Hot-air Baloon

Assertive Communication Skills
To Create Understanding and Intimacy

Tom G. Stevens PhD
Psychologist/Professor Emeritus, California State University, Long Beach
Send Feedback/Questions to:
You Can Choose To Be Happy:
Site dedicated to enhancing human happiness, self-development, and success
SITE MAP: All free Self-help resources includes online book, You Can Choose To Be Happy, and SHAQ

Photo of Dr Tom and Sherry Stevens
search index brief sitemap advanced site search
search engine by freefind

From You Can Choose To Be Happy,  Tom G. Stevens PhD
Go to book contents  Go to Dr. Stevens' home page

Appendix E:

Assertive Communication Skills
To Create Understanding and Intimacy

      The process of resolving a disagreement or mutual problem involves a number of specific interpersonal skills. My wife Sherry and I developed the Stevens Relationship Questionnaire (SRQ) and found high correlations (greater than 0.70) between both the Assertive Conflict Resolution scale and the Intimacy scale and the Locke-Wallace Marital Satisfaction scale (Sherry Stevens,1988). The SRQ is now part of SHAQ (free on my website). The SHAQ research results further support the recommendations below. This Appendix provides more detail for the intimacy skills and assertive communication skills discussed in Chapter 6. For more detail, go to my website,


==> For a more thorough description of Assertive Communication Skills, go to

==> For a more thorough description of intimacy and relationship skills and issues, go to



I incorporated the SRQ (above) as part of  SHAQ (the Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire) and added several other scales that measure factors related to relationship success.  We have a great deal of research evidence now (see Stevens, 2009)  linking these factors to relationship success. 

==> A great place to start understanding your own relationships strengths and needs is to complete SHAQ at



A List of Some Key Assertive Communication Skills


SKILL 2: ASSERTIVE REQUEST (ERPG)--Diplomatically requesting change




SKILL 6: DEALING WITH AGGRESSION AND MANIPULATION--What if your partner uses negative labels or attacks you?  



      Before stating your position, use the following guidelines.

1. Recognize the problem as a mutual problem. Since the issue is upsetting you, it is your problem (no matter what your partner did to cause the problem). If you ask or state what you can do to change/help the problem before asking your partner to change, you can induce a cooperative situation putting pressure on your partner to match your caring, understanding, cooperative behavior.

2. Clarify what you want from the interaction before approaching your partner. Suggested goals include win-win outcomes, keeping the discussion on a calm, caring/loving level versus an emotional, negative one.  Also, a goal can be to learn specifically what positive behaviors you want from each other.



      Whatever you want is usually best stated as a request or favor—even if you think they owe it to you. Here, ”partner” can be a clerk or spouse.

ERPG is E-Empathy; R-Respect; P-Problem; G-Goal

Step 1--State EMPATHETIC understanding of partner's position (E). What are your partner's feelings and thoughts related to this issue? Possibly start by asking your partner to explain his/her feelings and thoughts about the issue. State your most empathetic understanding of their thoughts and especially their feelings.

Step 2--Explicitly state RESPECT and caring of partner and partner's feelings and acknowledge positive aspects of partner's position (R). "I care about your feelings,” “I appreciate…,” “I respect you for…,” “I want you to be happy…”

Step 3--State the PROBLEM (P): Be specific, state exactly how their behavior affects you, your thoughts, and your feelings. Use neutral, descriptive words. No negative labels about yourself or partner--avoid all zingers, attacks, cynicism, and exaggerations! Describe events step-by-step in an understanding manner.

      Own the problem, state it as your problem. After all, you are the one who is upset about it right now and want a change. Use "I feel...," "I think...," "I want..." statements to take responsibility for your own feelings and thoughts.

Step 4-State the GOAL (G)--what ideal/minimal actions do you want from your partner. How is that different from what your partner has been doing or wants?

      Give as much freedom and choice to your partner in how or what they do to help as possible. Ask them for help and/or suggestions of how they can help and try to choose options that they are motivated to actually do--even if it means significant compromises. Ask for their help—enlist helper motives.

Step 5-Follow up with listening, persistence, and other assertive skills.

èFor more help, see the more detailed guide, How to Make an Assertive Request, go to:



   First, think through all the steps and mentally rehearse what you will say and how you would respond to things your friend might say (Step 1). Then you say, “You seem to be upset with me because you don’t think that I have given you enough time lately. Is that right? [listen and respond] (Step 2). You are a good friend and I care about your feelings very much (Step 3). However, I feel pressure from your expectation that we contact each other several times/week.  I am very busy, and give you all the time that I feel I can afford. I would like for us to sit down and define some guidelines that can help us both feel better about this situation (Step 4). [Then do it together, and follow the guidelines (Step 5).]



