What is assertiveness?

Assertiveness is a communication style that is clear and firm in intent, but also respectful. It enables people to communicate honestly but appropriately, to stand up for their own rights and feelings without trespassing on those of others. Less helpful communication styles are often used inappropriately in place of assertiveness. You may recognise yourself or others using the following communication styles in response to problems:


Aggression is a communication style that is intimidating, forceful and inconsiderate of others’ feelings, rights or needs. It often involves shouting, rudeness or abuse. It may seem effective as it often leads to the desired outcome.

The problem with aggression is that it can be harmful to others, is often seen as bullying and it does not lead to respect or affection from them.

Some times aggression is used when trying to be assertive, anger should not be misunderstood as being assertive. Click here to read more about ‘The Benefits of Anger Management Skills


Passive communication is submissive and avoidant of conflict. It often involves giving in to unreasonable demands from others, avoiding behaviours that may not please others and holding back even mildly controversial opinions.

The problem with passivity is that it ultimately leaves a person’s own rights and needs unaddressed, as they fail to communicate enough information to others for action to be taken to assist them.

Passive-aggressive communication

Passive-aggressive communication is delivered in a pleasant way, but with an overtone of aggression. It is a method of failing to comply with others without directly confronting or addressing the issue at hand. It can involve undermining others or ‘accidentally’ harming another person. An example may be a person feigning an illness in order to avoid seeing a friend who is causing them distress.

The problem with passive-aggressive communication is that it is challenging to respond to – the intent is aggressive but the tone and language are passive. The person it is directed to may have a general feeling that something is wrong but not understand how they can rectify the situation.

Developing assertiveness skills

If you recognise that you are relying on some of these less helpful communication styles, it may be useful to explore any beliefs or experiences that may have contributed to your failure to develop assertiveness skills. Some people believe that they do not have the right to feel or express certain feelings. If you recognise that you hold such beliefs, work on treating yourself kindly, and giving yourself permission to feel and communicate your experiences to others.

When communicating feelings it is important to use ‘I’ statements, but avoid blaming others for the way you feel. Using confident body language is also important, rather than appearing aggressive or passive. This involves making direct eye contact, having an open and relaxed posture and an even tone of voice.

The following is a useful sentence structure to use when first learning how to communicate more assertively:

“When you —

[insert action] — I feel — [insert feeling] — because — [insert your interpretation of the action]. I know that you probably feel — [acknowledge their perspective] —, however, what I would prefer you do in the future is — [offer suggestion that better meets the needs of both people]”

It is then important to listen to people’s responses to you, let them know that you have heard them, and ask questions for clarification.

Being assertive enables the development of trust and equality in relationships. It enables you to ask for help when you need it and it allows those who care about you to assist you in more useful ways, which assists in building healthy relationships.

Finding assistance

If you live in the Canberra region and feel that you may benefit from further assertiveness skills training, you can contact Strategic Psychology to arrange to see one of our psychologists. We can assist you in identifying the issues that are causing and maintaining your difficulties and recommend strategies that draw on your strengths and passions in order to achieve optimal social, emotional and academic functioning.

No referral is required in order to see one of our psychologists, however, you can contact your GP for a referral under Medicare (if eligible) to receive a rebate on services provided.


RMIT University Counselling Service. (2015). Assertive communication. Retrieved from the RMIT University Counselling Service Website: http://mams.rmit.edu.au/owx2c90pize9.pdf