How to Practice Assertive Listening

“Let a fool hold his tongue and he will pass for a sage.” – Publilius Syrus

Most people have heard about the importance of being assertive in social contexts.  Generally, one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking about “being assertive” involves getting one’s own needs met in a respectful, yet proactive way. Being assertive does not mean being aggressive or overbearing. For people who struggle to see themselves as someone who is domineering in this way, it can be difficult to take on an assertive stance in interpersonal interactions.  It is important to remember that assertiveness involves a delicate balance between asserting your own needs while still being respectful of the needs of other people.

Sometimes, the other person has pressing needs, wants, or concerns that will overshadow you being able to clearly state your own needs first.  When you believe that the person you are conversing with is distracted by their own needs or wants in this way, this is an opportunity to practice assertive listening.  When you engage in this form of active listening, you are temporarily setting aside your own needs, feelings, and position in order to fully take in the experience of the other person.  Keep in mind that making the choice to do this generally results in you getting your own needs met in the end more effectively.  People want to feel heard and that their experience is understood before they are willing to meet your needs.

Davis and colleagues (2008) explain that when you begin to practice being assertive with others, “you will find that sometimes you need to deal with an issue that is important to the other person before he or she will be able to focus on what you have to say.  This is especially true when what you want directly conflicts with long unspoken and unmet needs of the listener.”

Assertive Listening

When you practice assertive listening, mindfully direct your attention on the other person such that you can accurately hear their feelings, opinions, and desires.  Try the following three steps when you practice assertive listening:

(1) Prepare

Get yourself physically, mentally, and emotionally “ready” to listen to the other person.  Make sure that you will not be distracted unnecessarily by your own needs while you mindfully focus your full attention on the other person.  People can usually tell when the other person is not truly present and listening.  If your focus is scattered and you are not truly listening, this may cause additional problems.

After you are sure that you are ready to listen, make sure that they are ready to share their experience.  Don’t assume that the other person is ready at any given moment to engage with you simply because you are ready. Part of assertive listening involves attending to the needs of yourself (the listener) and the other person (the speaker) in a thoughtful, considerate, and mindful way.  Check in with the other person in a kind way – “I feel as if there might be something on your mind that you’d like to discuss.  When you are ready to talk about it, please let me know.”

(2) Listen & Clarify

When you are listening assertively and actively, you are tuned in to the present moment.  Give your full attention to the other person by really listening to their concerns, wants, and perspective.  Temporarily set aside your own point of view and really empathize with their perspective in this moment.  Imagine what it might feel like for them to have these concerns, thoughts, and emotions.  Allow yourself to temporarily suspend judgment about the “validity” of their concerns and just listen.

If you are uncertain in any way about what you are hearing, ask them.  People generally appreciate it when others ask them about their experience, especially when those questions come from a genuine place of wanting to understand and “get it right.”  If you’re unsure, asking them to clarify might be as simple as, “I’m not quite sure I understand how you view this situation.  Could you say more about it?”

(3) Acknowledge

Once you are sure that you have listened to the other person’s perspective, opinions, and emotions, acknowledge this to them.  Actively communicate to the other person that you have taken in and understood their concerns. Continue to set aside your own judgments and avoid becoming entrenched in your position.  Validate their experience without jumping in and trying to “fix” anything… “I heard you say that you are feeling really overwhelmed at work.”

It can provide a surprisingly powerful relief for many people to simply have their experience acknowledged and validated in this way.  Many people struggle with overwhelming urges to jump in and “fix” problems, especially when they affect people they love.  Resist this urge and recognize that often times, the best way to express concern and provide support for other people is simply take in what they have said and validate their internal experience.

What is your typical style of listening to others?  Do you find yourself formulating what your next comments are going to be in your mind rather than truly listening?  Try not to blame yourself if you do this, and recognize that each moment provides you with an opportunity to practice a new way of interacting with others.  Notice the next time you are in a situation where:

  • The other person seems to have something important to say
  • You have a strong urge to interrupt or state your point of view
  • You are distracted by your own thoughts, emotions, and needs
  • You feel disconnected from the other person and that you do not fully understand him/her

When you notice yourself in one of these situations, make the choice to practice assertive listening.  Take a step back from the situation and check to see if you and the other person are ready to engage in conversation.  Actively and assertively listen to the other person and check in with them about any potential misunderstandings.  When you feel that you have truly listened to and understood what they have to say, reflect their experience back to them and let them know that you understand.  Notice the difference that assertive listening has on your relationships and interactions with others.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Davis, M., Eshelman, E.R., & McKay, M. (2008). The relaxation and stress reduction workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Funny Lass by Tomi Tapio / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.

What's On Your Mind?