7.4 Assertive Communication

Learning Objectives

  1. Compare ways to assert yourself.
  2. Follow the six-step assertion process.

We have discussed assertive communication. In this chapter, we will examine specific techniques to practice and apply assertiveness.

Assertive Communication

A man and woman sit on a couch, face away from one another

When we communicate assertively, we are stating our interpersonal needs clearly and directly while respecting the other person’s needs in the relationship. There is a clear distinction between aggressive communication and assertive communication. While both types are focused on the self and one’s own needs, only assertive communication is also focused on the others’ needs.

Assertive communication is not easy. Balancing needs in relationships is not easy. However, if we learn to communicate assertively we are better able to meet the relational needs of both partners and strengthen our relationships. Below are strategies to help you build assertive communication skills.

Ways to Assert Yourself

I-Statements – Owning your Voice

A set of microphones with only one in focus of the camera

One way to effectively manage conflict is to own your story and your voice by using I-statements. Statements that directly express your thoughts, needs, feelings, and experiences to the people around you. I-statements allow us to take responsibility for our experiences and place the power of our lives in our hands.  I-statements look like this:

  • I feel…
  • I think…
  • I experienced it like this…
  • I want…
  • I need…

I-statements are contrasted with You-statements.  Statements that imply the other person is responsible for something.  You-statements typically blame the other person.  You statements look like this:

  • You made me feel…
  • You don’t care about me.
  • You never think about how that would impact us.
  • You didn’t…
I-Statements vs You-Statements
I think I am unappreciated. You don’t care about me.
I need some help. You are a freeloader and never help.
I felt angry… You made me feel….
It makes me sad to be left out. You never invite me out with your friends.

Watch out for those fake I-Statements that so regularly sneak into our conversations. “I feel you…” and “I think you…” are hidden You-Statements. They place blame on the other in the relationship and avoid responsibility for thoughts, feelings, and actions.

Asking Great Questions

A sign with the word ask on it

The key to asking really great questions is being a really great listener.  If you are listening, actively, you will recognize what information you are missing, or what you need clarification on.  Below is a look at some basic types of questions to understand and master.

There is a general distinction made between Open-Ended Questions, questions that likely require some thought and/or more than a yes/no answer, and Close-Ended Questions, questions that only require a  specific answer and/or a yes/no answer.  This is an important distinction to understand and remember.  In the context of managing conflict, open-ended questions are utilized for Information Gathering and close-ended questions are used for Clarifying concepts or ideas you have heard. Here are examples of these types of questions.

Use Clarifying Questions (closed questions)

  • Is this what you said…?
  • Did I hear you say…?
  • Did I understand you when you said…?
  • Did I hear you correctly when you said…?
  • Did I paraphrase what you said correctly?
  • So this took place on….?
  • So you would like to see…?

Use Information Gathering Questions (open questions)

  • If there was one small way that things could be better starting today, what would that be?
  • How did you feel when…?
  • How could you have handled it differently?
  • When did it began?
  • When did you first notice…?
  • When did that happen?
  • Where did it happen?
  • What was that all about?
  • What happened then?
  • What would you like to do about it?
  • I want to understand from your perspective, would you please tell me again?
  • What do you think would make this better going forward?
  • What criteria did you use to…?
  • What’s another way you might…?
  • What resources were used for the project?
  • Tell me more about… (not a question, but an open ended prompt)

A type of question to watch out for is Leading Questions, which provides a direction or answer for someone to agree or disagree with. An example would be, “So you are going to vote for____ for president, aren’t you?” or “What they did is unbelievable, don’t you agree?”  These questions can easily be turned into information gathering questions, “Who are you going to vote for this year?” or “What do you this about their behavior?”

Developing Assertive Messages

A row of doors on a blue background


One word that is often used for being assertive in our society today is to draw or hold our “boundaries”.  In a physical space, boundaries are easy to identify, such as a fence, stop signs, or a door. Boundaries in our social experiences are not as easy to identify but are just as real and important as physical boundaries. Fences and doors tell us where it is safe to go, and how to behave.  The same is true when we assert our social boundaries. You can think of them as the invisible fences or doors we draw in our lives. Asserting our social boundaries, tell those around us what is acceptable and what isn’t acceptable in our interaction, they are the guidelines and rules we provide people around us for how we want our relationship with them to look.

A basic act of being assertive is simply saying “no”.  Saying no without little white lies or justifying why you are saying no takes some practice.  Have you ever been invited out with friends but didn’t want to go?  Did you make something up? “I’m busy” when really you just don’t want to go out.  Being assertive at that moment looks like “I really appreciate the offer, and I hope you invite me in the future, but no, I just need some me time”.

