Passive Communication and Social Anxiety

Effective Communication — Improving your Social Skills

Passive Communication and Social Anxiety

Unfortunately, one of the consequences of avoiding social situations is that you never have the opportunity to:

  • Build up your confidence interacting with others
  • Develop strong communication skills that would increase the chance for successful relationships

For example, if you are afraid of going to parties or asking someone out on a date, your lack of experience and/or low confidence will make it even MORE difficult to know how to handle these situations ( what to wear, what to say, etc.). Often, people have the necessary skills but lack the confidence to use them. Either way, practice will increase your confidence and improve your communication skills.

Why Are Communication Skills Important?

Communication skills are the key to developing (and keeping) friendships and to building a strong social support network. They also help you take care of your own needs, while being respectful of the needs of others. People aren’t born with good communication skills; any other skill, they are learned through trial and error and repeated practice.

3 areas of communication that you may want to practice are:

  • Non-verbal communication
  • Conversation skills
  • Assertiveness

Note: Of course, there are many aspects to effective communication and you may want more specific help in certain areas (e.g. learning how to deal with conflict, presentation skills, giving feedback, etc.). For more specific help, please see the “Recommended Readings” list at the end of this module.

Non-Verbal Communication

A large part of what we communicate to each other is nonverbal. What you say to people with your eyes or your body language is just as powerful as what you say with words.

When you feel anxious, you might behave in ways that are designed to avoid communicating with others. For example, you may avoid eye contact or speak very softly. In other words, you are trying not to communicate, ly to avoid being judged negatively by others.

However, your body language and tone of voice does communicate powerful messages to others about your:

  • Emotional state (e.g. impatience, fear)
  • Attitude towards the listener (e.g. submissiveness, contempt)
  • Knowledge of the topic
  • Honesty (do you have a secret agenda?)

Thus, if you are avoiding eye contact, standing far away from others, and speaking quietly, you are ly communicating, “Stay away from me!” or “Don’t talk to me!” Chances are, this is not the message that you want to send.

Conversation Skills

One of the biggest challenges for someone with social anxiety is starting conversations and keeping them going. It is normal to struggle a bit when you are trying to make small talk, because it is not always easy to think of things to say. This is especially true when feeling anxious. On the other hand, some anxious people talk too much, which can have a negative impression on others.


Assertive communication is the honest expression of one’s own needs, wants and feelings, while respecting those of the other person. When you communicate assertively, your manner is non-threatening and non-judgmental, and you take responsibility for your own actions.

If you are socially anxious, you may have some difficulty expressing your thoughts and feelings openly. Assertiveness skills can be difficult to learn, especially since being assertive can mean holding yourself back from the way you would normally do things.

For example, you may be afraid of conflict, always go along with the crowd, and avoid offering your opinions. As a result, you may have developed a passive communication style.

Alternatively, you may aim to control and dominate others and have developed an aggressive communication style.

However, an assertive communication style brings many benefits. For example, it can help you to relate to others more genuinely, with less anxiety and resentment. It also gives you more control over your life, and reduces feelings of helplessness. Furthermore, it allows OTHER people the right to live their lives.

Myth #1: Assertiveness means getting your own way all the time

This is not true. Being assertive means expressing your point of view and communicating honestly with others. Often, you may not get “your own way” when you are assertively giving your opinion. But telling others how you feel and trying to work out a compromise shows respect for both yourself and others.

Myth #2: Being assertive means being selfish

This is false. Just because you express your opinions and your preferences does not mean that other people are forced to go along with you. If you express yourself assertively (not aggressively) then you make room for others. You can also be assertive on behalf of someone else (e.g. I would Susan to choose the restaurant this week).

Myth #3: Passivity is the way to be loved

This is false. Being passive means always agreeing with others, always allowing them to get their own way, giving into their wishes, and making no demands or requests of your own. Behaving this way is no guarantee that others will or admire you. In fact, they may perceive you as dull and feel frustrated that they can’t really get to know you.

Myth #4: It’s impolite to disagree

This is not true. Although there are some situations where we don’t give our honest opinion (e.g. most people say how beautiful a friend looks in her wedding dress, or we only say positive things on the first day of a new job). Much of the time, however, other people will be interested in what you think. Think how you would feel if everyone always agreed with you.

Myth #5: I have to do everything I am asked to do

False. A central part of being assertive is setting and keeping personal boundaries. This is difficult for many people. With our friends, we may worry that they will think we are selfish and uncaring if we don’t do everything they ask. At work, we may worry that others will think we are lazy or inefficient if we don’t do everything we are asked.

