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Finding the Balance: Assertiveness vs. Aggression in the Workplace

The fine line between assertive and aggressive behaviour can often blur, especially at work. Understanding and navigating this distinction is crucial for professional growth and maintaining a harmonious workplace.


Assertive people ‘like’ themselves, are usually successful at work and in life in general, are confident, and respectful of the rights and needs of others.  Aggressive people, on the other hand, are often filled with self-doubt and try to cover this by bullying and being disrespectful to others.  


How to Identify Assertive Vs. Aggressive People

Often people believe that they are being assertive, when in fact they are responding aggressively.


An assertive person will:

  • Communicate their needs clearly whilst respecting the needs of others

  • Be a good listener and maintain direct eye contact  

  • Work towards a win-win result in a conflict

  • Complain freely when necessary & justified

  • Be able to constructively criticise other people and willingly accept criticism, when justified

  • Compromise and negotiate when necessary

  • Be able to say, “no” and stick to it

  • Be specific when expressing themselves or giving explanations

  • Ask questions to check for understanding

  • Be aware of their voice (tone & word choice) and body language


Whereas an aggressive person will:

  • Put their own needs before those of another person

  • Be a poor listener

  • Tend to speak loudly and use strong, ‘jerky’ gestures (e.g. karate chop type movements)

  • Work towards a win-lose result in a conflict

  • Disregard other people’s feelings or rights

  • Insist that their own rights are respected

  • Interrupt and speak over others, often finishing their sentences

  • Make demands rather than requests

  • Express an opinion as a fact

  • Often bully others into agreement

  • Use ‘you’ and ‘your’ often to blame others whilst excluding themselves. E.g. “You didn’t meet your targets again this month.” (Rather say, “We didn’t meet our targets again this month.” It makes it sound as if the speaker is ‘part’ of the problem and finding a solution. A much more positive approach!)


Transitioning to Assertiveness

  • Self-Reflection: Begin by understanding your current communication style using honest self-evaluation. Think about past interactions where you felt your approach could have been more assertive.

  • Set Realistic Goals: Change doesn’t happen overnight. Set small, achievable goals for yourself. For instance, try using “we” statements in your next team meeting, and don’t interrupt others when they are speaking. Once this becomes a habit, set about adding more assertive qualities. 

  • Seek Feedback: Engage with a trusted colleague or mentor who can provide constructive feedback on your communication style.

  • Role-Play Scenarios: To build your confidence, practice assertive communication as described above, in low-stake environments.

  • Stay Patient and Persistent: Remember that becoming more assertive is a gradual process. Celebrate small victories along the way.


The Risks of Rapid Change

Transitioning too quickly to assertiveness can lead to pushback, as it may not align with how others perceive you and may come across as insincere, false behaviour. Introduce changes gradually and subtly and be consistent in your behaviour to allow your colleagues to adjust to the ‘new’ you.

In conclusion, assertiveness is a skill that can be learned and become second nature with time and practice. It leads to better relationships, increased respect, and a more positive work and home environment. Start small, stay consistent, and watch the transformation unfold.

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