Decreasing defensiveness

One of the ways we can decrease the possibility of the receiver becoming defensive and demonstrating supportiveness is to focus on describing our feelings rather than evaluating the people causing the problem we have.  When we describe our feelings, we begin by giving our relational partner insight into the specific emotion we are experiencing. Then, we tell them what specific behavior is causing us to feel the way we are. Then, we provide two possible reasons or interpretations of why they might be exhibiting the behavior we do not like. Finally, we conclude by explaining the consequence their behavior will have on our relationship if it continues. Throughout your communication of “I-Messages”, you must be sure you are helping your partner/friend/family member maintain their positive and negative face. We do not want to threaten either one during our interaction.

We can follow a simple 4-part formula.

Part One-Feeling: Clearly explain your feelings using the construction I  feel ___________.” This must be a feeling. Stating “I feel you are lazy” will not have the intended effect. Refer back to the emotion wheel in chapter 6.1 for actual emotions.

Part Two-Behavior: Describe the other person’s behavior using the  construction “…when you __________________.” This is not a blaming statement. “I feel angry when you are a jerk” is not helpful. The purpose of this part of the formula is to state an observation. This means what you actually observed with no judgment.

Part Three-Interpretations: Give TWO possible interpretations of why the  other person may have behaved the way they did. (maybe they don’t  realize what they are doing? maybe they are just tired? maybe they are  too focused on their own problems? Remember we like our positive and  negative faces to remain unthreatened.) Two interpretations is key so you  don’t appear as though you know what motivates another person. You  aren’t a mind reader so don’t pretend to be. Here is a possible  construction to use: “I’m not sure if you __________________ or  __________________________.”

Part Four-Consequences: When another person’s behavior starts to  negatively affect you, you might notice that the behavior of others does in  fact have consequences for you and your relationship. In this last part of  your “I-Message,” explain how their behavior is impacting you and how it  might change your relationship. Are you going to have to change the way  you interact with them or will you have to use protective strategies to  maintain your sanity? Use this construction to communicate the  consequences: “If this keeps happening, I might need to  ______________.” OR “I might have to start _____________ in order to feel  better about our relationship.” OR “I think I should ____________ from  now on.”

Consider this: Maybe you’ve asked your romantic partner to pick up their socks and yet they still leave their socks all over the house. You don’t want to be aggressive and yell at them but you are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated. We can use “I-Messages” during these times.

So, here is a possible 4-part “I-Message” for your relational partner who  can’t seem to get their socks in the hamper (or laundry basket).

I feel frustrated (part one – feeling) when I see your socks all over our room (part two – observed behavior). I’m not sure if you are tired or just think I  have time to pick them up (part three – interpretations). If this keeps happening I would like to you do your own laundry (part four – consequence).

A few considerations for assertive statements:

  • Focus on one behavior at a time.  If you have been more passive in your communications you might want to jump into drawing all the boundaries.  Pick one to start with and work from there
  • Describe the behavior you chose to focus on in a nonjudgmental way (easier than it sounds) with nonjudgmental language.  Example – “When you don’t pick up your crap” vs “When you leave dirty laundry in the bathroom”
  • Pick a very specific feeling and make sure it is actually a feeling – not a thought or judgment.
  • Watch out for a feeling statement that says “I feel you…” the feeling word should describe your feeling in this situation, not be about the other person Example- “I feel like you don’t care” (not a feeling) vs “I feel hurt” 
  • When you describe the consequences, be realistic about how someone’s behavior impacts you and what you think should be done. Don’t automatically suggest ending the relationship if that is not how you really feel. What would you like to see happen for your needs to be met?
  • Use this template for positive reinforcement of behavior you want to keep seeing.  When you pick up your dirty clothes, I feel less stressed, because I don’t have to take time to pick them up.

Framing and Reframing

A hangglider framed within a picture


Framing, in communication, is essentially the act of intentionally setting the stage for the conversation you want to have.  In framing a conversation you express why you want to engage in this topic, what your intent is, and what you hope the outcome can be for resolving the conflict,  as well as the impact/importance of your relationship.  When you frame a conversation, you take out the need for the other person to assume what your intentions and motives are or why you are bringing this topic up right now.

There are many ways to frame a conversation, here are a few ideas for how to frame a conversation effectively.

Ask about Timing

“I have been wanting to connect with you to discuss___.  Would now be a good time?”  (If the answer is no, take a minute to schedule a good time)

Share Why’s, Concerns, and Intentions

“This is important to me because…..”

