About that...Aggression vs. Assertiveness

February 20, 2017


When I was a graduate student of industrial and organizational psychology, I took an Organizational Consulting class. I learned, within the context of language used in the consultant-client relationship, the difference between Assertive and Aggressive. In business, the difference between aggression and assertiveness was a no-brainer to me, but in everything I learn, I overlay it with a process of self-discovery, which is what good learning should really be about, and since my real passion is in people and the intricacy of social webs, particularly within family systems, I overlaid this knowledge into some self-reflection. 


That said, here is what I learned about myself and my ability to be a good consultant: A consultant should always put themselves in the position of the pedagogista, or even better, a co-learner in the process. If you want to make a company or family or some other system better, one must become, themselves, better in the process.


In my relationship with my ex-partner and my children, I have had a fantasy life about how good, giving, and game I am and have been. I believe myself to be reasonable and loving, but in exploring the aspects of Assertiveness and Aggression, my deficits were toward the Aggression side of communication and reactivity.


These absolutely shut down conversation.


I may “win” the argument, but I have turned off the communication channel, and over the course of relationship, that is a worse fate than stalemate or being wrong.


It is important to be able to be wrong. It is more important to be right and yield, because as a long-time educator and pedagogista, my goal has always been to promote critical thinking and discourse.


But was I living it in my personal life?


Unfortunately, after taking a good hard look at my present-day situation, the answer was no. I am great with people with whom there is not an emotional connection outside of business, was not so great with my family.


This requires, then, a moment to take stock. Who do I say I am? Who am I in the world? What matters at the end of a day, a year, a life? I said it’s Family, but was I credible in this notion if I shut down discourse and healthy debate? Or if I am determined to be right?


I signed up for a Basic Mediation Training, then an Advanced Mediation Training, and then attended dispute and conciliation workshops, trainings, and conferences. I am good at mediating others’ affairs. But I needed to become much better at mediating my own, and in becoming a member of the Washington Mediators Association and the Academy of Family Mediators and the American Arbitration Association, I felt I must hold myself to a higher standard than I have so far.


What does this have to do with Relationship? Everything. I have these ideas of “ought.” Children "ought to," and husbands "ought to," and the recycling "ought to…" And then there is what is. If something is something enough to provoke the desire for change, then I must become a much more effective communicator in order to affect change. The catalyst for change might be my desire for a different outcome, but I am not about to get that outcome unless I can deliver that desire with a language that either promotes understanding or promotes the same or similar desire in those who can affect that outcome or promotes a desire in others to please or appease internally and not just a defeat.


Here is an example: One night at dinner, my daughter leapt into a familiar refrain about how she does not want my help with her homework.


“Engage your brain!” she cried, mimicking my words from past experiences in “helping” her with homework. “All that sounds like to me is, ‘Hey Dummy, be smarter.’


”I have heard this from both my adolescent children time and again. They mock me lovingly, and tease me, and I take it with a laugh and my misguided thought was that they love me and trust my love and because of this, they needle me with this mimicry. What I found within me today was that these are ‘safe’ ways for them to tell me I have hurt them and they need me to find a different language to use that is more satisfying, less judgmental, and more supportive in order for them to opt for my help over struggling alone. That is a huge breakthrough, and one for which I had to process the ways in which I communicate with them and contemplate how to make amends. 


Yes, make amends. Good communicators not only say sorry, but they work actively to repair the damage and offer something to amend the damage they caused.


It could be what it is. It could be that I did that and they do this now and we don’t work together and they no longer seek me for help or comfort and we have some other relationship that does not include these things, but let’s circle back around to those deeper questions of who I want to be and what legacy I want to create. This was not the legacy I wished to create, so making amends was the next step in healing this aspect of our relationship, and making amends takes time because trust is lost.


While we’re circling back, here is a review of Assertiveness vs. Aggressiveness:


  • Assertiveness provides descriptive language with no judgment.

  • Assertiveness provides language about personal needs and, in the consultancy context, the client’s needs. (I'll write more about "the client" in another post, but suffice it to say that whomever you're in relationship with becomes the client that you wish to make happy.)

