Communicating assertively

Depression thrives on isolation, and often interferes with good communication. Assertiveness is about knowing what you feel and need, and making clear choices about when and how to communicate these.

Confident, clear communication

Assertiveness is about finding the right balance between meeting your own needs and dealing politely and sensitively with others. It is not about being pushy or selfish. Assertive communication can be distinguished from ‘passive’ communication on the one hand and ‘aggressive’ communication on the other.

Passive communication

Keeping your needs to yourself or hinting and hoping others will notice and take care of them; getting upset when others don’t notice; bottling up anger and other negative feelings; manipulating others through guilt, pity, ‘owing you’ etc.

Aggressive communication

Putting your own needs first at all times; being loud, pushy and bullying; intimidating others into doing things your way; not listening to other points of view; rarely expressing positive feelings; undermining others with sarcasm, ‘taking the piss’ etc.

Assertive communication

Checking out with yourself what you are feeling; giving clear messages about what you would like; speaking calmly; respecting other people’s opinions whilst expressing your own; having a relaxed posture and facial expression; knowing your limits and non-negotiables.

Steps towards assertiveness

The first step in becoming more assertive is to tune in to your feelings and become more emotionally literate (see ‘Acceptance & emotional literacy’). Once you are more in touch with your feelings you can start to notice areas where your communication might need to be improved. It can be helpful to make a list of some specific situations and to grade them in order of difficulty. Notice if there are any depressed thinking habits getting in the way.

Practise on your own

Assertive communication uses clear descriptions of situations followed by statements of what you feel or need in the “I…” form:

  • “This pair of shoes broke the first time I wore them. I would like a refund.”
  • “I haven”t been attending tutorials lately. I’d like to tell you a bit about what’s been going on for me and get some help with catching up.”

The statements are delivered in a calm and matter-of-fact way. No need to build up a head of steam, or to be over-placatory. Practise assertive communication about some of the situations on your list on your own. Write a few versions down then practise them in front of the mirror. Watch out for unnecessary pleading or manipulation in your voice.

Try it out!

Start with an experimental situation where the outcome doesn’t matter to you very much. Perhaps try in a shop or other relatively neutral place with people you don’t know. Ask a friend to come with you, or to help you practise first. Build up to trying out some of the more important things on your list.

Make a habit of it

Make a habit of thinking about what the assertive way to communicate something would be. Remember assertive communication includes choosing when and with whom you wish to communicate, and how much you want to say. Working it out ahead of time gives you confidence that you can keep things on your own terms. It’s especially important to be clear about situations where you need to be better at setting limits and saying No.

Find out more

Ask at your students union or counselling service to see if there are any assertiveness or communication sessions or groups. There are lots of good books on assertiveness which can give you more ideas and details.

Next: Building good relationships


Breaking isolation
Managing anxiety & anger
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