Assertive, Aggressive, and Non-Assertive… | Counseling | Therapy

Assertive, Aggressive, and Non-Assertive Communication Styles

Alex , CAS, MSW, ACSW, LCSW — Founder & executive director


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Do you feel like you‘re too passive with voicing your needs? Do you get frustrated and feel angry when trying to get people to do what you want? Have you been told to be more assertive? Most people will identify that they are not as assertive as they would like. Some will say that there are too many challenges involved with being assertive or that it’s not worth it. This tip is designed to explore three different styles of communication, the payoffs and effects of each, and provide some tips for becoming more assertive.

There are three basic types of communication; assertive, non-assertive, and aggressive. At the core of being aggressive, is the assumption that “I’m ok and you’re not.” People who use an aggressive communication style are often perceived as judgmental, domineering, place “shoulds” on other people, and are critical of others behavior. Nonverbal communication seen when being aggressive includes: standing with arms crossed, breaking personal space boundaries, eye-rolling, and looking disinterested when others are sharing their needs. An aggressive person is usually called a bully, arrogant, bossy, or a “know it all.” If you get into someone’s face screaming orders, your demands are going to be met. But at what cost? There are some consequences to being aggressive all the time, such as: alienating those closest to you, hurting people’s feelings, and feeling guilty afterward. However, being the aggressor can be valuable in some situations. The payoffs include feeling superior over others, getting your needs met quickly, and getting a reaction out of people. Communicating aggressively is a pattern that is learned over time. It stems from feeling stuck in a dynamic where people are not listening to you or respecting your needs and opinions. Aggression will become the dominant mode of communication when the communicator starts to feel listened to, powerful, and superior. While communicating aggressively is valuable in the short-term; long-term effects may be detrimental as you are teaching others around you to fear you, or to become non-assertive or passive.

Non-assertive communication is the opposite of aggressive communicating. People who communicate non-assertively are telling others “You’re ok and I’m not.” Non-assertive communicators often feel like a “martyr,” want to be accepted, need to be liked, an always allow others to choose for them. Layman’s terms include wimpy, coward, doormat, passive, and timid. Non-verbal communication associated with being non-assertive includes looking down or away, using a quiet tone, remaining silent, physically moving away from a confrontation, and showing nervousness with tics, sweating, shaking, and facial expressions. Being the complete opposite of an aggressive communicator, non-assertive communication actually sounds beneficial. Especially since the payoffs include not making anyone mad, not making waves, feeling safe, and avoiding conflict. However, constantly using non-assertive communication has consequences; such as: a build up of tension and anger that will spew out in passive aggressive behaviors, teaching others to de-value your role within relationships, and resentment at others for “not getting you.” Never asserting a need can lead you to feel angry or resentful and leave others feeling confused because they don’t know what you’re thinking.

There is a classic relationship dynamic that comes with constantly using non-assertive and/or aggressive communication styles. In this dynamic, one person becomes the aggressor and one person becomes the non-aggressor. A typical interaction would look like the aggressor pushing for his or her way all the time and the non-assertive partner giving in at the time, then “getting back” at the aggressor in a withholding or sneaky manner. Many people in the aggressor role of this dynamic will complain that it is “impossible” to break the cycle and begin using assertive communication. They might feel that if they try to assert anything at all, the other person will see it as aggressive communication continue to pull away. The passive partner in the dynamic may also feel like it is impossible to change the communication; stating that when they do try to assert a need, the aggressive partner dismisses it immediately or becomes angry at them for challenging the norm. Non-assertive partners usually say they feel it’s easier to just give in and continue to remain passive to prevent confrontation. Therefore, the cycle continues where the more one person asserts, the more passive the other becomes. How can this be broken?

In American culture, assertive communication is considered to be the healthiest form. Note: this is not the case in all cultures; some cultures do place higher value on using the other forms of communicating. Also inherent to that concept, everyone would express themselves assertively and be receptive to feedback with an assertive attitude. Sadly, we don’t live in an ideal world, but being assertive is still highly recommended. The key point of assertive communication is that “I’m ok AND you’re ok.” Assertive communicators try their best to be sincere, honest, tactful, nonjudgmental, and supportive. People who are assertive are usually called classy, poised, good natured, and mature. When communicating assertively, look someone in the eye, stand tall but comfortably, be open and respectful of personal space boundaries, and use “I feel… or I think…” statements. Using assertive communication is preferred to the other forms, because it allows for discourse rather than just disagreement. Communicating assertively lets other people know what your needs are but gives them the option to choose to meet those needs in a way that feels comfortable for them too. Even though it may feel like it’s a wasted exercise because “the other person will never change,” using assertive communication will still provide benefits. You will feel more self confidence, freedom within your relationships, acceptance of others’ needs, and acceptance of yourself and your right to get your needs met.

While developing your own version of assertive communication, you might want to experiment with the other types of communication. Try using a passive attitude when you would normally be aggressive. Or be aggressive when you typically wouldn’t speak up. You may come to the conclusion that while assertive communication works best overall, but in some situations, using the other styles will make you better off. Lastly, it’s important to know that while you may be changing your style, you can’t change the other person or their modes of communicating. However, if you start using assertive communication, others will mirror your technique. You might just be able to pull that passive partner out of their shell and get a strong reaction. Or you can diffuse an aggressive partner so you can share ideas. As you’re asserting your needs, remember that you’re doing it for yourself, not the other person.

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