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Assertive Communication

All members of the Johns Hopkins community have a responsibility to behave professionally, whether you just started your time at Johns Hopkins, have moved up the ranks, or are in a leadership role. Professionalism can be defined as: each individual taking responsibility for his or her personal choices, decisions, and actions that consistently demonstrate respect, integrity, dignity, and ethical character to others.

Communicating clearly and assertively honors the respect, integrity, and dignity you have for yourself and others. Being assertive means that you express yourself effectively and stand up for your point of view, while also respecting the rights and beliefs of others.

Why Assertive Communication Makes Sense

Because assertiveness is based on mutual respect, it's an effective and diplomatic communication style. Being assertive shows that you respect yourself because you're willing to stand up for your interests and express your thoughts and feelings. It also demonstrates that you're aware of the rights of others and are willing to work on resolving conflicts.

Assertive communication is direct and respectful. If you communicate in a way that's too passive or too aggressive, your message may get lost because people are too busy reacting to your delivery.

Assertive vs. Passive Behavior

If your style is passive, you tend to avoid conflict. This is problematic because you unintentionally send the message that your thoughts and feelings aren't as important as those of other people. Said another way, when you're too passive, you give others permission to disregard your wants and needs.

The internal conflict that can be created by passive behavior can lead to:

  • Stress
  • Resentment
  • Seething anger
  • Feelings of victimization
  • Desire to get revenge

Assertive vs. Aggressive Behavior

On the other hand, if your style is aggressive, you may come across as a bully who disregards the needs, feelings, and opinions of others. You may appear self-righteous or superior. You may think that being aggressive gets you what you want. However, it comes at a cost. Aggression undercuts trust and mutual respect.

Assertive vs. Passive-Aggressive Behavior

If you communicate in a passive-aggressive way, you may say yes when you want to say no. You may be sarcastic or complain about others behind their backs. Rather than confront an issue directly, you may show your anger and feelings through your actions or negative attitude. You may have developed a passive-aggressive style because you're uncomfortable being direct about your needs and feelings.

Over time, passive-aggressive behavior damages relationships and undercuts mutual respect, thus making it difficult for you to get your goals and needs met.

The Benefits of Being Assertive

Being assertive is usually viewed as a healthier communication style. Behaving assertively can help you:

  • Gain self-confidence and self-esteem
  • Understand and recognize your feelings
  • Express your feelings clearly and effectively
  • Earn respect from others
  • Improve communication
  • Create win-win situations
  • Improve your decision-making skills
  • Create honest relationships
  • Gain more job satisfaction

Learning to Be More Assertive

If you want to change your communication style, you can learn to communicate in healthier and more effective ways. First, assess your communication style. Are you passive, aggressive, or passive-aggressive?

To become assertive you can:

  • Use 'I' statements. Using "I" statements lets others know what you're thinking without sounding accusatory. For instance, say, "I disagree," rather than, "You're wrong."
  • Practice saying no. If you have a hard time turning down requests, try saying, "No, I can't do that now." Don't hesitate — be direct. If an explanation is appropriate, keep it brief.
  • Make clear, assertive requests. An assertive request is straightforward and doesn’t disrespect the other person. This is in contrast to passive-aggressive requests, which are asked in a roundabout way, adding in backhanded jabs that are easy to deny. If it’s challenging to make assertive requests, rehearse what you want to say. It may help to write it out first so you can practice from a script. Consider role-playing with a friend or colleague and ask for blunt feedback.
  • Use body language. Communication isn't just verbal. Act confident even if you don’t feel that way. Keep an upright posture, but lean forward a bit. Make regular eye contact. Maintain a neutral or positive facial expression.
  • Keep emotions in check. Conflict is hard for most people. The biggest obstacle to assertive communication is the belief that anger is bad and expressing it in an assertive way is inappropriate and undesired. Although feeling angry or frustrated is normal, it can get in the way of resolving conflict. If you feel too emotional going into a situation, wait a bit if possible. Then work on remaining calm. Breathe slowly. Keep your voice even and firm.
  • Be a good listener and validate the other person’s feelings. Being a good listener includes maintaining a respectful and open attitude and body posture while listening to the other person’s feelings and restating their words to show you understand, even if you disagree. You also maintain eye contact and manage your own emotions and thoughts, so you can put aside any personal agenda, reactions, defenses, or explanations.
  • Be collaborative. Being assertive also means working together and looking for ways to achieve a situation where both people are happy.
  • Start small. At first, practice your new skills in situations that are low risk. For instance, try out your assertiveness on a partner or friend before tackling a difficult situation at work. Evaluate yourself afterward and tweak your approach as necessary.

When You Need Help Being Assertive

Remember, learning to be assertive takes time and practice. If you've spent years silencing yourself, becoming more assertive probably won't happen overnight. Or if anger leads you to be too aggressive, you may need to learn some anger management techniques.

If despite your best efforts you're not making progress toward becoming more assertive, consider reaching out for additional support from:

Adapted from the following: