Assertive versus Aggressive: Which Side are You On?

Learning to behave more assertively is an important part of being successful in life.  Whether your newfound assertive behaviors enable you to push for that big salary raise you’ve deserved for years or simply to command more respect from your peers and colleagues, identifying and modeling assertive behaviors is a great way to improve your overall life and your well-being.

Unfortunately, those who attempt to be perceived as more assertive must walk a careful line between positive, influential assertiveness and brash, unprofessional levels of aggression.  If you aren’t aware of these distinctions – thus allowing your behavior to skew too far into aggressive territory – you risk damaging the relationships that more assertive behaviors would build up.

So as you attempt to become more assertive in both your personal and professional life (or, if you’re afraid your behavior already treads too closely to the aggressive slant), keep the following distinctions and practices in mind…

Aggressive people are often defined as such by the specific body language, vocal inflections and conversational techniques they use.  If you take a second to imagine someone you consider to be “aggressive,” your chosen example will likely exhibit intrusive body language (for example, inhabiting your “personal space,” gesticulating wildly and so on) and make use of harsh, authoritative tones when speaking.

Another key marker of aggressive behavior is “conversational dominance,” in which the aggressive party attempts to gain control of a conversation through rapid-fire questions designed to establish authority and dominance over the submissive party.  In my, “How to be a Dominant Alpha Male” article, I showed exactly how you can throw off this behavior, but for now, it’s important that you recognize this attempt to gain control as an example of how aggressive people behave.

Assertive people, on the other hand, don’t rely on flashy hand gestures, commanding tones or conversational tricks in order to emphasize their dominance.  Instead, the hallmark of an assertive person is his confidence.  An assertive person doesn’t need to resort to intimidation tactics to make his point – instead, it is the conviction behind his thoughts and statements that draw others to his side.

If you picture an assertive person in your mind, this self-confidence likely manifests itself in a number of different ways.  Assertive people tend to speak more slowly using level, even tones and demonstrate assertive body language that neither intimidates nor indicates submission.  Being in the presence of an assertive person doesn’t feel threatening in the same way sharing the company of an aggressive individual can.

Now, whether your past behaviors have led you to be perceived as a nice pushover – rather than the assertive person you’d like to be seen as – or whether you’ve strayed too closely to outright aggression in the past, it is possible to come across as more assertive.  However, you’ll need to put some serious effort into modeling assertive behaviors for this exercise to be a success.

In general, the best way to be perceived as being more assertive is to model the behaviors you define as “assertive.”  In other words, you’ve got to “fake it until you make it”!

So how can you fake being assertive?  Try incorporating

  • Tone of voice – Assertive people don’t raise their voices unnecessarily, but they also don’t mumble and stutter so much that they aren’t take seriously.  If you’ve struggled in the past to add a tone of authority to your voice, simply pretend!  Act as if you’re portraying an assertive speaker in your daily interactions and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you adopt these vocal inflections as your own.
  • Word choice – Many times, it’s not just the tone of our speech that undermines our assertiveness, but the specific words we use as well.  Submissive speakers apologize unnecessarily, attribute great ideas to others and generally try to deflect attention away from themselves.  As a newly assertive person (at least, in your mind), mimic the language used by other assertive people in your life in order to be taken more seriously.
  • Body language – Assertive personalities appear comfortable in their bodies.  They don’t fidget constantly with their fingers, twirl their hair or slouch forward in a subconscious effort to deflect attention away from their words or appearance.  To eliminate these “giveaway” signals and encourage others to perceive you as more assertive, roll your shoulders back, lift your chin slightly and keep your hands steady.
  • Eye contact – Assertive people make eye contact in a way that’s reassuring, not threatening.  To adopt this behavior as your own, don’t shy away from eye contact with other people, but also be careful not to hold another person’s gaze so long that you come across as aggressive.

At first, acting assertive when you’ve only known yourself as a more submissive personality can be challenging.  However, with continued practice, you’ll begin to adopt these assertive behaviors and traits as your own – to the point where you’ll hardly be able to remember your previous life as an aggressive or submissive personality!

Image: sidknee23