• Lauren Maxwell

Assertive or Aggressive? How to be firm but fair

We are often told that to be effective communicators and get what we want we need to ‘assertive’.

But what does that mean?

And what is the difference between assertive and aggressive communication anyway?

When I asked a small group of professional women recently to describe how they would know if someone was being aggressive in their communication towards them, several indicated that factors like tone and volume of voice were heightened, and language may be emotive and personal. Anna, 34, suggested “they also often adopt aggressive or domineering body language” while Sarah, 34, stated “they are yelling”. When asked how this type of communication makes them feel, Anna responded “if someone speaks to me aggressively, I usually feel upset and a little shocked”. Similarly, Suzie, 37, reported “Aggressive communication makes me feel shamed, threatened, shocked and bullied. I take it personally”.

When asked what the difference is between aggressive and assertive communication, a mix of responses was found. Sally, 34, indicated that “I generally can’t tell the difference” whilst Suzie was clearer in her summation “Assertive communication is usually productive, aggressive communication is not, because I'm not listening for what the aggressor wants or needs anymore, just waiting for the communication to stop”. Aimee, 35 described aggressive communication to be a “a long drawn out process that drags several people/incidents into the mix and requires more time and effort to address the issue at hand” while she identified that assertive communication “clearly outlines the problem and offers a solution immediately so all parties are on the same page and the issue is resolved quickly and efficiently leaving no room for grudges or repeat incidence”.

“Assertive communication is usually productive, aggressive communication is not, because I'm not listening for what the aggressor wants or needs anymore, just waiting for the communication to stop”

Well done ladies – you’ve summed it all up nicely! In very broad terms assertiveness can be described as a communication style that is perceived as direct, firm but fair and sticks to the point. In contrast, aggressiveness is typically considered intentionally hostile or argumentative towards the listener.

Now, some key factors are highlighted in these opinions: Firstly, different people will perceive communication styles differently; voice quality, language and tone all play a part in how our words are perceived; and body language is important in how our message may be perceived by others. It is also clear that communication perceived as assertive, leads to better outcomes than aggressive.

So, the big question is: how can we best-ensure that we are perceived as assertive rather than aggressive in our communication to others?

Leave your emotions at the door

You’ve got valid words to say, so get them out. Sometimes it can be difficult to express ourselves in a highly emotive situation – we’ve all been there, where we’ve tried to express ourselves under the pressure of emotion and have unwittingly turned a conversation into an argument. But in order to get our point across in a non-emotive manner, it is important to stick to the facts and use (where possible) neutral language. By limiting language that is absolute (always, never); feelings based (love, hate, like); assigning ‘blame’ (should, shouldn’t, could, couldn’t); or objectionable (beginning sentences with ‘But’), you will be minimising the likelihood of the other party perceiving your message as emotively driven. Now, that’s not to say that you are unable to challenge the other party, but rather you stick to evidence based facts wherever possible.

Watch your body language

It’s widely acknowledged that the unspoken language of our conversation partner has an immense impact on our perception of them. In fact, we know that up to about 80% of conversation can be understood through body language alone, with specific word content being of far less value. Neutral, or ‘open body language’ such as uncrossed arms, slightly elevated face, appropriate eye contact, appropriate proximity to the other party, and interactive actions (such as hand gestures) all demonstrate to our conversation partner that we are actively engaged in the discussion, and are therefore listening to what they are saying. This is important, as ‘closed body language’ which includes crossed arms, face looking down, inappropriate levels of eye contact (very intense or limited) etc, may lead to the perception that we are not engaged, and indeed, not interested in our conversation partner’s input. Similarly, body language that may be perceived as outright aggressive may include inappropriate proximity (standing too close to the other party); rushed and extensive gestures (violent hand waving, slapping the table, tapping foot continually); and closed facial expressions such as pursed lips, furrowed brow, inappropriate gaze (looking away or intensively looking at the other party). As a general rule of thumb, if you feel like you are in the danger zone for displaying closed or aggressive body language take a deep breath to relax, and return to a more neutral stance.

"be careful not to fall into ‘newsreader’ mode here and maintain your own natural flow"

Mind your tone

The overall tone of our communication includes factors such as general pitch, volume, intonation (voice going up and down) and speed of words, and provides many cues about the meaning or inference behind what we say – think of it as the ‘personality’ of our speech. You see, as outlined above, the actual words that we use only provide some of the picture, and the rest is a combination of our body language and tone. To keep your communication assertive, ensure that your pitch is neutral – this is the pitch at which you voice naturally speaks in. If you are tense and having trouble with this, stop and take a deep breath – it really does help (your mother was right)! Likewise, make sure that you are using a moderately steady speed and volume that allows for you to be easily heard from approximately 1 metre away. Intonation is important also, as it indicates a confidence in what you are saying as well as helping to maintain interest for your listener – in general, you should be melodic in your rise and falls, ending sentences with an upper intonation (ie going up at the end of the last word) to indicate a question, and lower intonation (the reverse) when you are finishing statement sentences – but be careful not to fall into ‘newsreader’ mode here and maintain your own natural flow in the conversation. Aspects of tone that are commonly perceived as aggressive include loud volume, significantly low or high pitch, rushed speed of speech and exaggerated intonation.

So go forth, be assertive, and GET WHAT YOU WANT (in a firm but fair manner)!

#communication #careerdevelopment #personaldevelopment #assertiveness #empowerment


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Lauren is a professional member of Career Development Association, full member of Australian Society Of Rehabilitation Counsellors, and a regular contributor for Leaders In Heels. Her expert opinion and articles have been featured in loads of places!

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