Assertiveness vs. Aggressiveness

Everyone recognizes there is a value to assertiveness. Achieving goals—any sort of goal—is more likely when someone reaches out to achieve them, rather than waiting around for “the right circumstances.” But sometimes assertiveness is confused with aggressiveness. For example, patients in the middle of a contentious and bitter divorce often reach out for a lawyer who they think will be “tough.”  “Tough” is usually recognized by a blustery and food-stomping manner. The fact is, of course, that belligerence is not necessarily, or even usually, a reflection of competence. Sometimes, in the divorce courts, it is a kind of game, where lawyers play to the audience—namely, their clients—without speeding up the divorce proceedings or in any other way furthering the real interests of that client.

Some people conduct their own lives along similar lines. They interact with others as if they are trying to score points rather than achieve any particular purpose. Every encounter becomes a contest with a winner and a loser. But even if they win a particular argument by being more insistent, or more threatening, they lose influence with those who are close to them since their behavior will be resented. No one likes to be yelled at all the time.

There are some with particular problems that are likely to make them overly aggressive:

Individuals who think someone is always taking advantage of them:

An elderly widow used to call up her daughter and complain that she was not invited over to her house as often as her in-laws were.

“You should be having me over twice as often since I am a widow,” she told her angrily.

The consequence of her repeated demands was that her daughter dodged her phone calls and spoke to her as infrequently as possible. When I pointed out that she was not achieving her purpose by these strident remarks, she replied: “If I don’t stand up for myself, who will?”

She similarly scolded tradesmen and deliverymen and others who seemed not to accord her the respect she thought she was entitled to.

Another man wrote anonymously to all his neighbors complaining about garbage piled up on their front lawns, or cars parked too closely to his driveway, or parties that  went on too late into the evening. He threatened to contact the police. Most of his neighbors ignored him, but one went out of his way to play his radio loudly late at night.

There are others who complain about the phone service, the unreliability of the electric grid, and about public services in general. They complain to the wrong people, though, usually to a deliveryman or a postal worker, as if these individuals, themselves, were responsible. They fight back against the various injustices they suffer every day in a diffuse and ineffectual manner. Sometimes they make trouble for themselves. Drivers who feel that they have been singled out unfairly for reprimand by a policeman argue and annoy the officer with the result that they are given a ticket instead of being let off with a warning.

I remember one young man who had been admitted into a psychiatric ward without adequate reason—in his opinion. He expressed his disagreement by physically resisting nurses and attendants and, consequently, was tied to a stretcher overnight. In particular, I remember a young husband who came before a judge in a divorce proceeding. He was a very bright man who had researched the legal issues in his case. When the judge made a legal error, he pointed it out to him and then refused to remain silent when instructed to do so. He spent the night in jail. The judge did not go out of his way to favor him during the subsequent course of his divorce.

Being aggressive is often ineffective. Commanding assent will not insure a favorable response.

There is another sort of person who mistakes aggression for assertiveness. These are Individuals who have always considered themselves too inclined to “give in.” They think of themselves as cowardly.

These are individuals who have grown up afraid of others. They remember numerous incidents when they did not stand up to someone—another student, perhaps or an adult—who was pushing them around. They have resolved in the present to assert themselves more effectively—which in their minds usually means having a retort ready if someone speaks to them dismissively or rudely. They think that if someone gets angry at them, they should get angry right back. They are likely still, by virtue of habit, to respond softly and agreeably, but they tend to ruminate afterwards about what they should have said. In their minds an ideal response would be tough and uncompromising. When they do finally speak up their response is often exaggerated and out of proportion to the circumstances. They seem defensive. Often they imagine themselves being disrespected when all they have really experienced is disagreement.

Let me suggest a different definition for assertiveness: being assertive means behaving in a way that is most likely to achieve one’s purpose. By that standard most successfully assertive persons will have a repertoire of ways of acting depending on the circumstances. There are times when the right thing to do is to be conciliatory. There are other times when it is appropriate to be resistant and insistent. If someone is actually attacked, verbally or otherwise, it is appropriate to respond by resisting forcibly. There are times when the sensible thing to do is to appeal to others for help.

Let me give just two examples:

A worker having to deal with an overly critical boss. Assume the worker has the goal of doing well and being promoted. It may very well be appropriate initially to agree without argument with the boss’s complaints, however unreasonable they may be. If those complaints become serious, it may be appropriate to argue back. If those complaints are rude, it may be appropriate to point that out angrily, or even to leave the room. If the boss cannot be satisfied, asserting oneself might mean complaining to a higher boss, or even planning to leave the job for another. Being conciliatory when being taken advantage of systematically would certainly not be appropriate. On the other hand, arguing too readily might seem to others that the worker has a chip on his/her shoulder. Certainly, answering back just to “get something off my chest” is never advisable in a work setting, and is certainly not an example of asserting oneself.

A woman anxious to maintain a faltering relationship. A lover becoming more distant and less affectionate is a situation familiar to many. Assuming the goal of the partner is to reconstitute that relationship, it would not be assertive to scold the lover for being inattentive. Such behavior would be likely to drive him/her further away. Patience is usually called for. Being hurt is natural, getting angry overtly is not usually desirable; and it is controllable. On the other hand, overt betrayal should not be handled in a patient or dismissive way. Otherwise further such behavior would be encouraged. Judging exactly how patient one should be in this situation is difficult. There comes a time when it is best to walk away. Sometimes walking away is the most assertive thing someone can do—and, incidentally, sometimes the thing that is most likely in the future to encourage resumption of the relationship.

Of course, there are many other reasons why someone might react in certain situations too aggressively. Someone may feel threatened when no such threat exists. Someone else in other situations may respond angrily in order to compensate for feeling guilty about having done something wrong. Still, in all these situations, it is appropriate to ask oneself, what is my goal in this situation? What do I want to accomplish? And then, insofar as it is possible, to behave in a way that accords with achieving that objective. God knows, it is hard enough to succeed in life without antagonizing everyone along the way.  (c) Fredric Neuman   Author of “Worried Sick?”