Communication is a key skill used in every aspect of our lives—from personal relationships, to working environments, to social media and more. Though assertive communication is preferable when speaking with others, some people have a tendency to be more aggressive when communicating (intentional or not) which can then have a negative consequences—for both themselves and others.
What is assertive communication?
Assertive communication is expressing yourself clearly while respecting others’ rights, wishes, opinions, and feelings; not making demands of others; standing up for yourself without upsetting others; being direct, honest, and considerate.
What is aggressive communication?
Aggressive communication, on the other hand, is telling rather than asking; being critical and disrespectful of others; guilt-tripping; disregarding the needs and wants of others; invading others’ personal space without permission; self-righteousness; yelling or raising your voice to get your point across; manipulating, humiliating, and intimidating others; physical, forceful, and hostile behaviour.
If you feel you relate more to the second description, it’s highly likely you have an aggressive communication style. There are many reasons that have led to you acting this way; stress, learned behaviour, negative self-worth, poor listening skills, and being more focused on getting your opinion across and needs met than considering those of the people around you are all factors that contribute to developing this communication style.
Unfortunately, an aggressive communication style can greatly diminish your social circle and negatively impact your relationship—people learn to avoid those who tend to disrespect, insult, or speak over them. Also, though aggressive communication may stem from stress, it also leads to high stress as a result of frequent conflicts. Being assertive, on the other hand, is linked to higher self-worth, better decision making-skills, less stress, stronger relationships, and overall greater wellbeing.
Tips For Being More Assertive
Luckily, assertiveness is a skill that can be learned! It is not something that will magically happen overnight, though—it takes practice. But following the five steps below can help you alter your aggressive communication to a more assertive style.
1. Put yourself in their shoes
Empathy and understanding are key to assertive communication. Understanding someone else’s point of view not only makes it more clear why they are reacting the way they are or saying what they are saying, but it also will help you react in a less aggressive manner as you will not feel so intensely against them. Just because you would not react this way, does not mean that another can’t—their response is just as valid as yours. Next time, try asking yourself, “why is this person reacting to the situation in this way?”, “Why would they have this opposing opinion?”, “What are they seeing about this issue that I am not?”, and watch how your go-to aggressive comments fade and become more assertive and understanding.
2. Rephrasing your comments to be more considerate
Honesty is still crucial in effective communication, but it’s a matter of being mindful of how you say something. It is possible to be considerate while still getting your point across. For example, if you don’t agree with a point someone has made, instead of calling someone “an idiot” or saying their idea is “nonsense”, instead you should say “I don’t agree with that. Actually, I think…” and then explain your viewpoint on the subject. This opens a conversation where everyone can freely and safely express their opinion, without the fear of being shut down or shamed for it.
3. Use ‘I’ statements
This is connected to the point above. By rephrasing your comments as “I” statements, you are still expressing your opinions or feelings on the subject, but they will come across as less hostile as they express a subjective element. Though you may be inclined to say, “You’re such a fool, why did you do it like that?” when someone messes up, saying “I think this would be a better way to do it” lessens the harshness of your statement by removing the blame factor. You are still getting your point across and expressing yourself, but the assertiveness of an “I” statement will ensure others listen and respond more effectively to your reasoning and will keep the conversation going.
4. Avoid interrupting others when they’re speaking
This will be difficult at first—it could be a habit that is so built into your communication style that you probably don’t even notice it when it happens! To limit your interruptions, you should allow the other person to finish speaking before you start with your own point—but make sure to actually listen to what they are saying, and not just wait for your time to speak! You should then pause and count to two after you think they are finished to ensure they actually are before you begin your reply. If you do end up interrupting, but catch yourself doing so, simply apologise and ask them to continue with what they were saying. There will be times at the start where you may find yourself reverting to your old habit but keeping this idea of letting others finish first in the back of your mind when conversing will greatly help you build this skill.
5. Remain calm
Some conversations can be frustrating to everyone! Not everyone you speak to will also be assertive—they can range from passive to aggressive, which may be a trigger for your own aggression. If you feel aggression building up inside you, take a moment to calm yourself down. This could be deep breathing, counting to 10, repeating a calming phrase, whatever works for you! Take a moment to ground yourself and focus back in on the purpose of the conversation. If you feel you are being disrespected, not listened to, or are just simply frustrated, then feel free to assert that you don’t like the way this conversation is taking place and suggest returning to it at a later point. Recognising situations that trigger your aggressive tendencies is essential as it will allow you to be more prepared to work harder at staying assertive when they arise.
If you find it difficult to manage your aggression and you feel that it is really affecting your personal relationships or working life, there is no shame in reaching out for help—many counselling services here in Limerick offer one-to-one counselling sessions to help you develop skills to manage your aggression.
Written by Nicole Russell, a volunteer with the Limerick Mental Health Association and psychology graduate of the University of Limerick.