  • Assertiveness is direct and authentic.

  • Assertiveness does not negate or infringe on the dignity of others.

  • Assertiveness opens dialogue.

  • Aggressiveness expresses wants and needs, while negating or infringing on the dignity of others.

  • Aggressiveness describes a situation in a language that implies incompetence or blame on another.

  • Aggressiveness is judgmental.

  • Aggressiveness closes communication.

  • Aggressiveness ups the defense of the person with whom you are communicating.


That all said, I could honestly say my self-view was not congruent with how I had been in relationship or in conflict. There were three other relationships in which my stance was more aggressive than assertive. I thought I was being assertive, but once my communication was ill-received, I adopted a more aggressive stance, closing dialogue immediately. I got my “ask” in the end, but it was more about clobbering the person with whom I was negotiating and less about true negotiation and understanding.


Then something happened. It looked like I was about to go down this path again with another friend and business associate, and we both stopped. I was frustrated because I had been searching for some answers to the same question for almost a year and his office had been unresponsive. Several methods I had used to attempt to have a dialogue were not being returned. So I sent a text to him directly, bypassing his office staff.


A word about text.


Texting is the absolute worst way to have a business conversation or any difficult conversation in which you are attempting to make yourself understood or wish to ask a difficult question. There is no linguistic, aural, or visual neurons that get fired up in a text, and it will likely be read in the worst way possible. Then they might fire something back to you that you will also read in the worst way possible because you were hoping they would just call you and answer your question, and by the time you’ve fired three or four texts back and forth and they do finally call you, you’re too mad to answer their call because your 10-year-old living inside you is going to be calling the shots and not the Wise Woman or Man who occupies the helm (hopefully) most of the time.


So we did this back and forth. And then he called, and I ignored his call because I fearfully did not want to escalate. This was likely interpreted as avoidance and petulance, and honestly, part of it was—it was, at the very least, an act of cowardice.


I took some time to finish the work I had been doing and didn’t want to be upset or distracted while I finished it. Then I went to the doctor, and while in the waiting room at the doctor’s office, I thought, “Hey, texting is so stupid. You know it’s stupid. Conversations on text should include time and place and no other issues whatsoever. Maybe a funny anecdote. That’s it. This is escalating in a way it never should have, so call him when you’re done.”


And I did. He didn’t pick up. But he sent a text right away saying he was with a patient and would call me in 15 minutes.


I apologized for sending a text. I explained my rationale for sending the text with my concern, and told him it was wrong of me to do that. He said he was confused because we’ve been friends a long time, and I told him I was hurt for the same reason—I thought my friendship didn’t mean much to him because he had mocked my concern over this issue six months earlier when I attempted a conversation with him about it. I admitted that I did not select an opportune time or venue, and that I had not gotten really clear and okay about advocating for myself in an assertive (positively stated, no judgment) way, so I had really side-skirted my ask.


Then we ironed out our communication misses, acknowledged our importance in our primary relationship as friends, and then discussed the business matter which we both had felt nervous about because neither of us wanted our friendship to be messy. Our friendship got messy because we had been avoiding being direct and going for the ask without burdening the friendship. We both came away much clearer on how to be friends and also be highly respectful of one another in business.


The path, then, became to find my way to what matters most to me. It probably doesn't make much difference to me in the grand scheme of things what my dentist thinks of me, but it does make a huge difference what my children, spouse, close friends, and business associates think of me. The path, then, was for me to change.


My path toward personal and empathic awareness, intention, humility, and compassionate engagement has been my daily mediation and journey for the past three years. Assertiveness, the “ask,” self-awareness, and making amends has been a trend I have been on for the last three hours. Some things in life, people “get.” Maybe they had better childhoods with better models of how to be, and maybe they just get it because they’re wired differently. My crusty exterior belies a very soft middle, and the journey simply keeps taking toward the place where crusty has to go away and the exterior starts to behave and look like the center. It is a convex relationship, and one that I am excited to share.




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