The difference between assertive vs. aggressive communication

I have been called aggressive many times when I was simply trying to do my job well. If you have ever run into that mislabeling, or misinterpretation, or feel like you’ve been told to watch your tone, or take it down a notch, or mute yourself, or turn down your volume, you’re not alone. 

This is a common phenomenon.

Today, I want to break down the actual difference between being assertive and aggressive, and not just the perceived differences which are so often influenced by gender. In my recent interview with my former professor Barbara Tannenbaum, she was the first person to really illuminate this difference for me in a clear and definitional way back when I was studying in my undergraduate days with her. 

It all boils down to rights

The first thing I want to make clear is that the difference between assertive and aggressive doesn’t have to do with your tone. It doesn’t have to do with your body language, per se. It doesn’t even have to do with who’s expressing themselves. It has to do with rights, whose rights are being respected and protected and whose rights are being violated.

For example, there’s a really clear hypothetical, that Barbara always shared with me as a student and I want to share with you now. 

If you’re waiting in a long line for concert tickets, and you see someone hop to the front of the line – cut in front of everybody to meet up with their friends, maybe they’re bringing them a quad of Starbucks lattes or something. It seems like what she’s doing is very innocuous, nice, and maybe even a little passive aggressive. But she hops to the front of the line. And then someone behind you stands out in line and gets really loud, takes up a lot of space and says, “Excuse me, the end of the line is back there. We have all been waiting here. Please go to the back of the line.” 

Of course, everyone who’s been observing all of this go down sees this loud woman in the back of the line shouting, thinking: “What’s her problem?” “What’s going on?” “Who’s making trouble?” 

The question that I always pose to audiences when I share this really great example is who’s being assertive here and who’s being aggressive? Now it might seem at first glance, like the woman behind you is making a big fuss, is calling people out, is making a ruckus. She might be seen as aggressive. But the reality is, she is standing up for the rights of everyone.

She’s standing up for her own rights. She’s also defending the rights of everyone else in this situation. And that is a key part of what it means to be assertive, what it means to be a leader. The woman who cut the line and might seem like she’s just being nice to her friends and catching up with her buddies. But in that action, whether it’s intended or not, she’s actually violating the rights of everyone else in line who’s been patiently waiting their turn.

Definitions

Here’s what it really boils down to: being aggressive is doing what’s in your own best interest, without regard for the rights wants or needs of others. Being assertive, on the other hand, is similarly being clear about what you want, being forthright about your needs, while considering the rights, wants, and needs of others. It all boils down to “Am I being reciprocal?” Or “Am I being single-minded and selfish without intending to or not?” and “Whose rights are actually being respected?” 

We’re not taught this definition. 

In fact, in everyday speech, people use assertive and aggressive almost interchangeably and sometimes aggressive is a term that’s lobbed at someone based on their vocal tone or, or body language or facial expression, which is not fair because you can have a pretty intense facial expression or vocal tone, but be standing up on someone else’s behalf and advocating for everyone’s rights in a situation. It’s not fair to label that person as being aggressive. 

So I want to really decouple the concept of labeling someone who’s aggressive or even assertive. Based on visual or vocal impressions alone, they can certainly reinforce your message but when people are marching in the streets to advocate on behalf of everyone’s rights, or human dignity, or human rights, one person’s aggressive activist is another person’s assertive leader. 

Keep that in mind. It’s really not about your subjective impression about someone’s vocal tone, or body language, or facial expression. It’s about who am I speaking up on behalf of whose rights are being respected and whose rights are being trampled. 

Gender makes this especially confusing

Now the second thing you need to know about this whole assertive versus aggressive difference is that gender makes this especially confusing for people. 

As it turns out, assertive women are often perceived as aggressive and mislabeled as such. Social science researchers have found an inverse correlation between assertiveness and likability when that assertiveness is expressed by women. 

In other words, the more assertive a woman is, the less likeable she is deemed. Whereas they don’t see that issue when it comes to assertive men. It’s positively correlated with assertive men. This is one of many double-binds that researchers call the leadership likability double-bind. 

