Being aggressive is not the same as being assertive. There is a difference between the two terms and being aware of it will help you deal with conflict better.
This is especially important if you are managing people or in relationships which require a great deal of expressing what you want and need for you (both) to benefit. I know exactly how uncomfortable this can be and there may be several reasons why you are finding this hard. All good leaders know when they are over-stepping the line from assertiveness into aggression and they know how dangerous this can be in terms of their credibility and in getting others motivated to follow their lead.
You have probably experienced the unpleasantness of an aggressive manager, relative or friend, who in trying to express a need, desire or request but does so in the following ways:
- Angrily. They often blame or criticise you, seeing everything as a problem that you have failed to resolve;
- They don’t ask for your input, they just take over. This is a sign of a micro-manager or somebody who feels untrusting of anyone other than themselves to get something done;
- Dominating, winning, showing who is boss. Aggressive communication is simply about forcing somebody else to comply with their will and does not accept that the other person is an equal or has needs, interests and desires as well;
- Condescending, patronising, insulting. This communicates a perception of self-importance and superiority. This can sometimes be quite subtle, especially between professionals. Lawyers are great at this!
- Demanding. When we hear demands instead of requests, we can feel resentful and irritated by what appears to be a lack of respect.
This is not an effective way of expressing ourselves or influencing others. Whilst you may succeed in getting people to comply with your demands through fear or even sheer exhaustion, people will find dealing with you frustrating, unpleasant and tiresome. This breads resentment because the key element of aggression is a lack of respect and you are subordinating other people’s needs beneath yours. It’s bad for relationships, it’s ineffective and over time, it’s unsustainable. It’s also likely to lead to conflict or escalate it.
Several people that I have worked with associate aggression with great leadership. It’s the idea of a tough, ruthless person who will stop at nothing to get what they want. This could include an attitude of knowing everything, being unjustifiably confident about successes, arrogance and a need to enforce an action plan at any price. You just have to watch any Hollywood legal drama to understand this type of communication.
Usually, people who communicate in this way do so out of a belief that everyone is out to get them, that nobody respects them, that leaders have to be feared and that dominance is preferable to submission.
Assertion has been defined as a “legitimate and honest expression of one’s personal rights, feelings, beliefs and interests without denying the rights of others.” This type of communication displays the following characteristics:
- Politeness. This is about recognising that regardless of a person’s status, they deserve a minimum amount of curtesy and respect;
- Calmness. The aim of communicating in this way (and any way!) is to satisfy needs. We all have them and are motivated by them. If you can understand that we are more likely to satisfy our own needs through cooperation and politeness, we are less likely to feel frustrated and angry when another person does not comply.
- Clarity. There is no mistaking what has been said and an assertive person will state openly, exactly what they want, need or are interested in, their feelings and what they want you to do about it.
- They ask, they don’t demand.They might want you to complete a task by a deadline. Instead of demanding that you do so, they will say something like “Would you be able to finish this task by 1600 tomorrow?”
- They know that there are different styles of communicating, especially in times of conflict. Aggression for them is an element of their toolkit but it’s not often necessary.
You know this kind of person because you come away from a conversation feeling like an equal, you will feel motivated and willing to comply with an order because in doing so, you are rewarded with need fulfilment and empathy. That might be an acknowledgment of your skills, it might be constructive feedback that enhances your talents and contribution and leaves you with concrete ideas about your personal growth. Most wonderful of all, you feel accepted and respected as an equal.
The best manager I worked with encouraged me to start writing because he saw how much I loved it. He realised that this was a skill I wanted to develop and gave me opportunities to do so. He was always willing to share his knowledge with me and gave me the independence I needed to develop my own skills. He asked me what I thought, even though I was the most junior of the team. He always explained why he was asking me to do something, what he needed from me and when he needed it by. It was always framed as a request that required my agreement. I relished working for him and did my best to make sure I gave him exactly what he was asking for. His interaction with me was always aimed at raising my self-esteem, confidence and commitment to the team.
It’s sometimes so difficult to get the balance right that some people shy away from any form of clear, open and honest communication. You know when you have spoken to a person who communicates in this way because you have no idea what they are really asking you, they leave the details vague or you don’t really know what they want. It can feel a bit like the smile on their face doesn’t reflect their true feelings. It’s insincere, difficult to connect with that person and downright confusing! This is probably the other end of the spectrum but equally as frustrating and infuriating.
Assertiveness is a skill that can be learned and a practice that continues every day. For me, it’s tempting to communicate aggressively because I was raised in an environment where it was acceptable and even desirable. It was seen as a sign of strength. Now I know it’s not. It’s just a learned behaviour. The key to influencing people is adapting your communication style to the circumstances.
Do you agree? Let me know!
 R.J. Delamater and J.R. Macnamara, “The Social Impact of Assertiveness. Research Findings and Clinical Implications” (1986) Behaviour Modification, 10, 139-158