But other people cannot possibly know how busy you are, how much you dis a particular task, or what other plans you have already made unless you tell them. Most people would feel badly to learn that you had done something for them that you really didn’t have the time for (e.g. writing a report that requires you to work all weekend) or that you really dis doing (e.g.

helping a friend move).

Below are links corresponding to the three areas of communication just outlined. In each section you will find information described in two important steps that can help you get started in identifying your specific difficulties, and improving your communication skills to help you begin building successful and meaningful social relationships.

  • Non-Verbal Communication
  • Conversation Skills
  • Assertiveness

For more information on overcoming social anxiety, effective communication, and increasing assertiveness, see:

  • Antony, M. & Swinson, R. (2000). Shyness and Social Anxiety Workbook: Proven Techniques for Overcoming Your Fears. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
  • Antony, M. (2004). 10 Simple Solutions to Shyness. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
  • Burns, D. D. (1985). Intimate Connections. New York: Signet (Penguin Books)
  • McKay, M., Davis, M., & Fanning, P. (1995). Messages: The Communication Skills Book. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger
  • Paterson, R. (2000). The Assertiveness Workbook: How to Express Your Ideas and Stand Up for Yourself at Work and In Relationships. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger


Assertive Communication

Passive Communication and Social Anxiety
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Communicating and acting assertively is an interpersonal skill that helps people to maintain healthy relationships, resolve interpersonal conflict, and prevent one’s needs from being stifled or repressed.

 Assertiveness can be understood as relational style that treads a middle path between being passive and being aggressive. This Assertive Communication information handout is designed to help your client understand what assertiveness and what assertive communication looks .

It describes the qualities of assertive communication, and explores its differences from passive and aggressive communication.

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Assertiveness is a manner of communicating and a relational style used by individuals to express their needs confidently, openly, and in a positive manner. Acting assertively is an interpersonal skill that helps people to maintain healthy relationships, resolve interpersonal conflict, and prevent one’s needs from being stifled or repressed.

Assertiveness is best understood as a set of behaviors. Examples of assertive behavior include saying “no”, refusing unreasonable requests, asking another person to behave differently, communicating clearly how an event or situation has made you feel (positive and negative), expressing an opinion, or pursuing one’s personal goals.

Individuals experiencing emotional difficulties often struggle to act assertively, and low levels of assertive behavior may reinforce such problems. People who experience anxiety may be submissive during social interactions, perhaps fearing the consequences of expressing their needs or pursuing personal goals.

An unintended consequence of such behavior can be the suppression or minimization of their own needs.

Being unable to act in one’s own self-interest has an impact on social situations and relationships (Peneva & Mavrodiev, 2013), and low levels of assertiveness are associated with low relationship satisfaction and low self-esteem (Speed, Goldstein & Goldfried, 2018).

An individual may express that they cannot interact in a satisfactory way with others, and that they avoid social situations. They may also struggle to begin and maintain fulfilling relation- ships, or report a pattern of problematic or damaging interactions with other people.

Social anxiety can also be associated with anger, aggression and hostility.

The individual may report frustration at not being able to get their needs met, a buildup of resentment against other people and explosive outbursts or arguments.

Adopting an assertive communication style can help to reduce aggression in social situations, and has been shown to improve self- esteem, internal locus of control and to decrease hostility (Speed, Goldstein & Goldfried, 2018).

Theories of assertiveness

Psychological theory has typically sought to account for a lack of assertiveness, or to explain why individuals are not able to be assertive.

Behavioral theories propose that unassertive responses are learned during development and carried into adulthood: shaped by negative consequences for following assertive behavior. Such negative consequences might include punishment, thwarted goals or rejection (Salter, 2002; Wolpe, 1990).

Behavioral approaches propose that the deficit can be addressed with specific behavioral training (Heimberg & Becker, 1981) and that behaviors including eye-contact, posture, tone of voice, or specific verbal responses can be trained.

These behaviors require targeted training because they are independent from one another. For example, research broadly supports the observation that training eye-contact will not automatically generalize to posture or vocal tone (Heimberg & Becker, 1981).

Once these behaviors have been trained it is expected that they will be positively reinforced in the natural environment and therefore maintained (Heimberg & Becker, 1981).

Cognitive theories propose that unassertive behaviour arises from unhelpful beliefs that prevent an individual from being assertive during specific situations (Heimberg & Becker, 1981), and that social situations may trigger unhelpful beliefs and appraisals. Non-assertive individuals might hold negative self-beliefs (e.g.