“I’m bringing this up because I want us and this project to be successful and I’m concerned that we are missing something.”

“My intention is….”

“My intention is to share my thoughts with you, but I don’t have any expectations that you do anything with them.”

“I care about our relationships and want to make sure we are addressing challenges as they come up.” “I’m not sure how this will go.”

“I’m pretty stressed about this because I’m not sure how this conversation is going to go.”

“I have been thinking about this a lot and figured it was time to ask for help.”

Frame a Boundary

“I know this is important to you and I’m just too busy to go to that concert right now. “

“I can see this isn’t a good time to talk, so I’d like to set up a time that works better.”

“I already have too much on my plate.”

“I appreciate you thinking of me for this project. I’m currently working on X, which means, unfortunately, I can’t do both and have to say no to your request.”

Framing sets the stage for the rest of the conversation to unfold.  A little bit of framing goes a long way in helping conversations be more productive and helping to manage some of the conflicts that can happen when people have to make assumptions about “why” and conversation or conflict is happening.

For more ideas around framing, The Gottman Institute has a really great infographic that shares their version of framing, Harsh Start Ups vs Soft Start Ups.


Framing happens at the beginning of a conversation, reframing happens when things get off track and you need to bring a conversation back on topic. Consider this picture.

A mountainside and ocean framed within a picture

In the center of the picture is a Frame, that is only covering part of the ocean and cliff.  If we expanded that frame to surround the entire picture, that would be reframing.  Reframing, in a conversation, helps us see more of what is going on, helps us focus on the larger picture or our end goals, and helps defuse tense situations.  Reframing can be used for many things when managing conflict.

  • Defusing inflammatory language
  • Recasting negatives into neutral or positive statements
  • Refocusing attention
  • Acknowledging strong emotions in a productive manner
  • Translating communication so that it is more likely to be heard and acknowledged by other parties
  • Recontextualizing the dispute, providing a broader perspective
Reframing Examples 
Original Statement Reframed Statement
“You misinterpret everything.” “We must be misunderstanding each other.  Can you help me understand what you meant?”
“I am fed up with your negative response to everything that is proposed.” “I agree.  Let’s focus on finding a solution and move away from negativity.”
“Can we just keep talking about this one detail?” “If you are okay with it, can we make sure we have the big picture figured out before focusing on details? Maybe the details will become more clear then.”
“That seems really petty! Can you believe that keeps happening?” “That sounds irritating. What do you need to move past this moment and look for a solution.”

6 Step Assertion Process

Two people walking up steps

Imagine you know it’s time to draw a boundary with someone close to you, you’ve thought long and hard about what is important to you, you know what you want to say, So what do you do now?  Robert Bolton (1979), gives us a  process to follow when delivering our assertion.

1) Preparation
2) Delivering the Message
3) Silence
4) Active Listening
5) Recycle steps 2-4 (as necessary)
6) Focus on a Solution

Preparation – In the preparation stage you spend time, before you enter into a conversation with the other person, reflecting on what is important for you to convey, considering the contextual elements of the communication situation, developing your message, and preparing yourself for this process and active listening.

Deliver the Message – Share your assertive message.

Silence – Allow the other person time to process what you have just said.  Sometimes after we assert ourselves, we want to justify ourselves or jump in when there is silence because it can be awkward and uncomfortable.  Take a deep breath while they consider what you have just said, they may have not considered this topic before this very moment.

Active Listening – Once the person responds to your assertion, your job is to reflect back on what their response is.  This response could be defensive, it could be off track from your original topic, or they could shut down. Actively listening to the other person will likely be the last thing you want to do, so make sure to prepare for this part of the process as much as you can in the preparation step.

Recycle Steps 2-4 (as necessary) – You will likely have to reassert yourself, provide more silence, and actively listen a few times before you can move into the next step in the process.  This part of the process allows you and the other person to really understand each other and get on the same page.

Focus on A Solution – Often times in conflict we jump to this step without taking the time to go through steps 1-5. Only focus on a solution after you have understood the other person, they have understood you, and you are both ready and capable of focusing on a solution.

Key Takeaways

  1. Different methods of assertive communication will help you get your needs met in differing situations.
  2. Following an assertive format can help us to express our feelings, and ask for behaviors changes.
  3. The assertion process can help us prepare for successful assertive communication.



Making Conflict Suck Less: The Basics by ashleyorme is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.


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Exploring Relationship Dynamics Copyright © 2021 by Maricopa Community College District is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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