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Assertion Versus Aggression


January 2010

Assertion is healthy. Aggression is not. The two are distinct, with different behaviors and attitudes contributing to each. This episode helps you achieve one and avoid the other.

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January 2010

Assertion Versus Aggression

Tom Henschel

Invisibility only works in sci-fi

“Does she even know how smart she is? She really needs to start speaking up so we can get the benefit of what she knows.” That was typical of the feedback about Maureen.

When I asked her what was holding her back from contributing more, she told me she’d always been shy about speaking up. “My folks warned all of us not to be too aggressive. I think the result was that I just stopped talking altogether.”

“Well, I agree with your parents,” I told her. “Being aggressive isn’t a good thing. But the feedback isn’t warning you about being aggressive. People want you to be assertive.”

She looked at me as if I were pulling some bait-and-switch tactic. “Are you splitting hairs?”

I told her, no, to me this distinction was stark and important.

Distinguish assertion from aggression

I drew an imaginary line in the air and put “aggression” on one end and “assertion” on the other. On the aggression side, I put behaviors like bullying, violating people’s boundaries, speaking disrespectfully and diminishing other people’s ideas. Aggression, I said, feels threatening and damages relationships.

On the assertion side, I put behaviors like naming your own thoughts and feelings, respecting the thoughts and feelings of others, being comfortable with disagreement and an ability to compromise. Assertion, I said, feels assured and encourages healthy relationships.

As we talked, it became clear Maureen imagined assertive behaviors to be quite different from what I’d described. She believed assertion felt forceful, almost brutish.

“That’s not how I experience assertiveness,” I told her. “To me, people who are unassertive seem to be hiding in the shadows. I don’t know what they’re thinking or how they’re feeling so, for me, it’s challenging dealing with them. To me, assertive behaviors simply help people know where you stand, but they don’t force those positions on others. It seems that’s what people are wanting from you, Maureen: they want to know where you stand.”

I felt certain Maureen could learn to speak up more often. I was even pretty certain she could learn assertive styles of speaking. What I wasn’t sure about was how well she could overcome her own barriers to being a more assertive human being—in other words, was she willing to be more visible and let people know where she stood?

Why we become non-assertive

Throughout my coaching career, I’ve worked with as many men as women, and I find many issues are gender-neutral. For example, debilitating nervousness seems to affect just as many men as women. And focusing too much on results to the detriment of relationships seems to appear in as many women as men. But, in my experience, the issue of being non-assertive that Maureen was struggling with is predominantly a women’s issue.

During a recent talk, my friend and colleague, Dr. Lois Frankel, addressed this in a room of a hundred executive coaches. She asked the women what messages they had received in their families while growing up. The answers poured out with passion: “Be quiet.” “Be good.” “Help others.” “Don’t brag.” “Be nice.” “Put others first.” As I listened, I imagined Maureen adding the message she’d gotten from her family: “Don’t be aggressive.”

If you grew up with similar messages, it’s possible you shy away from assertive behaviors that would actually be totally appropriate and acceptable. One of these behaviors is explained in detail in a Coaching Tip called Speaking for Yourself. Or, to help become more assertive, read Lois’s book, Nice Girls Don’t Get The Corner Office.

What mild aggression can look like

Janice’s situation is quite different from Maureen’s. She often straddles the mid-point of the aggression/assertion continuum. When she first entered the workforce many years ago, she made the decision that the only way to be a serious competitor in the game of business was to play the game like a man.

Now, in her late forties, she’s a vice-president heading up a product team. She is proud of the way she sits at the table with “the big boys” and is listened to as an elder stateswoman.

In her staff meetings, Janice is often very funny. She is certainly confident and smart. She never raises her voice. But she does speak quickly, often while others are still talking. And she often speaks as if hers is the only idea that’s right.

We’d begun coaching because people on her team were withholding information from her. I contended that certain of her behaviors came off as aggressive and might have scared people.

“What are they scared of?” she asked. “I don’t shoot the messengers. I don’t punish people or fly into rages.”

“No, you don’t,” I agreed. “But you don’t always seem willing to be persuaded, either.”

To me, if you want to appear non-aggressive, you need to send out the signal that you’re willing to be persuaded. If you seem to always know what’s right and don’t suffer fools gladly, people may experience you as aggressive.

(Appearing non-assertive is not a good thing. Appearing non-aggressive is.)

Even a little aggression may be damaging

Aggression often occurs when the aggressor feels challenged. In extreme cases, the result could include bullying, name-calling, belittling or emotional—and sometimes physical—violence. Aggressors’ message is, “Don’t mess with me or you’ll pay for it!”

Janice wasn’t in that league, to be sure. But she didn’t exactly welcome new ideas or contrary ways of thinking. She’d fought her way up the ranks and felt she knew what worked and what didn’t. She wanted her people to get the benefit of her wisdom. She contended she was asserting, not aggressing, herself on behalf of her team so they wouldn’t have to struggle the way she had.

But her certainty made her appear inflexible. I felt her righteous sense of knowing what’s best moved her over the midline of the continuum; her people were experiencing her as aggressive. And so they hid information from her.

Janice was learning a lesson that’s tough for many leaders: to maintain positive relationships you must project a willingness to be persuaded and an openness to change and the possibility of a different future.

Maureen slowly managed to become more assertive. Together we worked on tools like Assume Equality. Throughout our work, she was concerned that other people would experience her new behavior as overbearing and harsh. After we did another feedback report, she began to believe that her concerns were unfounded.

Finding out where others place you on the aggression/assertion continuum can be a big wake-up call. But it’s a crucial piece of feedback you’ll need as you travel the path towards The Look & Sound of Leadership™.

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