Are You Assertive or Aggressive? How To Know Which One You Are


    6 Min Read


    There are many grey areas regarding the appropriate way to express yourself when tensions are high, which is why the the line being assertive vs. aggressive can be so faint. Ideally, we’re clear and confident, solidly making our points and coming to mutual agreement - something easy to do if you’re talking to a mirror.

    But the waters can get muddied when other people are involved. Emotions can push our behavior over the line, and instead of being assertive, we become aggressive, often without us ever realizing it.


    This can mean your perception of your behavior and the perception of others can differ. The behaviors you thought were appropriate and justifiable are being taken as hostile, angry, and belligerent, leaving you as the bad guy.

    This is a common concern brought up in Dr. Kurt’s counseling practice. According to him,

    It's easy for men in particular to think they're just being assertive when the person on the other side feels like they're aggressive. I know, it's happened to me. How we believe we're sending our message and how it's actually received can be very different. Assertive vs. aggressive communication isn't just a guy problem either. When making an effort to be more assertive many women can overcompensate and become aggressive. In order for our communication to be effective, it's crucial that we monitor how we're being received and be willing to adjust our delivery so our message is heard, and not dismissed because we're coming on too strong."

    So, how do you prevent going from assertive to aggressive?

    To begin with, you need to understand the differences between the two and why the line can be hard to see.

    How Aggressive And Assertive Behaviors Differ

    Aggressive and assertive are descriptors for communicative behavior that are frequently interchanged and often misused.

    Most of us agree that being viewed as assertive is positive and suggests confidence and decisiveness. Describing behavior as aggressive, however, brings to mind forceful or frightening actions.

    There’s no question about how most of us would rather be perceived.


    To better understand the differences, let’s consider the hallmarks of each.


    Assertive behaviors are firm and communicate respect for yourself and the person with whom you’re speaking. It’s characterized by being direct, constructive, and inclusive.

    Being assertive in your communication means you incorporate the following:

    • Active listening (giving full-attention and demonstrating that you’re hearing and understanding the person with whom you’re speaking)

    • Responsiveness

    • Eye-contact

    • Positive body language

    • Collaborative actions

    • Clear and fair boundaries


    Aggressive behaviors are selfish, controlling, and short-sighted. These behaviors lack respect for others, put your needs first, and disregard the impact of your behaviors on those around you.

    Communication becomes aggressive when it's:

    • Dismissive

    • Indifferent to boundaries

    • Intolerant of others or their opinions

    • Accompanied by eye-rolling or looking away

    • Rude or includes name-calling

    • Delivered with closed or threatening body language

    Seeing The Differences In Assertive vs. Aggressive Behavior

    By definition the differences between aggressive and assertive behaviors should be clear. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case in real life.


    Assertive behavior requires self-awareness and intentional actions. Without that, and especially when emotions are running high, it can be easy for aggressive behavior to take over.

    Consider the following examples:

    Scenario One

    After spending his allowance on what you feel is junk, your teenage son asks for additional money to buy new sneakers. Knowing that he has plenty of shoes and could have saved the money if he’d tried, you’re irritated.

    Your options for response are:

    Aggressive: “Are you kidding?! Hard no. You waste your money on crap and don’t need new shoes. I’m not made of money, and I’m not giving you another dime.”

    Assertive: “I’m sorry, son. I understand that you’d like those, and as much as I enjoy seeing you happy, I won’t just give you my money when I know you could have saved your own. If you’d like to earn an extra allowance, I have work you can do, or I can help you develop a savings plan.”

    Both responses can come from a good parent who loves their child. But the assertive response will generate understanding and creates a learning opportunity. In contrast, the aggressive response can lead to a break in communication and resentment.

    Scenario Two

    Your husband had his boss over for dinner, and you went to a lot of trouble to prepare and serve a nice meal. You didn’t ask for his help because you knew it was an opportunity for them to talk outside of work and become closer. After your husband’s boss leaves, your husband sits down on the couch to watch TV, leaving you with all the clean-up, and asks you to bring him a beer.

