Recently many clients have been asking for input, that the distinction between assertiveness and aggressiveness has become blurred in their workplace.  There are many reasons, but I feel  it’s worthwhile to differentiate between the two and offer suggestions on how to effectively leverage someone that has a more assertive style.

What is the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness?
An aggressive person may come across as a bully to others, disregarding their feelings and ignoring their views. They may also seem self-righteous. A person who is very aggressive can humiliate others, even if unintentional. They can intimidate or be threatening. Aggressiveness can also be expressed passively.  An individual can be passive-aggressive if they are uncomfortable or unwilling to express their views or feelings. They may publicly agree with others but they really disagree, or worse, may complain about the decision, view and/or person behind their back. This behavior significantly damages relationships and ensures that mutual respect is highly unlikely.

Assertiveness is about letting people know where you stand and what you need, but doing it with empathy and sensitivity to others. It’s about a willingness to find common ground, if feasible, and acknowledge others views, experiences and decisions. Essentially, think of assertiveness as being firm, but polite. It’s a mindset that says – I want to win, but I’m not going to walk over you to do it – I’m going to respect your position and what you want, and work to help you be successful.

Many people go on assertiveness training courses expecting an instant personality transplant. You cannot change the message without changing the messenger, so assertiveness begins with a deeper understanding of our own behavioral strength and style, and how that impacts how we communicate and come across to others. The following five tips will hopefully prepare you to be mindful and to anticipate how to choose between assertiveness or aggressiveness:

Tip 1: Breathe!
Notice how in moments of stress and conflict you may hold your breath?  This reaction tells our primal instinct that something really must be wrong, and more adrenaline is released, which only adds to the problem.  Taking a few (or even one) deep regular breaths in such moments of crisis will calm you. When communicating, 38% of your message comes from your tone of voice, so this is an opportunity to channel how you feel in an effective manner.

Slow down the speed at which you speak. Don’t shout. Deliver an even-paced message at your usual tone of voice. Nervousness, stress and anxiety often shows in a rising pitch or tone. When we speak in a high-pitched or loud manner we often lose the other person’s attention. Normal breathing counteracts many of the nervous reactions that can be detected in our voice.

Tip no. 2: Think before you react
Your primal instinct is urging you to take strong action/reaction. This can be very useful when in danger, for instance if you’ve walked in front of a bus and need to immediately get out of the way. However, how many times have you wished you could take it back after having an immediate reaction to something you didn’t like? When you need to be assertive, pause for thought before you say or do anything. Give other areas of your brain and your emotions a chance to catch up with what is actually happening rather than what you think may be happening. That one-second pause could be the difference between composure versus fury.

Tip 3 Talk to yourself
What you say to yourself feeds your beliefs and therefore your perception of the world around you. Your brain hears the mental chatter, believes it to be statements of fact and will adjust your behavior accordingly.

If you are telling yourself that you are afraid, or the other person is wrong, or bad, or that ‘this is always happening to you’, the chain reaction is set up so your behavior supports your beliefs, which can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy. Use this amazing ability you have to your own advantage and plant wonderful, calming, and confident thoughts in moments of conflict and anxiety. Tell yourself you are safe, that you are capable and strong. Tell yourself the other person needs your support and understanding. Be careful how you communicate these messages: don’t say “I’m not angry”, the brain will hear ‘angry’ and react accordingly. Don’t say, “I will be confident.” The brain picks up the future tense and thinks “OK, but for now I’ll carry on panicking!” Try these now. Breathe deeply, think about a stressful or difficult situation, and tell yourself how you want to feel, as though you really felt it. Practice this regularly and when you really need to be assertive, you will be in a good position to use these techniques to your benefit. Through preparation and anticipation, you allow yourself to have a choice.

Tip 4: Mind your language
Remember that if you can have your primal instinct triggered, so can other people. The language you use is important if you want to defuse rather than escalate a situation.

The language of aggression is insulting, bossy and argumentative, sometimes in subtle ways. Patronizing terms can be insulting. Telling people to calm down can be bossy, and the often used expression, “I understand, but….” is the perfect way to start an argument. Many aggressive statements start with the word “You”. Such as: “You should…”, “You must…”, and “You can’t”. Take the ‘You’s’ and ‘Buts’ out of your vocabulary and change to words such as “I” or “And”“I appreciate how you feel. And, this is how I feel.” is an assertive communication. Using the word “I” is honest as it shows that you are own your thoughts and feelings rather than putting them on the other person. While “And” builds co-operation and understanding. Non-assertive people will ‘hint’ at how they feel by saying such things as “Don’t you think…” or “People say…”  The language of submission is self-effacing. “Don’t mind me…” “Sorry to interrupt” “Can I ask a question?”. There are also filler words like,  “Well, actually, um…I’m not sure”. These avoid you having to say what you think and thereby strip you of your ownership of your thoughts and feelings. By learning to pause and think before you speak, many of these habitual phrases will disappear.

Tip 5: Stay aware of your whole body
Your body (posture) is communicating 55% of your message, and it is the part of the message one’s primal instinct reads and reacts to the most strongly. An aggressive reaction is with clenched fists, finger pointing, staring and rising above the other person. The submissive reaction is to shrink, avoid eye contact, and move away and to cover yourself with your hands and/or arms.

When you know you need to look assertive, consciously limit your hand movements to soft, flowing gestures that support your words. Look people in the eye (versus through them or with a glare), especially when they are talking to you. When you break eye contact, do it to look at something the other person can look at too. Aim to be on the same physical level as the other person. Sometimes the easiest way to achieve this is to invite the other person to sit down, as standing up might be seen as aggressive. Avoid closed body postures/positions – folded arms, pivoting the body away from the person, getting behind large objects as a desk or conference table.

In summary, being assertive can actually help reduce stress.  By effectively channeling your drives, emotions, and views you can develop open and trusting relationships, demonstrate understanding of others, and influence and persuade, where you are heard and understood.

What will you do to be more assertive and less aggressive?

Cheryl Jacobs

Senior Vice President

MCG Partners

508-245-8123 (cell)