      This set of skills is appropriate for all listening situations. They include when your partner is upset with you, criticizes you, comes to you for help, or just recounts daily events. If this exploration process is stopped prematurely, then the underlying issues may never get explored and resolved. Warning: Premature agreeing, disagreeing, offering solutions, or presenting another point-of-view can abruptly stop this necessary exploration. The five steps follow.[39]

Step 1--Identify your partner's emotions. Use your partner's body language, statements, and your own feelings to identify your partner's emotions. Ask yourself:

a. Is the emotion positive or negative?

b. What is the general type of emotion? Negative emotions include anxiety/ confusion, guilt, anger, or depression. Positive emotions include love, joy, relaxed, happy, or excited.

c. Intensity of the feeling? Extreme, strong, moderate, mild, or extremely mild?

d. Find an appropriate word or phrase to describe the feeling.

It is usually better to choose a feeling expression that is too mild rather than too strong. Example: moderate anger = NOT, "you're really angry" or “you’re out of control”  INSTEAD "you're feeling resentful..." or “pretty upset”.

If conflicting feelings have been expressed, state both: Example: "On the one hand you feel (feeling) because (content), on the other hand you feel..."

If you are confused about what your partner said, interrupt them and tell them you are confused.

If they are talking "nonstop," frequently break in and state your empathetic summary. Say something like, "Let me see if I'm following you so far..."

Step 2--Mentally summarize content (your partner's main points)

Use words they would use or agree with. If you state your response to their position, then your partner will likely feel not understood and may argue and/or stop exploring the problem. Try to get their approval that you understand their position. Example: NOT: "You're saying that you were really selfish about how you spent our money." INSTEAD: "You're saying that you spent the money on purchases that you thought were important."

Step 3-State your empathetic response to your partner

Formula: "You feel (feeling), because (summary of content/causes)."

Example: "You feel hurt because you think I was inconsiderate."

Step 4--Use their feedback to correct your response if necessary.

      Positive feedback-your partner keeps exploring the problem: If your partner continues elaborating, then your empathetic response was accurate.

Negative feedback-your partner STOPS exploring the problem: If your partner corrects you, but continues, that is OK too. However, if your partner argues with you about your interpretation or stops exploring the problem constructively, then assume that you didn’t state your partner's point-of-view adequately. Even if you believe your partner is being dishonest, you can still say, "I hear you saying that you feel..." (If you think your partner is not being open or truthful, tell them what you think later when it’s your turn to respond.)

Examples of using the empathetic listening technique. Note: feeling words are in bold, the content summary is underlined.

"You seem very upset with me about my being late."

"Are you saying that you are often confused because you didn't think that I told you clearly what I want?"

"On the one hand you feel very sad about her leaving, but on the other you also feel very relieved."

"You seem to be saying that you feel guilty about what you just said to me."

Step 5--Continue making empathetic responses throughout the entire discussion--especially if someone gets upset, confused, or needs time to think.

Even more useful is the general rule that if you don't know what else to say, make an empathetic response to your partner.  When you are too confused or upset yourself you can get time to deal with your own feelings before saying something that will upset your partner more.

è Go to Chapter 2, and read the Self-Exploration technique for more detail about exploring the problem.  Use those techniques with BOTH partners.

•Tell your partner that you care about her/him and her/his feelings
. Express your caring to your partner even in the midst of the most heated part of a disagreement. “Though we’re upset, let’s remember we still love each other.”

• Encourage your partner to be specific. Do not assume you understand what your partner means--especially about key points. Try to get your partner to be especially clear about what she/he wants from you. Example: "I want you to be happier about this. I care about how you feel. Please give me some examples of how you would like me to say (or do) this.

Identifying central underlying issues. How do we tell if we are exploring the real underlying issues that are causing most of the problems? Here are some questions to ask yourself. Is it a more general issue that seems related to a number of more specific situations or issues? Does something similar come up repeatedly or has it been consciously hidden repeatedly? Does the issue seem connected to strong feelings of either you or your partner? Is it an issue that one or both partners tend to avoid talking or thinking about? When you two think or talk about it, do you get very confused and not seem to know how to deal well with the issue? If the issue meets any of these criteria, it is probably an important underlying issue.



Ask your partner to describe other similar times or situations that might be related to how he/she is feeling.

Ask yourself what these similar problem situations have in common. Identify the underlying general issues/problems alone before the discussion.

Ask your partner (and yourself) when the feeling/problem started and/or when it gets worse and better.

Help each take responsibility for their own thoughts, feelings, choices, and actions. Remember that no one "Makes me feel.. ." Say to yourself, "I am responsible for my own feelings and happiness--not my partner." See Ch-6.

Internalize the issue and help your partner internalize the issue. If you or your partner is "externalizing the problem" by blaming the other, other people, or external circumstances for the problem, then it will be helpful to gradually move in the direction of each "internalizing" the problem

Encourage each to stay on one main issue at a time.

Suspend disagreement with your partner's position as long as possible.

Avoid giving advice that is premature or not explicitly asked for. If in doubt about whether your partner wants your opinion or advice, ASK.



Try saying this to yourself: "I care about my partner and myself and recognize that this problem and resultant hard feelings will be a thorn in our flesh until we get it under control. I will persist in working on the problem as long as I believe it is productive. I will also recognize and respect my own and my partner's limits about the length and frequency of discussions.  People vary on their tolerance.


