Many people use these two terms interchangeably, but there are important differences in what it means to be assertive vs. aggressive. See below for examples of assertive communication and some helpful tips.
What Is Assertiveness?
Assertiveness is a helpful way of communicating that is clear, direct, and constructive. It’s built on the understanding that your own needs and another’s needs are both important to consider, and that both deserve to be respected.
What Is Aggressiveness?
Aggressiveness, on the other hand, is a way of communicating where you try to control the behavior of others. You put your own needs first, without any consideration for the other person’s needs.
Benefits of Assertiveness
Assertiveness doesn’t come easily for many people, but it is an important skill for everyone to learn. Why is assertiveness so important? It helps you do the following:
- Strengthen relationships by showing respect for self and others
- Reduce “power struggles”
- Resolve conflict in an effective way
- Build confidence in expressing needs, wants, and feelings, and making requests
- Build self-esteem
- Reduce feelings of anxiety, resentment, or helplessness
How are being assertive and aggressive different?
Some people may shy away from being assertive out of fear of being aggressive. This is because being assertive can feel like being aggressive when it’s new or unfamiliar. But assertiveness and aggressiveness are not the same.
Assertive communication shows respect for others’ needs; aggressive communication does not. It is respectful, clear, and firm. This includes listening to the other person and showing interest or concern.
Aggressive communication can include making demands of someone without listening to them. Sometimes it involves shouting, interrupting, or talking over others. Bullying is also a form of aggressiveness. Because aggressive communication doesn’t respect other’s needs, it usually hurts feelings and can damage relationships.
Assertive Communication Tips
Learning to communicate assertively takes practice, but anyone can learn to be more assertive. Here are some tips for assertive communication:
- Describe the situation at hand using “just the facts.”
- Share your feelings on the matter, or the impact that other’s behavior is having on your feelings.
- Use “I” statements. When you do this, you make clear where you’re coming from, and show that you’re taking ownership of your own needs and behavior. It also makes it harder for the other person to feel criticized or attacked.
- Express yourself directly and clearly – whether sharing an opinion, asking for something, or turning someone down.
- Be a “broken record” and remain firm. Sometimes you have to express your needs and wants more than once before they’re acknowledged and respected by others. Staying firm and consistent can help, without becoming aggressive..
Example of Assertive Vs. Aggressive Communication
Consider the following scenario:
Sam was excited to cook a meal, and went into the kitchen. Once there, Sam found that his roommate, Alina, had left the kitchen filthy, with the sink full of dirty dishes, including all of the utensils Sam needed to cook his meal. Leaving the kitchen dirty went against their “house rules,” and Sam knew he’d have to approach Alina about the situation.
Example: aggressive communication
Here’s an example of how Sam might communicate aggressively in addressing this with Alina:
Sam: “Alina! This kitchen is an absolute mess! What makes you think you can just leave it like this? I can’t do the cooking I wanted to do now.”
Alina: “I’m sorry – I got busy and had to head out before–”
Sam (interrupting): “I don’t care if you were busy! You know the house rules the same as I do – you have to leave the kitchen clean after you use it.”
Alina: “Why are you making such a big deal about this?!”
Example: assertive communication
Now, here’s an example of how Sam might use assertiveness in addressing this with Alina:
Sam: “Hey Alina. When I went into the kitchen to cook, I found the countertop and all of the utensils I needed were dirty from you using them. I’m pretty upset because now I can’t do the cooking I was looking forward to.”
Alina: “I’m sorry about that – I got busy and had to head out earlier before I had a chance to clean everything up, and then I forgot when I got home.”
Sam: “Ok, I get that – I know things have been hectic for you lately. Now that you’re back home, can you please clean up the kitchen now so I can do my cooking later on? I would really appreciate it.”
Alina: “Sure, I’ll do it in just a minute.”
Key differences in being aggressive vs assertive examples
In the second example, Sam used his assertive communication skills to let Alina know he was upset about the kitchen. He made it clear he was not okay with Alina’s behavior while also listing to her and trying to understand why she didn’t clean up the kitchen sooner. He also used “I” statements about how the dirty kitchen was affecting him, rather than placing blame on Alina. Sam also clearly stated his request for Alina to clean up in a way that was direct, but respectful.
Assertiveness skills can be helpful in any type of relationship – with friends, coworkers, dating partners, and more. And yet, many people struggle with being assertive. If you’re interested in improving your ability to communicate assertively, please contact us to see if cognitive-behavioral therapy might be helpful for you in reaching this goal.