Assertive vs. Aggressive: Ten Tips on How to Stand Your Ground in the Workplace without Getting Aggressive
The dictionary actually defines aggressive as “full of enterprise and initiative; bold and active; pushing; starting fights or quarrels; ready or willing to engage in direct action; militant.” Depending on your preferred definition, “aggressive” can be either positive or negative. Typically, it’s used to describe behavior that’s pushy, abrasive or too forceful. In contrast, the dictionary defines assertive as “persistently positive or confident.”
The real difference between being assertive and being aggressive is how our words and behavior affect the rights and well-being of other people. Assertive communication champions our own rights and well-being without violating those of others. It takes their feelings and needs into consideration and shows them respect.
For example, say you’re having trouble with a coworker, Monica, who’s fallen behind on her part of a project assigned to your whole team. As an assertive communicator, you have the right to privately express your displeasure to Monica and ask her to do her share of the work. At the same time, Monica has the right to tell her side of the story — perhaps a family situation has caused her work productivity to drop. Whatever the case, the two of you could rationally and reasonably discuss the situation and focus on finding a mutually agreeable solution to the problem. In other words, both of you could “win.”
On the other hand, if you were an aggressive communicator, your encounter with Monica could quickly turn into a public shouting match. You’d yell at her for not doing her job; she’d respond with accusations about your unfairness and desire to control everything that goes on in the office. The whole episode could result in a double “loss” of respect and dignity.
How to Be Assertive
1. Use “I” messages and “feeling” verbs. Assertive communicators personalize their comments by starting sentences with the word “I” and by choosing verbs that express feelings. “I enjoyed your presentation” makes a stronger statement than “Your presentation was well-done.”
2. Discuss your goals and accomplishments. Don’t be afraid to tell coworkers: “I plan to increase my sales by at least 10 percent this month” or “I’m proud that I won the sales award for last quarter.”
3. Show an interest in others. An assertive communicator can read another person’s body language, or tone of voice and react appropriately with phrases like “I’m glad you got that promotion” or “I see you’re relieved that project’s over.”
4. Match your delivery to your message. To be believable, your own body language and vocal expression should reinforce what you’re saying. In other words, if you look sullen and sound serious when you tell someone you’re happy about her promotion, you’ll probably come across as insincere. Instead, put a smile on your face and in your voice.
5. Know how to respond to compliments. When someone compliments you, acknowledge it and accept it graciously. For instance, if a coworker says she likes your suit, say “Thanks for noticing my suit. It’s my favorite.” Don’t say, “Gee, I’ve had this old thing for almost five years.” Comments like that can make the other person feel uncomfortable.
6. Disagree mildly. If you’re unsure of another person’s thoughts or feelings, state your position firmly, quietly and in a non-demanding, uncritical way. Say something like, “It’s hard for me to see how your solution will work.” Gently shaking your head “no” will support your verbal message.
7. Disagree more emphatically when it’s necessary to get your point across. If you’re sure someone’s idea isn’t going to work and they’re being stubborn about it, make your message stronger. Say “Please share with us how your solution would be implemented” or “I respect your opinion and position on this issue, Bob, although I disagree with X,Y.Z because I don’t feel we’ve considered A, B, and C and the consequences…” Reinforce your words by leaning forward, speaking a little louder and engaging in direct eye contact.
8. Ask for clarification when you’re confused. There are a couple of ways to do this. One is to say, “I want to make sure I understand. Please repeat that.” The other is “Let me repeat what you said to make sure I understand.”
9. Don’t be afraid to challenge people, positions, deadlines, and opinions. This also applies to requests that seem unreasonable, silly or wasteful. “I’m not sure what our thought process is in generating this weekly report. It appears to me that it is a time-consuming, non-value added process. If you can clearly explain to me the value-add, I’ll be happy to listen, but if it doesn’t appear there is a value add to the department—it’s time to stop producing this.”
10. Speak up for yourself. Assertive people don’t let others take advantage of them. If a request is unreasonable or poorly timed, say “no,” give a brief explanation and don’t feel guilty about it. “I realize you need to have this report finished by 5:00, but since I’m just receiving this now at 4:30, it will have to wait until tomorrow morning and be submitted late. I would have been able to turn this around for you had I received it at 3:00.”
–Natalie Ivey, President & CEO
Results Performance Consulting, Inc. – RPC
Natalie Ivey is President & CEO of RPC, (www.rpchr.com) a Boca Raton-based company that helps employers manage, train, and retain employees. Ms. Ivey is a certified Senior Professional in Human Resources (SPHR), and has more than twenty years of leadership and HR experience with Fortune 500 organizations.