Why the distinction between assertive and aggressive is so important
By Lisa Earle McLeod
Being aggressive turns people off. But being assertive is a critical skill for anyone who wants to have fulfilling relationships, personal or professional. You’ll never get anything done if you don’t know how to be assertive.
Words are tricky. When you understand the nuanced difference between words, it helps you be more successful in your interactions with others. For example, thinking of yourself as assertive will make you more effective (and well-liked) than if you try to behave aggressively.
Being assertive means standing up for yourself or an idea that you believe in. Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were assertive. They were bold and confident because they cared.
The subtle shift in aggressiveness
Aggression is another matter. Aggressive people aren’t standing up for their own principles; they’re going into combat against someone else’s. There’s a different underlying emotion. Assertiveness comes from a place of confidence; aggression is usually rooted in fear.
Think about it, would you rather have your employee or spouse attend Assertiveness Training or Aggressiveness Training?
Like I said, words are tricky. The subtle differences matter a lot. We run into problems when we group seemingly similar behavioral words together and assume they all mean the same thing.
People who are uncomfortable asserting themselves often fall back on the excuse, “I don’t want to be pushy or aggressive.”
When we’re afraid of being perceived as the extreme negative of a certain behavioral category, we avoid it all together. But that’s really a cop out. Success lies in the nuance. Take careful vs. cautious. Being careful is a good thing, but being too cautious holds you back. Like aggressive vs. assertive, the difference between careful and cautious is the underlying emotion behind the behavior.
Being careful comes from a place of caring. Being cautious is rooted in fear.
If you think of yourself as a careful person, you’ll likely have more confidence. You’ll perceive yourself as someone who is good at thinking things through. But if you think of yourself as cautious, you won’t have as much confidence in your decisions.
Labels matter because the way we think and feel about ourselves affects the way we show up for the world, and in turn the way other people respond to us.
Frantic vs. focused is another example. They both convey a level of energy. But while a frantic person’s energy is spinning out of control, a focused person is directing their energy in a very intentional way.
When you’re frantic, people are always telling you to calm down. That’s because frantic energy is uncomfortable to be around. But if you have a lot of energy, you really don’t want to stifle it. You want to harness it.
I spent much of my life with people telling me to chill out. It wasn’t until someone said, “Don’t deny your energy, channel it,” that I finally realized: I’m never going to be a low-key person. Nor do I even want to be. But I can be a focused person.
You don’t have to abandon the whole range of behaviors. When you have clarity on the nuance, you can step into the version that works for you.
Shy people can learn to be assertive. Cautious people can be confidently careful, and even the most frantic can learn to be focused.
Life is not an all or nothing game, success sits in the nuance.
Lisa Earle McLeod is a leadership consultant. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer hire her to help them create passionate, purpose-driven team. She the author of The Triangle of Truth, which the Washington Post named as a “Top Five Book for Leaders.” She has appeared on The Today Show, and has been featured in Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal. She provides executive coaching sessions, strategy workshops, and keynote speeches. For more information, visit www.LisaEarleMcLeod.com