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Being Assertive vs. Being Aggressive: What’s the Difference?

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By Cynthia May, MA, LLP, EAC Clinical Specialist – There’s a lot of confusion about the terms:  assertive and aggressive.  If you’re afraid to speak the truth of how you feel or what you really want to do, assertiveness may present emotions to you of “being mean.”  If you easily tell people what you feel or want, without caring how that sounds to others, you may think you are being assertive.  However, you’re actually being aggressive.

What are the differences between being assertive and being aggressive?

Assertiveness is expressing oneself directly, with honesty (whether positive or negative). The core message of “I care about you and me.”  Assertiveness can be communicated through body language, as well as verbally.

Aggressiveness is giving the core message of “I’m important – you’re not.  No matter what I’ll have to do, I’ll get my way.”  Again, that is communicated not only verbally, but also in body language and tone of voice.

You may be familiar with the terms – Passive and Passive Aggressive.  When someone communicates in a passive way, it sends the message of, “You’re important, I’m not.  What you say counts, not what I really think.  I’ll do anything you want. Whatever.”  A passive-aggressive response is when both people in the conversation communicate, “We’re both important.”  However, both parties secretly wish for “their way.”

Authors, Carter D. & Rawlings, E.  (EDS.) in PSYCHOLOGY OF WOMEN, list the following Basic Tenets of an Assertive Philosophy:

  1. By standing up for your rights, you show you respect yourself and achieve the respect of others.
  2. By trying to govern your life so you don’t hurt anyone, you end up hurting yourself and others.
  3. Sacrificing your rights usually results in destroying relationships or preventing one from forming.
  4. Not letting others know how you feel and what you think is a form of selfishness.
  5. Sacrificing your rights usually results in training others to mistreat you.
  6. If you don’t tell other people how their behavior negatively affects you, you are denying them an opportunity to change their behavior.
  7. You can decide what’s important to you; you do not have to suffer from the tyranny of the “shoulds & should nots.”
  8. When you do what you think is right for you, you feel better about yourself and have more authentic and satisfying relationships with others.
  9. You have a natural right to courtesy and respect.
  10. You have a right to express yourself, as long as you don’t violate the rights of others.
  11. There is more to be gained from life by being free and able to stand up for yourself and from honoring the same rights of others.
  12. When you are assertive, everyone involved usually benefits.

These tenets are key to opening up communication with others.  In order to communicate in a healthy way, it is important to be mindful of the differences of being assertive and aggressive.

If you would like guidance on developing assertiveness or would like assistance on other communication challenges or life issues, please contact EAC.  We’re here to help.

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