, Gloucester, MA

April 11, 2013

How to be properly assertive when communicating

Personal Matters
Susan Britt

---- — Assertive communication means being properly able to ask for what you want, and being able to say no to something you do not want. When two people are communicating assertively the goal is a win-win for both. It means that each comes away feeling they have gotten something they wanted, and both feel heard, understood and respected.

When communicating assertively you are able to say what you truly mean while the listener is comfortable enough to listen and receive your message. When you are the listener you are capable of receiving an honest message clearly delivered by the speaker. Even when there is disagreement, or a prior misunderstanding, you both feel you are truly being heard. You both feel free to say what is really on your mind without feeling attacked or judged or taken advantage of.

In over-assertive or aggressive communication, however, the atmosphere is tense and unbalanced. Aggressive speech comes on strong, with attacking, blaming or criticizing language. The listener feels verbally beaten up, and demeaned. With over-assertive behavior the speaker does not leave room for the listener to be fully heard and for his feelings to be honored. The aggressive communicator may end up getting whatever it is that they want, but at great cost to themselves, and at the expense of the other. When the over-assertive person “wins” it leaves the other person feeling like they “lost” the argument. This kind of abusive communication destroys relationships because the “loser’s” desires, feelings and thoughts are not heard, valued or respected. Continued negative communication like this creates an ongoing win/lose scenario which drives people apart at home and at work.

Under-assertive communication creates another win-lose scenario. Here, participants never really say or receive what they want. True, open communication is impossible because one or both in the relationship hides their thoughts, feelings and opinions. As a consequence of neither the speaker nor the listener revealing themselves, they often become extremely frustrated and withdraw from each other. They may feel used, taken advantage of, and certainly unacknowledged. Discussion and conversation may seem pointless, reinforcing the submerging of their true feelings and thereby creating a sometimes unbridgeable emotional distance.

True and proper assertiveness in speech enhances both your communication and your relationships. It is a fair, honest, constructive approach with the goal that everyone should benefit, therefore drawing people closer together and enriching relationships. Over-assertive behavior - when you get what you want at the emotional expense of others - will lose friends, family members and business acquaintances because your aggressiveness and selfishness will push them away. If others cannot trust that you care about their interests as well as your own, why would they remain in any kind of relationship with you?

Under-assertive individuals push people away because when they don’t make their true feelings known, they make it the responsibility of others to figure out their needs and take care of them. And, because under-assertive people don’t stand up for their rights, they are often taken advantage of, ultimately creating tension and guilt in both parties. Even if someone gets what they want through manipulation, they often end up feeling guilty, and not good about themselves which ultimately fosters resentment toward the under-assertive person. Another hallmark of the under-assertive person is the tendency to hold in their feelings for so long that when they do express them, they usually explode and engage in angry, aggressive behavior. Unfortunately, they are often so ashamed of themselves they retreat back to the perceived safety of under-assertiveness.

So, it is clear that under or over assertive behavior creates dysfunction and discord in relationships. Caring, open, assertive communication expressed with respect, on the other hand, is the key to cultivating loving, enduring relationships.

Based in Rockport, life coach and psychotherapist Susan Britt, M.Ed., teaches individuals, couples and families to resolve relationship conflicts, clarify and achieve life and career goals, and accelerate personal growth. Questions and comments may be addressed to her at and by telephone 978 546-9431.