How do you know if you are assertive or aggressive? Unless you are lucky enough to have gotten consistent ( and hopefully kind) feedback about your communication style, it can be hard to pinpoint your own communication pit-falls. If this is you, you are not alone.  Many people conflate assertiveness with aggressiveness. This article will explore ways in which these two communication styles differ so that you can reflect on your own tendencies and hopefully start to take steps to change them if necessary. 

“Winning” mindset

People who communicate aggressively tend to see every interaction as a zero-sum game. That is “either I win or they win- there is no middle ground”.  To them, a conversation is a battle-field and the people with whom they are interacting with are their opponents. Therefore, they feel the need to ‘win’ the conversation by any means necessary. They see any concession or compromise as a loss and will do anything to avoid that outcome. It’s no surprise then that many aggressive communicators are willing to say sarcastic, insulting, and even cruel things just to demoralize their ‘opponent’ and ‘get their way”. They tend to escalate their intimidation tactics when they feel like they are losing power and often end up doing and saying things “in the heat of the moment” that they later regret. 

A surprising truth

It may surprise you to know that aggressive communicators are actually just as insecure as passive communicators. People who resort to ‘tough guy/gal’ demeanor actually have very little confidence that their requests will be dealt with fairly and equitably. Both passive and aggressive communicators may have experienced being ignored, manipulated, and even bullied by others. These experiences have often shaped their schema of human interaction. Aggressive communicators may believe:

 “People are inherently inconsiderate and selfish therefore to get them to pay attention to and meet my needs I need to be extra forceful” and “unless I am forceful/aggressive/ and even scary, people are likely to betray me, cheat me, and manipulate me”.

 On the other hand, passive communicators often believe “People are inherently selfish, manipulative, and inconsiderate so I should just give up trying to get them to meet my needs” and “Others are stronger than me so I may as well not even try to get them to see my point of view”.  

These deeply rooted beliefs are rarely below the level of conscious awareness in both groups. Once these beliefs are established, which often happens early in life, passive and aggressive communicators selectively attend to interactions and relationships that confirm them and solidify them over time. The fundamental belief that people are likely to mistreat them forces them to adapt communication patterns that have helped them navigate interactions with others in the safest way possible. 

Assertiveness=Confidence

In contrast, people who communicate assertively see themselves on par with others; they know their needs are not more or less important than anyone else’s. They trust that others will meet their needs if they voice them politely. They are unafraid of being persistent if the person with whom they are dealing attempts to divert the conversation. They accept that they may need to bend and flex to accommodate the needs of others AND that their doing so is likely to engender further cooperation from the other party. At the same time, they are aware of their boundaries and ready to defend them if others violate them.

Their willingness to voice their opinions and feelings comes from a fundamental belief that people are likely to meet their needs and respond considerately to their feelings. When there is a conflict, assertive people are ready to give others the benefit of the doubt. They voice their needs confidently and expect others to do the same. They want to find a satisfactory solution that suits all parties and are prepared to do some creative problem solving to reach a solution.  Assertive people tend to be patient as they recognize that it may take time to reach a solution. They are willing to listen to the other side, yet if the other side refuses to hear them out, they gracefully terminate the interaction without employing insults, passive-aggression, or defensiveness. 

In a nutshell

Overall the difference between assertive and aggressive communicators can be traced back to their schemas about how others are likely to react to them. While aggressive and passive communicators differ in approach and manner they both share the same core insecurity: others don’t genuinely care about their wellbeing. Assertive communicators are able to speak confidently because they are inherently optimistic about the degree to which others are willing to and able to meet their needs. 

Context

People adopt different communication styles in different contexts. For example, you may be an assertive communicator at work but not with family members. If you find yourself wanting to change the way you communicate in a particular relationship, you may wish to examine and evaluate your current beliefs about what is possible within that relationship dynamic. Believing that change is possible is the first step to manifesting that change. Since we cannot control what others say and do, the best place to start is with yourself. 

If you would like to change your communication style, feel free to reach out. 

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