The Importance of Developing Assertiveness for Professional Success

Communication styles refer to the way in which we manage and communicate our feelings to others both verbally and non-verbally (i.e. through our body language and actions). The styles that we use can have a big impact on both our professional and personal relationships. In our professional lives, much of the success that we achieve will be partially determined by how effective we are as communicators.

The ability to create and maintain strong, supportive and respectful relationships through communication is imperative for professional success and effective leadership, regardless of your chosen career. We can have talent, skill and knowledge in our chosen field, but if we are unable to effectively communicate with others such as our team members, colleagues and customers we are more than likely going to struggle if we want to advance our careers or achieve more professional success.

If you find that your communication with others often breaks down and/or results in miscommunication or conflict, then your communication style could be playing a large role in this.

There are 4 main communication styles including: 1) aggressive 2) passive-aggressive 3) passive and 4) assertive. Although we can dip in and out of different communication styles depending on who we are talking to, we tend to use one to two communication styles more often than the others.

Passive Communication

Passiveness is a communication style that we use in order to avoid conflict or confrontation in an attempt to keep ourselves safe and maintain our relationships.

Some signs of a passive communication style include:

  • Tendency to avoid expressing your true feelings and needs to others, especially if you think the other person will react negatively
  • Prioritizing others’ needs and feelings ahead of your own, even if it comes at a cost to your own feelings or needs
  • Feelings of guilt and shame for saying “no”
  • Feelings of guilt and/or fear when putting in boundaries or prioritizing own needs.
  • Tendency to not react or respond openly to hurtful or anger-inducing situations
  • If a conflict arise, tendency to take responsibility for the other person’s feelings and reactions
  • Tends to apologise often, even when they haven’t done anything wrong
  • Avoids expressing anger outwardly and instead turns anger inward toward self with strong self-attacking criticism.

Passive communication is a safety strategy that we use in our relationships to keep us safe. We usually develop this method of communication in relationships where we feel unsafe, unheard or unimportant. We may feel that we need to maintain the relationships (and so we avoid conflict by being passive) if we are dependent on the other person for certain needs.

Being passive may keep us safe in relationships in the short term as we avoid the feared conflict or confrontation. However, in the long term using this type of communication can have so many negative effects on the person using it as their feelings and needs become lost under the weight of pleasing everyone around them. Being passive creates an I Lose – You Win Situation because your opinions are never expressed and therefore never heard, your needs are never stated and therefore never met and your wants are never voiced and therefore never considered.

Passive-Aggressive Communication

Passive-aggressiveness is a communication style that we use to indirectly express our anger. We use this type of communication as a safety strategy if we don’t feel comfortable enough to express our anger or hurt directly. The purpose of using this type of communication is to express anger, without being vulnerable, in order to protect ourselves from any further hurt.

A passive-aggressive communication style can look like…

  • Denying feelings – “I’m not mad..”
  • Sulking inside but faking resolution on the outside
  • Using silent treatment
  • Disguising criticism as a joke or a compliment
  • Withholding important information
  • Deliberate procrastination in response to others’ requests
  • Intentionally making mistakes in response to others’ requests
  • Keeping score or holding grudges
  • Ignoring others or intentionally leaving others out

This type of communication can be very unhelpful within both personal and professional relationships. The person on the receiving end of the passive aggressiveness is often left feeling confused and hurt. Due to the hidden and indirect nature of the anger directed towards them, they are unable to address the anger with the person directly. If the anger is not addressed it can fester and build up in the person who is using the passive aggressive behaviour without an opportunity for it to be resolved. This is not helpful for either person in the relationship. Using passive-aggressiveness creates an I Lose – You Lose situation as your feelings and needs are not expressed directly and therefore cannot be addressed and the other person’s feelings are not being considered or valued as you are essentially punishing them without an opportunity for a repair to be made.

Aggressive Communication

Aggressiveness is the most obvious communication style. When we use this communication style, we always express our emotions and thoughts openly and directly, however, problems arise in HOW we express our emotions and thoughts. If we use this style, we often use intimidation and other unhelpful behaviours to get our needs met, often at the expense of others. We create an I Win- You Lose situation as we may believe that the only way to get our needs met is through power and control. An aggressive communication style can cause a lot of damage to your relationships with others as there is no room for the other person’s needs, feelings, opinion or rights. In the short-term, using this style, you may achieve what you want, however, it may be followed by feelings of guilt and regret due to the damage caused to relationships.

Aggressive communication style looks like:

  • We can find it hard to agree with other people
  • We want to win arguments at all costs
  • We can explode verbally in a confrontation or conflict
  • We tend to interrupt people a lot when they talk
  • We often deny or invalidate the rights/feelings/opinions of others
  • We can lack consideration and empathy for others

Possible results of aggressive communication:

  • Conflict in relationships
  • Loss of self-respect
  • Loss of respect of others
  • Increased stress
  • Violence from other persons
  • Does not achieve desired results
  • Others often feel hurt or resentful

Assertive Communication

Assertive communication is a style of communication in which we express our thoughts, feelings and needs openly and honestly while also considering the rights, feelings and needs of others. Assertive communication allows you to stand up for yourself and set boundaries in a confident and calm way, while also respecting the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of others. When we are assertive, we get our point across firmly, fairly and with empathy while also listening to others point of view. We work together with the other person to find a solution and aim for a I Win- You Win situation as both people’s feelings and needs are considered.

Possible results of assertive communication include:

  • Helps to develop strong and respectful relationships
  • Often results in win-win situations
  • Increases self-esteem and confidence
  • Helps you to feel in control of yourself and situations
  • Increases job satisfaction
  • Increases work performance and productivity
  • Helps to create an open, trusting and respectful atmosphere in the workplace

A study conducted by Shilpee, Dasgupta, Suar & Singh (2013) found that employees, who had assertive managers, felt more supported, had higher levels of job satisfaction, were more productive, had reduced absenteeism, and had stronger emotional bonds and levels of commitment to the organisation they were working with than employees who had passive, passive-aggressive or aggressive managers.

It’s not always easy to become assertive, but it is possible. Assertiveness is a skill that can be learnt at any age. Even if you were not taught to be assertive growing up, it is possible to begin learning now. Learning to be assertive takes time and practice. Be compassionate with yourself as you begin to navigate this new way of communicating. All change takes time.

Tips for Practicing Assertiveness:

  1. Concisely state how you feel and what you need from the other person
  2. Listen carefully to their response
  3. Respect their thoughts and feelings, don’t argue or attack if you feel resistance
  4. Offer potential solutions to the problem
  5. If a compromise cannot be reached, be prepared to take a time-out to reflect


Shilpee A. Dasgupta, Damodar Suar, Seema Singh (2013), Impact of managerial communication styles on employees’ attitudes and behaviours, Employee Relations, 35(2), pp. 173 – 199.