Dear Liz, what is the difference between assertiveness and aggression?

I’ve received internal feedback that I can be quite aggressive when dealing with clients. As an Account Manager, I know that I need to be assertive with clients but what can I do to take it back a notch?

I've spent the last nine months in psychology books as part of a diploma. Throughout this time I've been drawn to a body of work called Transactional Analysis which explores relationships and communication. So I'll start answering your question by referring you to the work of Eric Berne, psychotherapist, who wrote the books Games People Play and What Do You Say After Hello?. His approach contains many important insights, although the key premise of his work tends to be distilled into "I'm ok, You're ok. I'm sure we can recognise this space in our lives. This means that when we are occupying an adult to adult place, we are both relating to each other from an equal place. This is a place where I respect you and you respect me.

However, if we move to a place in our relationship where "I'm ok and you are not ok" or "you are ok and I'm not ok" then we have imbalance. In these places the relationship is no longer adult to adult. In these scenarios I may feel superior to you and feel the need to score a point, put you down and/or exert power over you. It is in this relationship that the aggression can make an appearance. In stating my case from a position of me being ok and responding to you as someone who is not ok, we are no longer relating as two equal adults who both have the right to be heard and respected. Can you recognise these positions in any of your interactions at work or your personal life?

Listening is also a key attribute to encourage assertiveness. If I'm relating to you from an aggressive position I really don't care about what you have to say to me from your perspective about the situation and I'm not interested in listening to your response to what I have to say. I just want to make my point (often forcibly) and without much consideration for the impact of my words and associated behaviour on you. I want to win. And I know deep inside that I'm 100% right and you are 100% wrong. So there.

Physical changes are also evident. Such emotional interactions also produce changes in the body; blood pressure is raised, fight-or-flight response kicks in and voices are raised.

To be assertive means that we do not interrupt the other person or speak over them. As Nancy Kline would say in her Time To Think work we need to "pay beautiful attention" to the other and come from a place of curiosity as we listen to and explore their thinking.

When we are assertive we enter the conversation from a different position. We are clear of what we want and are respectful of the other. We may ask questions, clarify the situation and listen to the other person's answers. We stay calm and seek collaboration, not alienation. And remember, there really is no right or wrong; even a stopped clock is right twice a day!

Stating clearly what you want is also key. Very often we mask what we really want with disclaimers and passive-aggressive behaviour; for example, "I'd like you to put the washing on if you don't mind and you are not too busy." However, we need to positively state what we want.

There are also times when we all need to be appropriately selfish - a curious phrase. I am sure you have heard the the safety instructions on an aircraft when we are told that in the event of a drop in air pressure we must "place the mask over your own mouth before helping others." What do you need to attend to before supporting others?

We all have a desire to have our needs met and if we communicate clearly, from a place of positive intention, our words should be received in the manner in which we intended them. This isn't that you can no longer say what you need to say. What I'm saying is to consider how you prepare for your interactions and think about what you want to say. Always start with the end in mind; what is the outcome you want to leave the room with?

In simple terms, aggression is bullying and assertiveness is collaboration.

We all know that not all meetings are easy and there are always some people we feel less comfortable being around. Have you thought about how you can prepare your mind before a meeting? Sounds crazy but pop to the loo for five minutes and take a few deep breaths. Take a few moments to think about the person you are meeting and smile.

Notice yourself in meetings and daily interactions. Think before you speak. If you have a tendency to talk a lot, count to ten before you speak to give the other person time to be heard.

Notice what others do. How do they show up in the world and move around the agency? Notice your language. If you have a tendency to criticise or be negative, allow yourself a positivity only week.

Find a buddy to support you as you make gradual changes to be more inclusive. It takes a bit of time and the results are well worth it! 


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Last updated 21 January 2022