Assertive Communication and Stress

Laura Aylward, PhD; Post-Doctoral Fellow at West Virginia University School of Medicine

There are many strategies to manage stress. But have you ever considered how your communication style impacts your ability to manage stress? The following outlines the different communication methods and how assertive communication may help in your stress management.

What are the Types of Communication?

Communication can be labeled in three ways, well really four ways—passive, assertive, and aggressive are the main three. The fourth is a combination of both ends of the spectrum: passive-aggressive.

What is Passive Communication?

Passive communication is characterized by not making your wants and needs clear, and it’s usually at the expense of someone else’s wants and needs. This may look like agreeing to pick up a friend from the airport when you usually exercise, finishing a report on a Sunday when you would normally try to “unplug,” or saying you have no preference about what’s for dinner when in fact you’ve been craving pizza.

What is Aggressive Communication?

Aggressive communication does express your wants or needs—which sounds good—but, it’s without respecting the wants or needs of others. Typically, aggressive communication can be detected by not only the words someone says, but also in someone’s tone, volume, and body language.

What is Assertive Communication?

Assertive communication is the sweet spot in the middle of the two. Assertive communication is a way of speaking that clearly states your wants and needs while maintaining respect for yourself and the person you’re speaking to.

How Can Assertive Communication Help You Manage Stress?

Stress, from a cognitive perspective, is perceiving that the demands are greater than the resources. Said another way, stress occurs when you feel unable to cope with what’s going on.

While it may be true that some aspects of the situation may be out of your control, it is important to maximize the things that are in your control.

What you say and how you say it, ultimately, are in your control. Saying no, turning down attending a social gathering, and saying what restaurant you want to go to are all ways of expressing your authentic wants and needs.

Knowing what you want and need and acting in a manner consistent with those preferences leads people to be more satisfied and eliminates extra strain, anger, stress, and anguish.

Ultimately, assertive communication is boundary setting, self-advocacy, and self-respect.

How Do You Become More Assertive?

There are many barriers that prevent people from saying what they mean. Sometimes it’s just a skill that people have not learned or have not thought about changing in their life. Here are some ideas to help you become more assertive:

  1. Assess your current communication style. In order to know what and how to change, you’ll have to know where you’re starting from. Are you passive, aggressive, passive-aggressive, or already assertive sometimes?
  2. Identify your “why.” As with any change, identifying the reason you are interested in changing can serve as a compass, continuing to navigate you when you need an extra boost in motivation. Change can be difficult, but having a purpose for the change makes you more likely to be successful in meeting your goal.
  3. Learn what assertiveness looks and sounds like. Can you think of anyone you know that’s really good at being assertive? If so, how do they respond to similar situations? Having a real-life example is helpful for learning and remembering that this skill is attainable. Other ways to study up on assertiveness will be described at the end.
  4. Start practicing, however that looks. You can memorize the definition of assertiveness all you want, but experience is what will really help you best the in the moment. Practice being assertive with your friend, your partner, your pet, or your mirror—no judgement! Practicing the words out loud will help overcome discomfort that comes with doing something new. Start simple, with situations where the stakes are low—that way, if you mess up, it’s alright! Try again. You can work your way up to saying “no” to your mother-in-law….
  5. Celebrate the small victories and slowly incorporate assertiveness into your daily life. At first, changing your communication will take conscious, intentional effort. Recognize when you nail it and acknowledge your success! Discouragement is a major thing that derails people from meeting their goals. Think of learning assertiveness as the adult equivalent of learning to ride a bike. If you saw an 8-year-old learning how to ride a bike on your street, celebrating balancing for 10 seconds straight for the first time, you wouldn’t criticism them because they’re still using the training wheels! Be kind to yourself, congratulate yourself as you go, and eventually this new skill will become a habit.

For more information, check out list free self-help resource:



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