6 Keys to Assertive Communication


6 Keys to Assertive CommunicationCommunication is so important that it can make or break a relationship, is critical to success, and instantly reflects your self-esteem to listeners – for better or for worse. Assertive communication commands respect, projects confidence, and inspires influence. It’s respectful, direct, honest, open, non-threatening and non-defensive. It’s not demanding, aggressive, or manipulative.

Communication is learned. With practice, you can learn to communicate assertively, which will raise your self-esteem and self-assurance and improve your relationships and professional performance. Research has established that even fetuses can learn to communicate with their mothers. To learn the keys to becoming assertive, discussed below. Remember the 6 C’s:

  1. Congruency
  2. Courtesy
  3. Conciseness
  4. Clarity
  5. Cognizance
  6. Claim yourself

Communication has many elements. You communicate with more than your words. You relay information with your entire body through:

  1. Gesture
  2. Eye contact, movement, moisture, expression, and focus
  3. Posture
  4. Physical appearance
  5. Voluntary and involuntary bodily movement, including muscular tension
  6. Facial expression
  7. Skin color (e.g. blushing) and perspiration
  8. Body smell

Additionally, your voice communicates through:

  1. Volume
  2. Pitch
  3. Cadence
  4. Tone and emphasis
  5. Fluidity
  6. Enunciation


What you don’t say, your body reveals. Customs agents are experts at reading body language to spot liars. Key to effective communication is authenticity, meaning honesty and congruence. Truthfulness is about facts. Honesty has more to do with intent and feelings. Say what you think or feel, and mean what you say. You probably assume you already do this, yet dishonesty is more common than you might guess. I’m not referring to overt lies, but about times you outwardly agree, but inwardly don’t. Some reasons are:

  1. You want to spare someone’s feelings;
  2. You want to avert conflict;
  3. You want to be liked and avoid judgment or criticism;
  4. You’re afraid of making a mistake;
  5. You don’t want to impose on or burden someone;
  6. You don’t want to jeopardize a relationship; or
  7. You don’t want to spend the time.

The last one is tricky. Imagine you’re at a party and someone asks you a personal question that you don’t want to get into then and there. You might avoid the question in many ways, including ignoring it and changing the subject, or walking away to get a drink. You might think the reason is number 7, but ask yourself why you wouldn’t directly say, “I prefer not to talk about that now (or here),” or “I don’t know you well enough to discuss that.” If you think the real answer is number 1, think again. The foregoing assertive communication answers are less hurtful than impolite behavior.

When your words don’t match your insides, you’re sending a mixed message. A common example is when you say you’re fine, but your body language reveals the truth that you’re unhappy. Or, the opposite – you smile while imparting a sad story. In either case, your listener is confused and doesn’t know how to respond and/or may not feel that he or she can trust you.


The purpose of assertive communication is to impart information and feelings, not to vent, avenge, or scold. If you’re discourteous to listeners, you’ll lose them. To be effective, you want to engage your listener. To do so, treat him or her with respect. Criticism that is constructive and delivered assertively is more likely to be heeded.


The impact of your speech is inversely related to its duration. Your impact wanes with words. Your listener will want you to cut to the chase and get to the point. When you beat around the bush, it belies insecurity and/or lack of knowledge. When you’re afraid for any of the reasons mentioned above regarding incongruence, you might be tempted to have a long introduction or disclaimer. Don’t. If you’re fearful, sort out the reasons why, practice what you’ll say out loud, and weigh the long-term repercussions of saying nothing or what you want.


Be direct. Don’t ask questions, give hints, or speak in the abstract. Instead of “Do you want to go to a movie?” which is ambiguous as to whether you want to go, state, “I’d like to see a movie tonight.” Make a clear statement of what you think, feel, need, or want. Most communication comes down to those four essentials. You can also explain why.


Cognizance of your audience is essential. You must hear in order to be heard. To be an effective communicator, listen with attention and respect to what others have to say. Genuine listening engages them and helps you attune your message so that others will be receptive. This is attentive, active listening. Paraphrasing and repeating what was said to you will show them that you care and are interested. In turn, they’ll be more receptive when they believe they matter to you.

Timing is critical. Don’t start an important conversation in the car, or when he or she is watching TV, is on the computer, or otherwise occupied, without his or her permission. You’re being discourteous and interrupting their attention. You’ll be disappointed and are setting yourself up for an argument.

Claim Yourself

This is the hardest element. You must take responsibility for your opinions, thoughts, feelings, and needs. That means you don’t blame or talk about the other person. Don’t tell them what they should do, or what some expert said. Use “I” messages and claim what you think and feel. That doesn’t mean to say, “I think you’re inconsiderate,” which labels and judges their behavior, without revealing how you feel or how it affects you. Applying all these rules, you might say, “I feel disregarded (or “unimportant” or “angry”) when you don’t return my calls,” or “I don’t like it when you …”

When you state your feelings or take a position, others don’t feel as great a need to defend and justify themselves, because you are only talking about yourself. This is particularly difficult to do when you’re emotional. It’s better to wait and think about what you feel and what outcome or behavioral changes you want before having the conversation. Consider your bottom line.

Learning assertive communication so that it comes naturally can take years of practice, but it is empowering and worth starting now. The sooner you start, the sooner you’ll begin raising your self-esteem. For more on assertiveness and setting boundaries, get my webinar, How to Be Assertive or ebook, How to Speak Your Mind – Become Assertive and Set Limits.

© Darlene Lancer, JD MFT 2011

6 Keys to Assertive Communication by Darlene Lancer, MFT, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Santa Monica, CA, and author of Codependency for Dummies

Share with friends
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
5 years ago

Seeing stuff like this.. it’s good.. but I guess it means I’m screwed when it comes to communication because I’m hearing impaired. severely to profoundly. Doesn’t matter how much or how hard I’ve worked to understand communication and read lips.. and watch body language, gestures, etc. .. kind of makes me sad. Means I have to keep putting up with stonewalling from other people and their perceptions of me if they know I’m hearing impaired. Doesn’t matter that I am a nurse, speak, read and write Spanish. Used to love people. Means that I’ll be forever taken advantage of by men. Doesn’t matter that I say no to sexual advances, etc.

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
5 years ago
Reply to  Alisa

There is no reason to be taken advantage of if you set boundaries. Read my blogs on boundaries. Hearing impairment does present extra challenges. Some “stonewalling” might be that people don’t know how to sign or communicate with you. You may have to risk rejection to find out.

John Thorne
John Thorne
5 years ago

Excellent article as it is well-written. This would be very helpful. Great thanks.

6 years ago

This whole website is Godsend. It’s like you’ve just described everything wrong with the relationships in life

6 years ago

“Research has established that even fetuses can learn to communicate with their mothers.”

I’d love to see some reference to that research. Sounds pretty fantastic…

Darlene Lancer, LMFT
6 years ago
Reply to  hmijail

There are many studies you can look up on Google Scholar regarding fetal synchrony and learning. Fetal communication devices are available for purchase – particularly useful when a surrogate is carrying a child for a couple.

Recent Posts


To get your Free “14 Tips,” please provide your name and email to join my mailing list and monthly blog.

Check your spam folder, and email me if you don’t get an email confirmation. (See our Website and Privacy Policies)