“I am unlovable”, “I am not good enough”) and dysfunctional as- sumptions (e.g. “If I say no I won’t be d”, “If I say what I want then I’ll be punished”).

Such beliefs affect how the individual appraises situations, leading to negative automatic thoughts such as “They’re going to leave” or “He’s angry with me”, which would result in feelings of anxiety, uncertainty in how to act, and the inhibition of assertive responses.

Assertiveness as a balanced response

Assertiveness can be understood as relational style that treads a middle path between being passive and being aggressive (Linehan, 2014; Butler & Hope, 1995).

A person with a passive relational style gives in to requests and goes along with decisions or actions they may not agree with: they prioritize pleasing other people and being agreeable. However, this can result in feeling helpless and unable to enact change.

The suppression of their own desires can lead to feelings of irritation, annoyance and frustration. As a result, passive behavior can also include crying, sulking and trying to coax or indirectly persuade people to do things (e.g. “I’m terrible at this, you are so much better”).

This creates negative feelings in other people as they find the passive behavior tiring and contradictory. An aggressive relational style means that the individual does not listen to other people’s viewpoints. They may dismiss others’ needs, goals and feelings and requests are expressed as commands (e.g.

“Get this down now, it doesn’t matter what you think about it”). This style of relating creates negative feelings in other people, and it will often result in the request being rejected or not being fulfilled. As a result, an individual who uses an aggressive approach may end up feeling frustrated or isolated.

Assertiveness includes both verbal and non-verbal behaviors.

When using assertive verbal communication, an individual is able to describe the current situation, express what they need and want, explicitly consider the other person’s perspective, re-assert their own goals and consider mutually agreeable compromises that may lead to a resolution. Assertive non-verbal communication includes adopting an upright and confident posture, a clear and calm tone of voice, and use of direct eye contact especially when requesting or refusing.

Adopting these behaviors makes a clear demonstration that a person is not submissive. To com- plement this, active listening behaviors prevent the relational style from becoming aggressive.

At a minimum active listening combines feedback to show that the other person is being heard (head nodding, minimal verbalizations such as “mm hmm” and “yep”) as well as summarizing and re- flecting back what the other person has said without passing judgement (“so you feel that…”, “you explained that….”, “you told me…”).

This Assertive Communication information handout is designed to help your client understand what assertiveness and what assertive communication looks . It describes the qualities of assertive communication, and explores its differences from passive and aggressive communication. Some key assertive communication strategies are summarized.

The handout can be used to explore client beliefs about assertiveness. You may find that a client shows an inconsistent understanding of the consequences of assertive behavior.

When applied to their own lives, they might believe that an assertive response will lead to negative consequences such as rejection, disapproval, or confrontation; and trigger negative emotions in themselves such as guilt, shame and self-doubt.

However, if asked about unassertive behavior in other people they can often recognize that it is damaging to the person rather than a means of avoiding negative outcomes.

“We’ve talked about how you find it difficult to get your needs met and ask for what you want when you are with other people. This sheet summarizes assertive communication, which is a way of being more confident when talking to other people. Let’s go through it together…”

“When we talk to other people, we can communicate in different ways. We can be passive, assertive or aggressive. This handout summarizes what those different ways of communicating look …”

“How do you usually talk to other people? Do you think you are passive, assertive or aggressive?”

It is important to note that individuals may be unassertive in specific situations (e.g. within a specific relationship or in a specific setting) or following specific triggers, rather than it being a universal way of relating to others. This can add a sense of confusion and dissonance, as the individual knows that they are capable of being assertive.

  • Butler, G., & Hope, T. (1995). Manage Your Mind: The Mental Fitness Guide. Oxford University Press.
  • Heimberg, R. G., & Becker, R. E. (1981). Cognitive and behavioral models of assertive behavior: Review, analysis and integration. Clinical Psychology Review, 1(3), 353-373.
  • Linehan, M. (2014). DBT Skills training manual. Guilford Publications.
  • Peneva, I., & Mavrodiev, S. (2013). A historical approach to assertiveness. Psychological Thought. Vol. 6(1).
  • Salter, A. (2002). Conditioned reflex therapy: The classic book on assertiveness that began behavior therapy. Gretna, LA: Wellness Institute.
  • Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (2018). Assertiveness training: A forgotten evidence‐based treatment. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 25(1), e12216.
  • Wolpe, J. (1990). The practice of behavior therapy (4th ed.). New York: Pergamon.


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