The chief difference between assertiveness and aggression is how well you take your needs, and someone else’s needs, into account. So, it’s possible to be assertive without being rude or offensive.
Some people may believe being assertive is equivalent to being rude. However, expressing your opinions and needs clearly isn’t the same as lacking manners.
At the same time, some people may believe that “saying it like it is,” without any filters or regard for what the other person may feel, is being assertive. In reality, when you don’t fully consider the other person and your delivery, you’ve left assertiveness behind.
Assertive communication means clearly articulating your thoughts and feelings while setting appropriate boundaries in a firm but compassionate manner, says David Helfand, PsyD, a clinical psychologist specializing in couple’s therapy in Boston.
On the other hand, aggressive communication generally stems from a place of anger, hurt, or resentment. It does not consider the needs or perspective of the other person, says Helfand.
Even if you don’t master assertiveness just yet, this is a skill that can be developed.
An even exchange of words may not be easy, but clear communication is worth it. How to be assertive is about staying respectful.
Try to stay calm
First things first, try to take a deep breath and calm down if your emotions are running high.
Consider taking a moment to self-soothe and find balance before saying what you have to say. Your message is likely to be better delivered and received the calmer you are.
Consider using ‘I’ statements
Instead of pointing out other people’s behaviors, you may find it effective to talk about your thoughts and feelings instead, suggests Helfand.
This is where “I statements” can be helpful. “Putting the emphasis on your own needs helps you assert boundaries while avoiding judgments toward the other person and potentially triggering their defensiveness,” he explains.
For example: “You don’t listen to me,” may become, “I need to feel heard more.”
Try to maintain open body language
What you say is just as important as how you say it.
“Eye contact is tricky. Some people really like eye contact but the
For example, try talking with your partner while watching a sunset, he suggests.
Communication is not individual. So, assertiveness may sometimes be hard because both you and the other person bring your own experiences, patterns of thoughts, assumptions, and communication styles to the mix.
You have to manage your message delivery but also respond to how the other person reacts.
Past experiences where you may have tried to be assertive and it wasn’t well received may also give you a sense that assertiveness is an uncomfortable zone.
Communicating with someone who may not have an easy time accepting boundaries may also make it more challenging to be assertive.
Our bodies are wired to go into defense mode. “If someone is talking to us, and we perceive it as harsh, we can get reactive and lack empathy,” says Lee Phillips, LCSW, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist in Virginia and New York.
At other times, we may be more of a “sure, whatever you say,” type of communicator. “We may fear how the person will react, so we can become passive, and just agree with them,” he says.
Also, there’s an unhealthy assumption that women are passive, and men are assertive and aggressive, says Phillips. “This is equated with women being weak and men being strong. This is not true. Men and women can be passive, assertive, and aggressive.”
With some intention and practice, you can find a win-win in everyday situations and be assertive without being aggressive, even during tough conversations.
Try to organize your thoughts
Try to think about what you want to say before you say it. Writing it down may help.
“A stream-of-consciousness journal entry is very helpful at working out the rough draft of your communication so that your conversation partner can receive a more polished and likely positive second draft,” says Helfand.
Try to pick your opener carefully
A simple question such as “Is now a good time to talk?” is a great way to signal safety, says Phillips. He also suggests other options for effective communication, like:
- “I would like to fix things, but I want to make sure you’re on the same page. Do you feel ready to talk?”
- “I would appreciate a chance to explain myself and hear what you have to say. Can we talk?”
- “Disagreements happen. It is how we resolve them that matters. Let me know when you are ready to talk. I love you.”
Consider active listening
Assertive communication is about curiosity, validation, and empathy, explains Phillips. This means taking a genuine interest in what the other person has to say while avoiding the tendency to blame others or make assumptions.
“You do not want to assume how the other person is feeling. You want to ask about their feelings,” he says. “For example, ‘I was anxious, and you seemed calm. Is that right?’”
Try to set communication boundaries
To be assertive without being aggressive, you may find it helpful to set some boundaries beforehand, like agreeing on a time limit or another way to exit the conversation gracefully, should you both need a breather.
“Some people have a code word they may use such as ‘hot,’ meaning the person is getting triggered, and it is not a good time to talk. For others, it is shaking your head no, meaning that right now, it is not a good time to talk,” says Phillips.
Signs of passive-aggressive communication
Passive aggression usually stems from built-up resentment. If this is happening in your relationship, consider seeking support from a therapist.
Some signs of passive-aggression in communication may include:
- ignoring messages
- insults disguised as “jokes”
- pretending to agree
- rolling eyes
- sarcastic comments
- showing up late
- stonewalling or silent treatment
Being assertive is a skill. It means taking another person’s feelings into account, along with your own.
To be assertive without being aggressive, you may find it helpful to soothe your own emotions before talking, use “I statements,” and practice active listening.
For couples, Phillips recommends the books “Getting the Love You Want” and “Marriage: Seven Principles of Making Marriage Work.”
Lastly, you don’t have to do this alone. A mental health professional can help you work on communication skills.