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Being assertive and setting boundaries

Improving your ability to handle tricky conversations, manage your boundaries and communicate assertively can decrease stress, anxiety and depression levels. And anyone can learn to do it!

Teen girl uses her fingers to draw a dotted line in front of her

Tricky conversations

Sometimes you find yourself in a conversation where you might need to challenge subtle inappropriate behaviour, reassert a boundary, respond to peer pressure or resolve minor conflict.

Usually these chats are with someone you care about and value, where you’re trying to change someone’s behaviour, while still valuing the person and your relationship with them.

The great thing about handling tricky conversations is that anyone can learn, practice and improve their communication skills! And, this has been shown to decrease anxiety, stress and depression levels, and increase your confidence about making positive changes in your life.

These conversations are 'tricky' by their very nature. This is because the behaviour issues might be subtle, and because you have a relationship that you want to maintain and protect.

Win/win outcomes

The purpose of any tricky conversation is to find a win/win outcome. This might be a solution that requires compromise, but is still positive for everyone involved.

Assertive communication is the best way to get a win/win outcome from any tricky conversation. Let’s learn more about assertive and other communication styles.

Communication styles

Passive: “You win, I lose”

  • Giving in
  • Not having a say
  • Blaming yourself
  • Keeping the peace at any cost
  • Could feel intimidated or coerced
  • People-pleasing

Assertive: “I win, you win”

  • Polite and respectful
  • Listening with empathy
  • Being firm
  • Not blaming
  • Being specific about concerns
  • Focusing on the behaviour as the problem (instead of the person)

Aggressive: “You lose, I win”

  • Giving orders
  • Reacting rather than responding
  • Intimidating, threatening, insulting or blaming
  • Generalising, e.g. "You're always telling me what to do"
  • Raising their voice, yelling, and making accusations

Passive-aggressive: “I lose, you lose”

  • Dismissing or shutting down open conversation, e.g. “Fine. Whatever.”
  • Giving in but then sabotaging
  • Giving backhanded compliments
  • Words sound reasonable, but tone or attitude may seem aggressive

Dealing with pressure and setting boundaries

When having tricky conversations, it’s important to know your boundaries. Boundaries are the line between behaviours we are ok with and things we aren’t ok with. 

Boundaries are different to rules, which are universal (apply to everyone) and have clear consequences. 

Boundaries exist in a ‘grey area’. There is no right or wrong boundary because boundaries are personal. Examples of boundaries might include what information you are willing to share about your personal life and with whom, whether you are a ‘hugger’ or not, and what kind of humour you find funny and insulting.
 

In relationships that are genuinely respectful, ‘no’ is always a safe and acceptable answer.

This means that other people should accept ‘no’ from you – but don’t forget that you must respect ‘no’ from other people, too.

If someone crosses your boundaries

If you find someone is crossing your boundaries, here’s what to say to assertively (politely but firmly) reinforce your boundaries:

  • “I feel…” (share your emotions). 
  • “When (x) happened” (be specific about the behaviour that crosses your boundary).
  • “I’m going to…” (be clear on your boundary).
  • “I would like it if…” (tell them how they can respect your boundary).

"Assertive communication is something ANYONE can learn. Using assertive communication can strengthen relationships."

Tips for tricky chats

Put yourself in their shoes – how would you appreciate someone having a tricky conversation with you?

Talk calmly – the person you are talking to is likely to ‘mirror you’ and respond calmly.

Listen actively – don’t just think about what you will say next.

Ask questions, e.g. “What are your views about what happened?”

Be specific, e.g. “On Tuesday, I asked some questions that weren’t answered."

Focus on the behaviour being the problem (not the person), e.g. “When my messages are ignored…”

Make it about you by using “I” statements – bonus points if you can discuss the situation without saying the word “you”

Be clear about your needs or desired outcomes, e.g. “It would be really helpful if you could let me know if it’s a bad time to chat.”

Be willing to give them time and space to process and respond, e.g. “We could chat about this more next week, if that helps?”

