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How to tell the Difference Between Aggressiveness or Assertiveness?

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Man screaming into phone; opposite of assertiveness
Verbal aggression is all too common in our world

What does “mean” mean?

Do you know the difference between being assertive and aggressive? Aggressive people often don't know that they're the opposite of assertive, and there's some confusion about what is the difference between assertiveness and aggression.

I often hear clients say that they can’t assert themselves with the people in their lives because it would be too “mean.” I often wonder what exactly that signifies to that person. I ask them to explain their definition of “mean” to me. Often, I find that they view being assertive as “mean” to the other person. If you have grown up with controlling, overly strict, or abusive parents who don’t allow you to be yourself or say “no” to them, you might be confused about this too. This raises an important point about the difference between being mean and being assertive. I would like to share the distinctions with you.

What is difference between Aggressiveness or Assertiveness?

First, there are many ways you as humans can be unkind to each other, but they basically boil down to three basic types of behavior: being overly critical or insulting; being deceptive or manipulative; or being dismissive and withholding when upset.

You can think about what you want to say and ask yourself, “Am I being overly critical or insulting? Am I deceiving or manipulating the person? Am I withdrawing my affection from the person in order to control their behavior, when I could share what I’m upset about with them instead?” If you can honestly say that you are doing none of the above, it might be worthwhile to share with the person what you want to tell them.

Consider your audience

I think most emotionally healthy people would rather you tell them that you didn’t like something they did, than secretly resent them or live in fear of hurting their feelings. Giving people the benefit of the doubt and assuming that they can handle a simple statement like, “I didn’t like what you just did” is usually not too threatening for most people to hear.

Now, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether the other person would regard what you do as mean. Sometimes you imagine that you “know” people and can predict how they will act in advance, when they really might surprise you and react neutrally or positively to what you would like to tell them.

women talking on a porch with hot beverage; opposite of assertiveness
Can you believe what that person said? Run it by a friend.

Check it out with someone else

Sometimes you might ask a trusted friend, “How does this statement sound to you? Would you take offense if I said this to you, if you were bothering me?” This way you avoid gossiping about the person with whom you’re upset but you can also get honest feedback from them. It’s healthier to give the person with whom you’re upset the chance to hear you and possibly modify their behavior, than to assume that they will not hear it and resent them for not changing. After all, you haven’t told them what’s bothering you, so how can you expect them to change if they don’t know?

Look out for narcissistic people

There are people, however, who have narcissistic personality traits and/or full-blown personality disorders and these people have an extremely hard time taking responsibility for their behavior and its effect on others. Those people always see interpersonal issues as arising from “out there” (other people) and are too emotionally fragile to accept any responsibility for their own behavior, much less see that they are hurting others (even inadvertently).

Sometimes you do not know you’re dealing with someone like this until you innocently share with them that you’re not happy with something they do; the result is often not, “I wasn’t aware I was doing that. Let me think about that, and we’ll discuss it some more.” The response is more akin to what you probably fear: “I always knew you were against me! How dare you say that?” Or, “how could you be so mean and selfish to say such a thing! Don’t you know how much I’ve sacrificed to be with you?!”

If you get a response like that, chances are you are probably dealing with someone who can’t take a step back and observe themselves interacting with other people. This lack of perspective makes people very touchy and defensive, and that can be rather unpleasant to deal with.

How do you deal with people who are the opposite of assertive?

You may know some people like this in your life, and my hope is that you do not have to deal with them on a regular basis, because they can be very wearying to encounter. Even if you do have people like this in your life and fear their retribution, you can still assert yourself and set boundaries with them. It will just be harder to hold the line because they lack boundaries themselves and find other people’s assertiveness “mean.”

So if you can deliver your message of discontent cleanly, just stating their behavior as an observation and your emotional reaction to it, you can reasonably assume that you are not being “mean” to the other person.

Communicating nonviolently

For more information on how to communicate effectively, I recommend Marshall Rosenberg, PhD’s book, Nonviolent Communication. It has some really good tips for how to talk to other people in ways that facilitate communication and not defensiveness. If you want help with communication and relationships, please call me at 661-233-6771.

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