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Understanding the Difference Between Aggression and Assertiveness

written by: Rose Smith • edited by: Wendy Finn • updated: 8/10/2011

Most of us have had bosses we'd love to send on a real slow boat to anywhere they won't come back from. Supervisors who wrangle work out of staffers by using verbal abuse and aggression tend to get results. Often there is a fine line between assertiveness and aggression.

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    Bosses Who Yell

    436518x37hdhfns Asking a boss accustomed to yelling to calm down is like expecting a mountain lion to practice table manners. Every good supervisor suffers setbacks in the workplace. Crises happen. How they are dealt with defines a good manager's understanding between assertive versus aggressive behavior. Aggressive management makes co-workers want to run and hide when they see the boss coming. Assertive management makes them want to be a part of the solution. Astute managers who learn to govern by assertion control the crisis situation with calm but focused direction. Bad bosses who take the aggressive 'my way or the highway' stance, find resistance around every corner.

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    Aggressive Or Assertive?

    So what is the difference between aggressive and assertive behavior? Aggressive communication is a one-way channel. The aggressor only thinks about what he wants without taking anyone else's welfare into account. Assertive communication on the other hand, recognizes our rights, while still respecting the rights of others. Communication expert, Lee Hopkins defines assertive communication as the ability to express positive and negative feelings in an open, honest and direct way.

    Aggressive Communication Examples:

    • "Can't you get anything right?"
    • "Do it, now."
    • "You never spend any time with me."

    Assertive Communication Examples:

    • "Let's do what we can to get this right."
    • "This article needs to be turned in within the next hour."
    • "I need to spend more time with you."

    "You" is commonly used with aggressive verbals, while "I" or "we" is practiced with assertive expression. When a team member makes a mistake on a project, he may feel his supervisor is ganging up on him when he says things like, "can't you stop screwing up?" However, when the manager brings him back into the fold by stating instead, "let's see how we can correct this," he doesn't feel as if he's being hung out to dry. Most responsible workers do enough "internal criticizing" when they mess up, without having an angry boss chiming in.

    Assertive communication focuses on results. Aggressive confrontation focuses getting our way by bringing in emotions such as blame, resentment and even guilt. Asserting ourselves allows us to look for and find common ground to solve problems. It doesn't rely on blame or judgment to wrangle want we want from others. Most importantly, it allows us to take full responsibility for our actions while confronting others.

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    Learning How to Talk to People

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    Here are some advantages to asserting yourself:

    • It leads to mutual understanding and respect.
    • Standing up for what we need or want causes less internal stress.
    • It makes us feel good about ourselves.
    • It typically gets the desired result.

    Asserting yourself verbally takes time before it's established as a habit. It's also common for those who are well-versed in assertive communication to slip into aggressive behavior from time-to-time. It happens when we feel vulnerable or unsure of ourselves, or even intimidated. Learning how to communicate effectively means swapping our old behaviors for a better path. Don't beat yourself up if you slip back into old, comfortable habits. Bad habits start out like cobwebs before quickly becoming chains of steel. Determination to break old habits takes plenty of patience.

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    How to Handle an Aggressive Boss

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    You have a boss who doesn't plan on taking any assertive training. He gets his way by yelling, and has no idea there's a difference between assertive versus aggressive behavior. Worst yet, he loves belittling you in public. How should you handle that? What you don't want to do is what a co-worker of mine did when I first went into the military quite a few years back. He humbly took all the public verbal assaults his aggressive boss heaped on him, day-in-and-day-out before he went home for lunch one day and came back with his shot-gun and began shooting in the office. None of us got hurt, but he received 11 years in Leavenworth even though his supervisor was reprimanded for being so down-right verbally abusive.

    Even when the aggressor is out of control, losing control yourself will only hurt you. However, no one deserves to be verbally battered. Use assertive tactics when speaking to your boss. Pull him over and explain how uncomfortable he makes you feel when he criticizes you publicly. Request he treat you with the same respect you afford him. If he continues being abusive, talk to his supervisor about his aggressive behavior. You may have to assert yourself more than once to remind your boss you deserve to be treated with respect. Let him know while you think he's a good boss and love your job, being yelled at will not work for you. If he does it again, wait until things calm down, and make clear your assertions without losing your cool. It may not work in every case, especially if you're dealing with a bully boss who has his own issues. However, asserting your position at least allows you to practice asking for what you need.

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    Image Credits

    Ambro, Free Digital Photos under Terms of Use

    Jzcreations, Free Digital Photos under Terms of Use

    Paul, Free Digital Photos under Terms of Use

References

  • Hopkins, Lee, "What IS Assertive Communication?, http://www.leehopkins.com/assertive-communication.html
  • Wellborn, Catherine, "The Line Between Being Aggressive and Being Assertive", http://budtoboss.wordpress.com/2011/06/29/the-line-between-being-assertive-and-being-aggressive/
  • Friedman, Lynn, "Dealing With a Boss Who Yells While Keeping Your Cool", http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/11/29/AR2005112900903.html