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  • Writer's pictureSarah Santiago

Assertive Communication: How to speak up when it feels hard

Do you struggle with speaking up? Is it hard for you to speak honestly and openly? Do you often find yourself nodding in agreement despite feeling completely different on the inside? If so, you may struggle with assertive communication skills.


Here's a quick overview of the four main communication styles:


Sarah Santiago, mental health counselor for college students in michigan breaks down the 4 communication styles to help college students communicate better and get their needs met.

Let's use the following example to further examine these communication styles:


Imagine that you are a customer at a restaurant. You have been craving the spaghetti all week and are so excited to finally order your favorite dish. You ask your server for the spaghetti, but without cheese (you HATE cheese by the way... at least for this example). Your server happily takes your order and then returns some time later with your meal... only they hand you a plate of spaghetti SMOTHERED in cheese.


Here's some examples of how you might respond using each of the 4 communication styles listed above:

  • Passive: You smile, thank your server and then either eat the dish despite hating cheese, or try to pick off the cheese and eat around it. You tell your server how great your meal was and never let them know about the issue. You leave a tip and smile at your server on the way out. What might be going on in your head: You might be thinking about how busy your server is and how you don't want to inconvenience them with letting them know your problem. You may worry that you will come off as rude if you say anything about your dish. You worry that your problems are not big enough, and you'd rather deal with it than risk making anyone else uncomfortable. The Problem: You are paying for a meal that you didn't order and are not enjoying. Your server's job is to ensure that your dining experience is as enjoyable as possible and they would probably be happy to try to fix the mistake. In the end, you have a bad meal, may not be looking forward to going back to that restaurant again, and your server has absolutely no idea that you had an unpleasant experience. If they took your order wrong, they have no feedback on how to avoid making that mistake again in the future.

  • Passive Aggressive: You smile, thank your server and then either eat the dish despite hating cheese, or try to pick off the cheese and eat around it. You tell your server how great your meal was and never let them know about the issue. You then don't leave a tip, and when you get home, you write a terrible review bashing both the server and restaurant online for others to see. What might be going on in your head: You are very unhappy but you don't feel comfortable enough speaking up and engaging in direct communication. You are uncomfortable with direct conflict. Maybe you've never felt safe speaking up but are fed up after not having your needs met for so long. The Problem: Essentially you're trying to give feedback without taking accountability for providing that feedback. In the end your needs are still not being met because your server was completely unaware of the issue until it was too late (when they or their supervisor read the review). Your server was never given the opportunity to fix the issue. Now both you and your server had an unpleasant experience and it ends in a lose-lose situation.

  • Assertive: You smile, thank your server for bringing your meal and then calmly say "I did order this spaghetti without cheese, would it be possible to have it remade the way I ordered it please?". Your server quickly realizes their mistake and apologizes. They ask the kitchen to remake your dish and a few minutes later you get it exactly the way you've been craving it all week. Your server then gives you a free slice of cake as an apology for the issue and thanks you for being such a great customer. You leave an appropriate tip. What might be going on in your head: You acknowledge how busy your server is and also know that you deserve a positive dining experience. You know that mistakes happen and believe that a solution is possible. The Problem: There's no problem here. You and your server are both happy at the end of this interaction. This was an effective form of communication.

  • Aggressive: You instantly realize the problem and become angry. You demand that your server gets the manager. You complain to the manager about the awful service and about how unsatisfied you are. You insist that your entire meal be free and threaten to leave a nasty review online. You don't leave a tip and storm out. What might be going on in your head: You feel flooded with emotions. You feel disrespected. You may have unrealistically high expectations of others. You might desire feeling powerful and in control. The Problem: Your server was never given any opportunity to meet your needs once they were made aware of the issue. Your demands are making people feel threatened, disrespected, and uncomfortable. In the end your needs may have been met, but at the expense of others.

Some of us are more naturally passive, some of us are more naturally aggressive. There are many reasons why we may have adopted the communication style that we do. Things like family of origin, socialization, societal expectations, and our trauma history can all shape our communication style. Everyone can benefit by striving to utilize assertive communication skills. If you are naturally more passive, using assertive communication can feel very aggressive at first. If you are naturally more aggressive, using assertive communication can feel very passive at first. In time and with practice, you can begin to feel comfortable using assertive communication skills. Change is possible.


The key to more effective communication and increasing the opportunity for your needs to be met is assertive communication. We are not responsible for what happened to us in the past that may have shaped our natural communication style, but we are responsible for making the changes necessary to improve our own communication skills moving forward.


Happy communicating!

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