, Gloucester, MA

April 19, 2013

Body language contributes to assertive communication

Personal Matters
Susan Britt

---- — In my last column, I related the many benefits of assertiveness in verbal communication, as well as addressed the negative consequences of under-assertive and over-assertive communication styles.

To review briefly: assertive verbal communication is an open, honest, non-judging, non-blaming nor attacking approach that benefits both parties involved, and results in enhancing and growing the relationship. The two extremes, on the other hand — over-assertiveness (or aggressiveness) which blames and attacks demonstrating little understanding or concern for the thoughts and feelings of the recipient, and under-assertiveness which withholds the expression of true feelings making the other party responsible for figuring out or mind-reading to find out what is really going on — block and prevent constructive dialogue and damage the relationship.

To create constructive discussion of an issue, it is important that both speaker and listener not only attend to the intellectual and emotional components by taking an assertive approach, but also attend to communication conveyed by the body and tone. Assertive style helps both speaker and listener to be clear, fully heard and understood, but it is also important that the body language of both matches the language of the conversation.

In an issue of the “Bottom Line Personal” newsletter, Robert E. Alberti was quoted on the subject of assertiveness and body language. (Alberti is the co-author of “Your Perfect Right,” a popular guide to assertiveness training.) According to Alberti, there are several physical supplements to assertive speech. See how many you use, and if you use them effectively:

Eye contact, Proper eye contact lends sincerity and directness to assertive messages. A relaxed, yet steady gaze mixed with comfortable moments of looking away is the best approach. If eye contact is overdone, it can be interpreted as a stare. Too little eye contact is also undesirable since it may give the impression of insincerity or of being too deferential.

Body posture. If you are sharing an intimate conversation with another, your torso should be turned toward that person. If you are turned away from them, your body will give signals counter to what you are saying. In a situation where you are standing up for yourself, you need to do just that: stand up straight. A slumped-over posture can read “I’m scared and not sure of myself” giving the recipient a psychological advantage in the interaction.

Gestures. Relaxed and natural body movements can strengthen the meaning of your message while adding depth and warmth. Uninhibited movement also suggests honesty, openness, and self-confidence. Rigid stances or choppy gestures, however, may suggest defensiveness, refusal to compromise or dishonesty.

Facial expression. It is important that facial movements match your assertive speech. If you’re happy, you should be smiling. If you are angry you should have a straight, serious expression. You can confuse the issue and the listener by delivering an unhappy message with a smiling or smirking facial expression.

Voice tone and volume. Clear, level, well-modulated speech is usually the most effective. Half-whispered monotones or shouted expletives will most likely hurt your cause and raise defenses in the listener.

Fluency. A slow, steady flow of commentary usually will be more effective and coherent than rapid, erratic speech that is peppered with pauses.

Listening. This is probably the most important physical component because truly assertive individuals are actively committed to those around them. It is vital to free yourself from distractions or noises, and really tune in. Receiving another’s message positively is as important as communicating your own. Listen with openness, honesty and sensitivity conveying that you are absolutely committed to hearing and understanding the communicator.

We all communicate with others everyday, so, in my view, we need to commit ourselves to caring communication that allows everyone to walk away from any interaction feeling good about themselves and each other. (I have been contacted by some with a request to teach an assertiveness training workshop. If you are interested, please contact me. See info below)


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 or 978-546-9431.