    Your options for response are:

    Aggressive: “No way. No way you get to sit here and relax while I clean up after you. Is this 1964? Do you think I’m just here to serve you? You can get your own beer AFTER you get off your behind and help me in the kitchen.”

    Assertive: “I hope the evening was a success for you. Right now, I need your help in getting things cleaned up, please. When that’s done, we can both sit down and relax together.”

    Nothing about either exchange says, “I don’t love you.” In fact, the aggressive response might not even be delivered in an angry tone. But it’s controlling, sarcastic, and delivers an angry message.

    Scenario Three

    You and your wife are going out and decide to take her car. When you get in, you notice there’s mud from the kid's shoes, homework papers, shopping bags, gym bag, and several other items. It’s a mess.


    Your options for response are:

    Aggressive: “This is ridiculous. How can you keep your car like this? You have to clean this car before I’ll ever get in it again. You should be embarrassed.”

    Assertive:“Honey, I know how busy you are, but we should get your car cleaned up. This mess has got to be frustrating. I’m sure it’s driving you crazy.”

    Again, nothing here says this couple doesn’t love each other. But the aggressive response isn’t respectful. It’s also self-centered on the husband’s part without any consideration for his wife’s feelings or the “why” behind the mess in the car.

    All three scenarios are real. And in all three the aggressive response is the one that actually occurred.

    If these were one-offs, they’d probably be overlooked. But for each of the families above, the aggressive vs. assertive responses have become the norm, and communication has broken down.

    The result?

    Passive Behavior – The Quiet Cousin To Aggressive And Assertive Behavior

    One other aspect of communicative behavior should be mentioned – passive behavior.


    Passive behavior is quiet and non-responsive. It’s characterized by,

    • Lack of response

    • Blanket agreement

    • Compliance

    People are often passive because they’re,

    • Afraid to appear aggressive

    • Unsure of how to assert themselves

    • Fearful the person they’re communicating with will become aggressive and possibly abusive

    • Trying to “keep the peace”

    Regardless of the reason, passive behavior is dishonest. Someone who’s passive is repressing their true feelings. Consequently, they’re often taken advantage of or treated without respect.

    Gender And Aggressive, Assertive, And Passive Behavior

    There have been volumes written about gender-related communication and behavior. The subject has many nuances that can’t be fairly addressed here.


    It merits a mention, however, because when it comes to communication in relationships, the remnants of gender stereotypes are still often a part of the problem.

    Throughout history,

    • Women have been taught or forced to be passive in their communication.

    • Men have been taught that aggression is the only acceptable method of expressing themselves.

    While it’s generally understood that these are wrong, they’re still a fallback communication style for many partners in relationships.

    This can lead to miscommunication at best, or abusive and angry behavior in men and passive-aggressive anger in women at worst.

    Of course, these roles can be reversed as well. In an effort not to be passive, many women overcompensate and become aggressive and angry, while men can become silent and indifferent.

    Neither is a healthy or sustainable way to operate in a relationship.

    The solution?

    Learning to communicate through respectful and assertive behavior.

    What To Take Away

    When it comes to communicative behavior, there are many layers. Without being intentional in how you communicate, especially if anger or frustration is involved, assertive behavior can become aggressive.


    If you can relate to any of the scenarios above, or you’ve been told that the way you speak is angry, demanding, or aggressive, remember the following:

    • Not all aggressive behavior is intended to be so.

    • If emotions are involved, consider your words before speaking and rephrase them in a more assertive rather than aggressive manner.

    • Assertive behaviors maintain your boundaries and self-respect while respecting the position and boundaries of the person you’re speaking to.

    • Passive behavior is unfair to both you and the person you’re speaking to.

    The most effective way to achieve a positive outcome in any situation is through assertive behavior, not aggressive.


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