Aggressive vs. Assertive

Some years ago, I was facilitating a team meeting in a client office where we were discussing some ideas about how to improve their case acceptance with patients. The owner felt most members of the team, including himself, were relatively timid in the way they recommended necessary treatment, if not outright apologetic. He felt they needed to be more assertive in their approach with patients and asked if I would provide training for the team on building their assertiveness skills. I was fascinated by the mixture of responses. Some agreed. Some had questions. But one team member practically recoiled from the suggestion and seemed to immediately shut down and disconnect.

Afterward, I spoke with her privately and asked about her reaction. “I’m very uncomfortable with being expected to become an aggressive person. It’s just not who I am.”

When I mentioned that the owner had not asked for a more aggressive approach to patient care but rather a more assertive one, she replied, “It’s the same thing.”

But it’s not. And, it’s an important distinction if you want to communicate effectively and have more impact in your work and life. It is especially helpful from a leadership perspective.

Aggression is closely tied to anger and control. It is an emotional response to a person or situation. Typically, the goal of aggression and anger is dominance, intimidation, forced compliance, creating shame, or shutting down the conversation completely. None of us want to do this or have it done to us.

Assertiveness is tied to clarity and mutual understanding. It’s an unemotional, fact-based response. Typically, the goal of assertiveness is to clearly and calmly state the facts while maintaining mutual respect and honor for both sides of the conversation. Most of us would agree that this is what we strive for in our communications with anyone.

Aggressive communication usually flows from runaway emotions. Assertive communication requires us to engage our minds and focus on our preferred outcome while controlling our emotions.

Aggressive, angry communication is adversarial. It can have a short-term gain which is… You Win! But the long-term result is typically damage to, if not destruction of, a relationship.

Assertive communication has a much better chance of clearing up misunderstandings and can create great collegiality and cooperation.

I’ve been on both ends of this assertiveness idea. I vividly remember attending a meeting as a young, new manager where my boss asked for some reports I was supposed to have ready. When I began to explain why I did not have them ready, he gently stopped me and told me that the reports were an essential part of the meeting and therefore the meeting was over for now. He stated very calmly that I would need to make sure that I always had the reports ready for future meetings and that he looked forward to a rich and robust conversation at our next meeting with the full reports. That was it. No anger. No harsh judgment. No shame. Just a calm, unemotional stating of the facts. And I never showed up again without the reports.

Similarly, as my communication and leadership skills have developed over time, I’ve had many conversations with contractors, colleagues, team members, and family members where I had to make a choice between an angry and aggressive response or a calm, assertive one. The latter always produces a better result and more importantly better long-term relationships.

This week, when you feel frustrated or even timid about speaking your truth, practice shifting into neutral emotionally and calmly stating the facts with your eye on the big, long-term prize: clarity, understanding, cooperation, mutual respect, and strong, long-lasting relationships.

“The practice of assertiveness is being authentic in our dealings with others; treating our values and persons with decent respect in social contexts; refusing to fake the reality of who we are or what we esteem in order to avoid disapproval; the willingness to stand up for ourselves and our ideas in appropriate ways in appropriate contexts.”
~ Nathaniel Branden