Escalation means "raising the stakes." Escalation usually increases the emotional intensity for both. Raising the stakes occurs when one partner makes accusations or threats or tries to manipulate the other. De-escalation is when the partners lower the stakes, begin to get more emotional control, and deal more constructively with the issues. The goal is de-escalation. Almost all of the techniques discussed in this section will generally help de-escalate the level of the conflict. Moving from "I win"--"You lose" positions to "win-win" positions can be of fundamental importance for de-escalating.  Avoid use of negative labels, blaming, exaggerating, attacking, or bringing up past or irrelevant mistakes. Agreeing to change your behavior and making empathetic, kind, loving, and cooperative statements to your partner can be powerful de-escalators.  The next section has additional suggestions.   


If your partner begins using negative labels, attacking you, manipulating you or using aggression, you can:

• Suspend judgment and try to get into a neutral observer mode–not a defensive or attack mode. Suspend judgment for your own benefit. Say to yourself, "I want a successful solution for my own happiness. So attacking back will just cause unproductive escalation and fighting. It will undermine my taking good care of myself." Instead of getting defensive or attacking back, try the following:

• Keep using the empathetic responding principles. "I can see that you are very angry with me about ... I am sorry to see that you are so unhappy about this situation. Please continue to tell me more about why you are so angry..."

• Get your partner to be more specific and elaborate his/her criticism more. Getting your partner to criticize you more may be the opposite of what you normally do, but it can work wonders. Ask your partner questions like the following: NOT: "I don’t do that, you must be nuts." INSTEAD: "I really care about how you feel, but I don’t understand exactly what you mean. Can you give me some examples?" OR "Are there other situations where you think that I am being inconsiderate?" OR "If you don’t like X, what would you prefer I do instead?"

• Use the Time Out  technique–If you get too upset to be kind, say you need a few minutes alone and leave the situation until you can gather your composure and focus. 5 minutes, 1 hour, or even longer until both people calm down.

• Warn your partner that you will take a time out if they do not calm down or quit using negative labels about you. Example: Say, "Please do not talk so loud and use negative labels to describe me. I will be much more willing to continue to listen if you will just describe exactly what I did and how you feel about it instead.”

• Use the Broken Record technique–In response to manipulation denying that you want what you said, keep briefly repeating your position over and over until they understand or tire. You will sound like a broken record. Use this technique carefully because it can be aggressive if not appropriately done.

• Use negotiating with incentives and/or consequences.. In this case offer positive or negative consequences you will do if he/she keeps manipulating. Make contracts to provide incentives/rewards for changing key behaviors/habits.

• Leave the relationship or reduce its level of intimacy if you are sure that this is what you want more permanently. Never use this as a threat; it may work only once.

• Physical attacks are handled in an analogous way. Protect yourself and get away from your partner--creating as much space or distance from your partner as you need to feel that your safety is secure. Recognize that there is nothing that you can do that justifies a physical attack from your partner (except, perhaps, if you physically attacked first).

èFor more on anger and aggression, go to Appendix B.



• Avoid assuming you understand your partner’s feelings or thoughts—ask.

• To the extent that your partner's underlying motives are unclear, assume the best.

• Avoid negative or unsupportive tactics or approaches to your partner. Use neutral, descriptive statements--no negative labels

Avoid exaggerated statements, evaluative statements, and other "zingers" toward your partner. Avoid extreme statements

• Avoid dogmatic or authoritarian statements.



When my partner and I cannot reach agreement, our resolution of the conflict may be to agree to disagree. This means we agree to understand and respect each other's position, and to avoid unnecessary discussion or zinging each other.

Separating consequences in areas of disagreement may help. For example if two people don't agree how to spend money, then separating their budgets as much as is practical can help reduce conflict and resentment.

Think of the most understanding, caring, and interpersonally skilled person you know.  This is someone whom everyone admires for being
so good with people, and for sewing positive feelings wherever he/she goes. 

What is it about this person that makes him/her so special?

Is it caring and empathy? Is it being assertive, diplomatic, and generating win-win solutions? Is it being a positive-thinking, happy person?

Why not choose this person as a role-model for interacting with others? Doing so may lead to interpersonal riches beyond your imagination.

=> For online help in self-assessment,  take the SHAQ questionnaire or at least the section related to interpersonal skills and assertiveness.  It is a good start for you (and your partner?) to look seriously at areas of strengths and areas of need. Go to .



The BOOK (free download): Go to Contents of Dr. Stevens'  book,  You Can Choose To Be Happy: "Rise Above" Anxiety, Anger, and Depression.

FREE SELF-HELP materials available on this web site (click here to see list)  

  How to ORDER You Can Choose To Be Happy  

Success and Happiness Attributes Questionnaire (SHAQ)  to assess self on many factors  including HQ-Happiness Quotient 

Email feedback to Dr. Stevens I welcome your comments about my web site or any of its contents.           

Self-Help and other resources on this website (and site map)

Web site created and maintained by: Tom G. Stevens PhD Psychologist-Faculty Emeritus,
California State University, Long Beach Counseling and Psychological Services.
URL of this web site:

Return to Dr. Stevens' Home Page

Copyright 2021 Tom G. Stevens PhD