• How to be Assertive (and not aggressive)

    How to be Assertive (and not aggressive)

    We’ve all been looking forward to Spectre’s release. But just imagine you are in the cinema, and the people behind you are making so much noise that it’s difficult to concentrate on the film. So, in true James Bond spirit, you decide to address the situation head-on. What do you do?

    1. Turn around and shout at them to ‘Shut up, alright?!’
    2. Get their attention with a hand gesture and mumble ‘Excuse me - sorry - um - would you mind - it’s just that - um - sorry - that’s a bit disturbing - you know what, sorry, never mind, have a good evening’.
    3. Smile and simply ask ‘Excuse me, would you mind keeping the noise down? It’s a bit distracting and I’m trying to enjoy the film. Thanks’. 

    There are, broadly, three possible ways to handle this situation — aggressively, submissively, or assertively. You should be able to see which is which. But for some reason, a lot of people seem to think so; being ‘assertive’ seems to have become a euphemism for aggression or selfishness.

    The problem is, especially here in Britain, we don’t seem to be very good at being direct and unapologetic about expressing our wishes. This is what often leads to conflict: rather than addressing issues, we tend to predict and hypothesise unreasonably cruel reasons for people’s behaviours, without acknowledging that we have done nothing to make them aware that what they are doing is antisocial or inconvenient. So the submissive person (the second response, if you hadn’t guessed) might feel that it was a direct slight if the people continued to be noisy - when really, they haven’t made themselves clear.

    This in turn means that emotions like resentment and anger can build up and eventually govern our behaviour, leading to a confrontation - like the first one on our list - that is far more damaging than if we had simply expressed our concerns in an assertive manner from the outset.   

    To avoid this scenario, we’ve set out the key features of assertive behaviour, compared with aggressive (or, next week, submissive) approaches.

    Assertive vs. Aggressive

    Being assertive isn’t about bossing people around - that’s aggression. So how can you tell the difference? 

    Aggressive behaviour stems from a desire to force people to do what you want, and often assumes that you will get a negative or confrontational response before you have had the interaction. 

    Unlike aggressive behaviour, assertiveness doesn’t assume that confrontation must end in conflict. Assertiveness is about making your feelings or desires understood in a calm, clear, and direct manner. It’s a rational way to make people aware of your wishes without being forceful. 

    So how does this difference show itself in our behaviour?

    Whether you are coming across as assertive or aggressive depends on a whole mix of factors to do with the words you use, your tone of voice, your body language, and the preconceptions of the person you are addressing. Still, there are a few key indicators of aggressive behaviour that it might be helpful to note:

    • Shouting or raised voice. Not only is this intimidating; it’s a sure sign that emotions are taking control of behaviour. This in turn is one of the main causes of unreasonable behaviour: for example, shouting at the noisy people in the cinema because you’re angry that you were stuck in traffic on the way there.
    • One-sided Viewpoint. Once someone is raising their voice, you can bet that they’ve stopped listening. Regardless of who’s ‘in the wrong’, understanding others’ points of view (for example, that they didn’t realise they were causing a disturbance in the cinema) is the most efficient way to resolve an issue.
    • Accusatory Language. Want to make sure a minor issue escalates into something bigger? Use phrases like ‘You’re being noisy’ instead of more productive suggestions  - i.e. ‘Please could you keep the noise down?’.
    • Body Language. This is an easy one: smiling will get you further than sneering; an open, relaxed stance and even tone of voice wields more influence than storming around and slamming doors.


    Basically, once you start thinking about the behaviours that you find alienating or intimidating, it becomes easier to see how your own behaviour might come across as aggressive and not assertive. But once you’ve made the switch to being assertive, you’ll notice how much easier life gets. It’s amazing what you can get people to do once you stop thinking about forcing people to do things.

    What are your experiences of aggressive or assertive behaviour? And which key traits do you look out for?