makes it hard to be assertive is a fear of hurting another person's feelings, and perhaps risking rejection by that person. Relying on what we think others think of us for our self-worth makes it hard to be assertive. And what about the costs of not being assertive--does it hurt? What do you think? Would you be reading this if you had not felt hurt or angry, whether at yourself or someone else, when you have not stood up for yourself? Perhaps the worst consequence in the long run is that we may eventually feel we can't be assertive if we don't practice these skills. Our self- worth may dwindle to almost nothing, and we feel uncertain about tackling even the smallest challenge.

What can you do to start communicating more assertively? There are a couple of skills that you can practice that may help. One of these is called "I - language". What this means is simple: When we have a reaction to something another person says or does, we let that person know how we are affected, using a phrase like, "I feel left out sometimes when we are in a group of people and you seem to ignore me." And what if your roommate borrows something and returns it damaged, or doesn't return it at all: "I feel pretty angry that you forgot and left the gym without my basketball. I would appreciate your buying me another one." All of this helps you know how you do feel at such times--the skill of recognizing feelings.

What if it takes you a day or two to figure out that you're mad? It's too late to say anything then, right? If it's a year or two, maybe it's too late. If it's a shorter time, it's okay to say, "Last week when you borrowed my Chemistry notes and lost a couple of pages, I was pretty mad. In fact I'm still upset." If you think you can say something of this sort, but you aren't sure you would know what to do then, it may help to schedule an appointment with a counselor to come up with some ideas. But one thing is certain: The skills of recognizing feelings and using I - language will help you to communicate more clearly and honestly if you practice them.

Happy Asserting!