When you choose to be passive: why being assertive doesn’t always win


Assertive communication is often seen as the “best” communication style. With an underlying understanding that assertive communicators look for mutual “winning” in the speaker and listener, as well as an equitable look on conflict and negotiation, there is no doubt that on the surface, assertive communicators are effective.

What happens when you don’t want to be assertive? Sure, it’s difficult and shouldn’t be avoided just because it’s difficult – what about the times that you choose to be passive?

While passive communication is often seen as an exhibition of insecurities or “losing” when it comes to met needs, it can also be a conscious choice. Here are a few reasons why passive might be the assertive choice:

On the Defense

Sometimes, no matter how perfect you are with assertive communication, it won’t work. The person you’re talking to might see your assertiveness as aggressiveness and jump on the defense.

When you know the person you’re talking to is going to jump to the defensive, you might choose to greet it with passive communication. This doesn’t mean that you are giving up what you need and want; this means that what you want is bigger than an argument, especially when another person is caught up in their emotions.

Choosing to be passive is more about waiting for the emotions to pass and entering a place of responding to overreacting.


One of the things I say with every client: you can’t change how someone else communicates, only how you respond to it. This reason goes hand in hand with a defensive conversation partner – you can’t calm someone else down, or make them see you in another way, or stop being aggressive.

One of the best examples: when someone is experiencing a highly felt emotion, whether that is excitement, anger, anxiety, or joy, they might not see the entire situation. You can’t control any of the emotions they are experiencing, nor can you control how well they are listening or communicating. Taking a passive bystander stance in the conversation might be the only control you have in the conversation. Say a friend is very angry about something – you can spend time telling them not to feel angry, to calm down – two things that might make your friend angrier.

Or, you can choose to be the bystander and let the emotion run out.

Assertive Exhaustion

This isn’t uncommon – imagine this situation: you’re making choices at work. With your kids. With your career. When you get to spend time with your friends, you just want to go along for the ride because you are so very tired of making decisions and being direct in every other aspect of your life. This doesn’t mean that you don’t care about the choices that get made, or your feelings and desires when it comes to your friends. This does mean that you’re experiencing a bit of exhaustion when it comes to decision-making and assertive communication.

The passive choice here is one I recognize all too well – between work and family, when it comes to friends, I am one happy to be along for the ride. I truly don’t care if we get tacos or Italian, watch a comedy or scary movie – I just enjoy spending time with friends over making choices. If you, too, are experiencing exhaustion with assertive communication, find the space to make the passive choice.

One thing that can be said with all of these reasons to be passive: you’re choosing it over someone choosing it for you. With that intentional choice, it can be argued that you’re being assertive in that decision. Regardless of the reason, make sure it’s a choice, not an obligation.



Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Stay up to date with our events and get exclusive article content right to your inbox!

Latest Stories

Other Featured Articles


All Article in Current Issue

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Stay up to date with our events and get exclusive article content right to your inbox!