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Are You Being Assertive or Aggressive? Here’s How to Tell the Difference

When you’re communicating with someone, whether that’s a partner, colleague, friend or acquaintance, it’s ideal to share your thoughts, opinions and needs assertively. “When you act assertively, you advocate for yourself and pursue your own needs while you also consider and value the other person,” said Brendon Comer, a counselor at Banner Health Center in Northern Colorado. When you act assertively, it can help strengthen your relationship with the other person.

However, in some instances, strong emotions can drive you to act aggressively, instead of assertively.

Here’s what aggressive behavior can look like

With aggressive behaviors, you try to assert control and dominance over the other person. You might be physically, verbally or emotionally aggressive. You could express anger, hostility, intimidation or dominance.

Your body language may be rigid, with arms crossed. You may glare at the other person, speak loudly, interrupt or try to control the discussion.

“Aggressive behaviors tend to lack boundaries,” Comer said. “Yelling, refusing to listen, cutting the other person off and mocking are all aggressive ways of communicating. These behaviors express a belief in the moment that ‘I matter, and you don’t.’”

You might send the “I matter, and you don’t” message in a passive-aggressive way, as well. That happens when you hide your true feelings of anger, frustration or disappointment. Rather than communicate directly, you may ignore the other person, purposely be late, avoid responsibility, offer backhanded compliments or leave a job undone.

Here’s what assertive behavior looks like

With assertive behaviors, you maintain boundaries for yourself and the other person. The message behind assertive behavior is, “I matter, and you matter.” Assertiveness can look like advocating for oneself directly and honestly while listening to and engaging with someone who may feel differently.

When you act assertively, your body language might be open, and you make eye contact. Your tone is conversational and participatory. “Assertive actions can be strong, but still grounded and collaborative,” Comer said.

Here’s how you can act more assertively

Fortunately, with practice, you can teach yourself to be more assertive, rather than aggressive. Here are a few strategies you can try the next time you feel your emotions leading you toward an aggressive response.

  • Take a deep breath and check in with yourself. “A brief pause can make a big difference in whether you act aggressively,” Comer said. “It can help you get regrounded and see the bigger picture.”
  • Pay attention to your body. When you feel a rush of emotion, you may notice tension, an increased heart rate or a higher energy level that can signal a possible aggressive response.
  • Pay attention to your thoughts. When something angers you or upsets you, are you responding to the facts? Or are you creating a narrative about the tone or intent of someone else’s actions? “It can help to name your feelings,” Comer said. Naming them can help create the pause you need before you respond.
  • Change tasks. If possible, take a break from whatever is driving your strong emotions. “With a break, you can allow your energy to slow down, and you can revisit your response later when you’re more open and calmer rather than angry and rigid,” Comer said.

The bottom line

When strong emotions strike, you might respond aggressively. But a few simple techniques can help you pause, regroup and respond assertively instead. If you would like to talk to a behavioral health specialist about how you respond to situations, reach out to Banner Health.

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