Pick a mutually good time and place for the conversation and get ‘emotional consent’ before raising a tricky topic, e.g. “I want to talk about something bothering me – is now a good time?"     

How NOT to have a tricky conversation

It’s definitely possible to choose an approach that makes the situation worse, so here’s what to avoid.

Don’t speak over the other person

Don’t insist on an answer straight away

Don’t argue the point when you’ve already made it

Don’t be too general, e.g. “You’re always leaving me out.”

Don’t accuse or blame, e.g. “When you ignore and leave me on read.”

Don’t make the person the problem, e.g. “You’re so rude, ignoring my texts.”

Don’t raise your voice – this might make the other person defensive or escalate

Don’t make it about them, e.g. “We need to talk about some of your behaviours.”

Don’t bring up irrelevant or past issues, e.g. “And that time last year when you…”

Don’t react in the heat of the moment or choose a bad time for an open, honest conversation

Sometimes your brain is wired to make tricky conversations harder

  • Peer pressure. Humans are hardwired to ‘go with the crowd’. Being the lone voice of disagreement can make you anxious. The good news is, when someone leads the way, they become a role model and others often ‘back them’. 
  • Insidious trauma. Subtle racism, sexism, ableism, and other forms of discrimination can have a knock-on effect that stops people from speaking out or reinforcing their boundaries.
  • Power dynamics. Privilege means being protected from (and not personally experiencing or witnessing) disadvantage or discrimination (including insidious trauma). This can lead to assumptions or unintentional boundary crossing. We must be be mindful that the boundaries of others may be different to ours. If in doubt, follow the other person’s lead and seek active consent.
  • Freeze response. This is a normal, natural response to stress and conflict in which your ‘thinking brain’ temporarily disengages, which can make it hard to think clearly, communicate or respond to someone in the moment.

Other ways to manage pressure

A lot of boundary crossing involves some form of pressure, such as pressure to do something that makes you uncomfortable, or to do something against your boundaries. 

Often, pressure comes from people you care about or value, might involve more than one person or can occur in public. When people pressure, they typically use communication strategies that include:

  • Insults, e.g. “Don’t be such a sook.”
  • Reasoning, e.g. “It’s really not a big deal, everyone else has done it.”
  • Rejection, e.g. “If you don’t do this, you can’t come with us.”
  • Unspoken, e.g. Rolling eyes, sighing, etc.

How to respond to pressure in the moment

Here are some quick strategies that might help if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable or pressured:

Be polite but assertive – “No, thank you.” (With a gracious smile).

Raise polite doubt – “I might see it differently, but I was thinking that…”

Delay – “I’m busy this weekend, but maybe we could do that next weekend instead?”

Offer an alternative – “What if we stayed home and played games instead of going out?”

Put it back on them so they have to try and ‘convince you’– “Why should we do that?”

Distract – “That reminds me of this funny thing that happened the other day…”

Use humour to diffuse the situation – “In situations like this, I find myself asking… what would baby Yoda do?”

Re-state your boundary – “I get where you’re coming from, but it’s still a no from me.”

Receiving feedback

Getting feedback about your own behaviour can be confronting. Here are some strategies that can help you process feedback:

  • ‘Respond’, rather than ‘react’. Take some time to calm down and process things before you respond.
  • Use it as an opportunity to change. Feedback can feel personal, but don’t take it personally. It’s about your behaviour, not who you are as a person. Behaviour is situation-specific and can change. When someone respectfully points out an opportunity for growth, you could see it as a favour.
  • Show gratitude. It takes a lot of courage to give someone feedback and people only tend to give feedback to people they care about and value. In some ways, it’s a compliment that they felt safe enough to be honest with you.
  • Apologise, if relevant and helpful to do so. The best way to apologise is to acknowledge wrongdoing and show ‘growth’. For example, “I’m sorry for not keeping your secret. That must have hurt. Next time, I will keep things to myself.”

If you’re feeling pressured, we can help you through it.

A lot of young people contact Kids Helpline to talk through and rehearse tricky conversations – you can, too! 

Give us a call, start a WebChat or send us an email anytime, for any reason.

This content was last reviewed 13/05/2020

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