Are you assertive - or aggressive?

Oct 24 2005 by Dan Bobinski Print This Article

Too often, people who think they're acting assertively are really acting aggressively. The mistake is often accidental. In reality, such people are simply trying to get their needs met, but a huge gap differentiates the two behaviors and a mix-up can bring unintended consequences.

The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the word assertiveness derives from the verb "to assert," which, according to those Oxford folks, means "to state an opinion, claim a right, or establish authority." They go on to say that if you assert yourself, you "behave in a way that expresses your confidence, importance, or power, and earns you respect from others."

Let's differentiate that from aggressiveness, which means "characterized by aggression: inclined to behave in an actively hostile fashion."

A huge difference can exist between claiming a right and being actively hostile. Which approach brings better results? Your answer may depend on your personality, but those who would like to be seen as aggressive might benefit from learning that Machiavellian management styles are much less effective in the long term.

Essentially, think of assertiveness as being firm, but polite. It's a mindset that says "I want to win, but I'm not going to walk over you to do it - I'm going to respect what you want and work to help you win also."

Aggressiveness, on the other hand, is firm but impolite. The aggressive person says "I'm going to win, and I don't care if you get what you want." Milder forms are more ambivalent: "I don't care whether or not you get your needs met." Full-court press aggressiveness wants the other person to lose no matter what.

By the way, non-assertiveness is polite (considerate of other people's perspectives), but not firm - that is, unwilling to stand up for one's own needs. Non-assertive people need to understand the differences between assertiveness and aggressiveness so that when they do step forward to get their needs met they don't go overboard and step on everyone else.

Usually it's here where the formerly uninitiated says, "Oh, I get it now!" If that's you, congratulations and welcome to the club. To further your understanding, here are a few more differentiators to help you choose assertiveness over aggressiveness:

Aggressive conduct: Glares or stares at others
Assertive conduct: Makes friendly, considerate eye contact

Aggressive conduct: Intimidates others with body language
Assertive conduct: Shows confident body language that matches the message

Aggressive conduct: Has an air of inflexibly—"my way or the highway"
Assertive conduct: States one's needs, but genuinely considers other perspectives

Aggressive conduct: Strives to control others
Assertive conduct: Strives to listen to and work with others

Aggressive conduct: Considers other's perspectives only when demanded to do so
Assertive conduct: Considers other's perspectives without needing to be asked

Aggressive conduct: Values one's self more than others
Assertive conduct: Values self as an equal to others

Aggressive conduct: Will intimidate or even hurt others to avoid being hurt
Assertive conduct: Tries to hurt no one (including self)

Aggressive conduct: Reaches goals usually on the backs of others
Assertive conduct: Strives to reach goals, and help others reach their goals, too

In many ways, assertiveness means standing up for one's self without walking over other people. Those who have been aggressive can gain assertiveness by exercising higher levels of consideration for other people's point of view. This means developing a genuine desire for listening, and not trying to figure someone out by osmosis.

For those who have been non-assertive, assertiveness can be gained by standing up for your own point of view - politeness combined with firmness. This is seeking to get your needs met without backing down like Caspar Milquetoast, yet not crossing the line of walking on other people's needs, which is falling into aggressiveness.

Patience must be developed. Human nature must be considered. The big picture must be seen. Then, with a professionally firm but polite approach, the assertive person earns the respect and cooperation of others much faster and with more commitment than does an aggressive person.

Take it from our friends at the Oxford Dictionary: Assertive people are better able to state an opinion, claim a right, and establish authority. Have a go at it!

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About The Author

Dan Bobinski
Dan Bobinski

Daniel Bobinski teaches teams and individuals how to use emotional intelligence and how to create high impact training. He’s also a best-selling author, a popular speaker, and he loves helping teams and individuals achieve workplace excellence

Older Comments

Way oversimplified and applicable only in a particular environment. I live in an environment now where assertiveness as described here is perceived as a plain weakness, and what is considered assertive goes well into aggression according to this article.

Petar Golubovic

thank you. As someone who is taking the first steps to addressing an overbalance in aggressiveness, but wanting to be assertive I found this article helpful.


I have always been told I am an assertive person, I even know this myself since I truly believe in equality and speaking up and being honest is my strength. However 10% of the time I have been known to be aggressive only because my assertiveness doesn't work in situations. You can be assertive as well as be aggressive in a tolerable manner, when worse comes to worse.


This is a good article but tough. Because I am a woman, at times I feel like my assertiveness is viewed by men as aggressiveness. The key aspects that I learned from this article is to be polite yet firm. It is easy to lose objectivity and allow emotions to lend themselves to more aggressive communication styles. It is true that aggressive communication breads aggressive responses, and if I truly want to be effective when I communicate with people, I have to learn to look out for other peoples's opinions and views...not only my own. Thanks!


Hi, thanks for the wonderful article. actually i came across this article, when i was going through the similar situations at my work place. I was in a great dilemma whether I should act aggressively or assertively at my work. Though I am assertive by my nature, somewhere I read that one has to be aggressive to grab success. However I was feeling devilish and illogical to act like that. But through your article I could conclude that its good to be what my nature is. No need to be aggressive. and I felt relived. The fact that 'an assertive person gets more respect and co-operation' is true. One of my colleague lost his respect in everyone's eyes, only because he acted assertively to get a higher position and more importance than rest of the team members. It clearly shows there was no need of aggressiveness to get what he wanted. Now everyone hates him.


i read this article and it has helped me alot with my nvq level 3, i will definitly recommended this to my friends...many thanks


First of all, thank you for the wonderful article. What I am wondering about is that, upon reading your article, I might not be an aggressive person. However, some persons told me several times that I behave and respond aggressively. The reason I am reading your article now is that I was searching for a way to manage my 'claimed aggressiveness'. Actually when somebody tells me that I am aggressive, I do not know how to respond, I feel upset, and I keep thinking about his/her comment for several days. Maybe I think too much about this because I know that I am not aggressive but I was read in a wrong way by others. Another thing I want to ask about; if I, unintentionally frowning while talking, does this mean I am aggressive? Bests Mayada

Mayada Jordan

Your article was very helpful in aiding to understand a situation at work. We have a new boss who has a very aggressive management style, but having read this I think he means to be assertive. This manager is alienating all the staff he comes into contact with. My only problem now is how to let him know, before my life becomes even more intolerable.

Elaine UK

Thank you so much for the eye opening information.I am also one of those people who tend to bottle up their feelings and I just feel its high time I did myself justice and learnt how to be assertive.Taking careful consideration not to let my assertion spill over into aggression.

Joyline Cape Town