Another similar finding is known as the warmth-competence model, which shows that competent skilled women who are on top of their game are still deemed not likable or not respected if they’re not also warm and endearing, which all stems back to our unconscious beliefs about what makes a good woman and what makes a good man. 

Even though gender is a spectrum, or a social construct or going the way of the dodo, depending on how you look at it, the bottom line is if you are perceived as an assertive, competent woman, but are not nice, likeable, sweet, kind, thoughtful, respectful and caring at the same time, you’re liable to be labeled as another “B word” or all kinds of terrible negative judgments being passed on you. 

So how do we curb this?

What forms of disrespect might you be accepting? Because you know if you speak up in defense or on behalf of yourself, you risk being seen as a diva, or as someone who’s making too much noise or someone who is causing problems. That is the silencing impact of sexism in its most innocuous modern form, which I would argue makes it even harder to tackle because it’s unspoken. It’s unconscious. It’s implicit. It is omnipresent, especially for women leaders. 

When it comes to how we push back on these double-binds that keep women leaders feeling tapped into and on a tightrope, trying to be seen as authoritative, respectful and being seen as someone who’s highly competent and ambitious, but also nice and sweet and caring and kind, and like totally relatable. It’s so impossible. It’s exhausting. 

The way to push back on this is:

Question people when they label women, including labeling yourself, as aggressive when you’re simply trying to be assertive or as bossy when a little girl is simply being a leader. Sometimes it’s as simple as saying, “Well, what do you mean by that? I don’t understand. How am I being aggressive? Help me understand.” 

So pushing back on that can feel very unnerving and it of course it feels unnerving, because you we’re just labeled as aggressive. So asking an assertive question feels like an especially big risk. But it is so important. And before we ourselves cut in front of the line of people, or make our voices heard, perhaps too much, if you’re the kind of person like me, who’s always erred on the side of being a little more assertive than not, and you want to question, “Hmm, am I being assertive? Or am I sometimes slipping into being aggressive here?”

Ask yourself this, “Who am I helping? And who am I harming by speaking up?” By taking up space, by making my voice heard, who am I helping? Whose rights am I defending? And if the answer is just your own, that’s not necessarily bad. It’s important to stand up on your own behalf. But it’s equally important to ask yourself, “Are there others’ rights involved here that I’m neglecting, that I’m ignoring, or that I’m trampling on whether unconsciously or not?” Be mindful of speaking up in such a reciprocal way that you’re saying, “

Here’s my rights, here are my beliefs. Here’s what I want. What do you want? What do you believe? What are your rights in this situation? How can we make sure that they’re being respected too?” I like to think of being assertive as a two way dialogue and being aggressive is like a one way proclamation. 

As you rise in the ranks in power, it can be very easy to make a whole bunch of proclamations instead of engaging in real conversation. I encourage all of us to not only walk the walk, but really talk the talk when it comes to knowing that there is a fundamental difference between assertive and aggressive. We have to shout this from the rooftops because we’ve been living in a society that conflates the two. 

If you found this difference helpful, share it right now on social media or wherever you think it might help raise awareness of how important assertiveness is to all kinds of breakthroughs and innovation and leadership potential, but also how very fundamentally different it is than being aggressive. 

While we’re at it, let’s not forget to talk about how gender and race for that matter make being assertive, and especially risky proposition in a society that far too often views women’s assertive voices as angry voices. That is especially true for black women. We need to highlight the difference between assertive and aggressive wherever we can. And whenever you hear this mislabeling happening, call it out. 

Now, if you’re the kind of person who wants to become a more confident, assertive unapologetically speaker, whether it’s in the form of raising your hand and controlling commuting to conversations at work, or speaking up in your community as an organizer and activist or polishing your presentation and public speaking skills. 

There are just a few days left to enroll in our new program, Speak Up, a two-month training program to help women own their voice, and in doing so, own their power. If you’d like to learn more, head to bossedup.org/speakup

How are you practicing knowing the difference between assertive and aggressive? 

Have you been labeled as aggressive? When you’ve simply been trying to make your voice heard? I want to hear your story. 

Let’s keep being the assertive bossed up women I know we all can be.

This article first appeared on Bossed Up.