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How to Be Assertive, Not Aggressive

Marshaling emotional intelligence to make yourself heard, and respected.

Source: baranq/Shutterstock

Drawing the line between aggressiveness and assertiveness is always a difficult proposition, whether you're managing a team or trying to advance in your career. When you must take a stand, you may second-guess yourself: “Will I step over the line? If I do nothing, will I lose ground?”

You can walk the tightrope by increasing your people sensitivity and emotional intelligence.

Everyone admires assertive versus aggressive people—those who put forth their needs and views confidently and directly. They stand up for themselves without wielding a metaphorical weapon, and always consider the views of others.

Aggressive behaviors in the workplace can sometimes look like the age of the Neanderthal—the ones with the biggest clubs grab the grub, have the best caves, and swagger around thumping their chest.

These forceful managers or employees dominate others, and can sap morale by grunting just a few words—e.g., “I want this now.” Ultimately the approach backfires. You can trust someone who is assertive. Not so much with an aggressor.

There are exceptions to the rule, of course. An aggressive, Type A personality in sales may be helpful, although there’s a limit there, too. “I’m not leaving until you buy these genuine ‘dinosaur eggs!’” doesn’t play well even with today’s audience.

General Distinctions

If you constantly yield to the temptation of fighting fire with fire, you’ll likely fall into the aggressive abyss, and find it hard to regain solid ground. Making commands or having too high an expectation of others puts you squarely in the aggressive column.

If, on the other hand, you use poise and rightly claim versus demand rights to something, you’re probably on the right track. A gentle, diplomatic nudge that allows others to make the first move, garners respect. This is a sign of being a good leader who is assertive, not aggressive.

Office Scenarios Play Out Differences

Aggressive managers say, in effect, “It’s my way or the highway and your opinion doesn’t count.” You can subconsciously hear them say, “Na, na, na-na-na,” much like a defiant toddler.

Assertive managers ask. “Can you have this ready by Wednesday?” They’re friendly; make eye contact; are self-assured; listen to others; and check on the prevailing mood before speaking. They contain their reactions until things simmer.

Assertive managers also collaborate on a team vision: “We’ll solve that problem in a timely manner.” Confident managers are aware of signals they project, and try to include everyone while subtly taking the lead: “Why don’t we meet on that to see how we can pool our resources?” as opposed to, “I have experience with that, so I’ll just take the lead.” It’s an “us, not me” approach, and it's how leaders build a trusted workplace.

Watch Your People Radar

The core difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness centers around emotional intelligence. Know your timing, judge the true reaction of those around you, and carefully consider the results of your prior patterns. If what you’re doing hasn’t met with success before, pause before you take out your club once again to make your point. In the workplace, it’s better to dole out information and your case as you gauge reaction than to risk a crash-and-burn.

As with so many things, how you package your information can easily overshadow your content. It’s unfortunate in many cases because you may have worked on a project for months, but if you approach others like a stampede expecting to take no prisoners, you’ll likely be the one shot down.

When Is Your Confidence Level At Risk?

Then there’s the question of confidence. When do you begin to look timid by not pushing back? A good rule of thumb is to wait your turn, first give credit to your “challenger,” and then stick to the facts. Whether or not you’re in a public setting, office members want to be acknowledged for their intelligence and contributions.

Being defensive is the natural reaction when your ideas are rejected, but the opposite response is the only way to move forward. Agreeing with or at least acknowledging some of the points made by the “opposition," is critical to gaining consensus and building trust. Ultimately, your ideas can be a win-win through compromise. These are the trademarks of the assertive versus the aggressive.

Be Persuasive, Not Prehistoric

Work is not meant to be an all-out race for the kill—nor passive and non-participatory. By adopting a savvy, assertive work style versus an aggressive one, you can more deftly traverse the proverbial office jungle and attain your management and career goals.

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