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  • Assertive behavior and aggression are different approaches to handling confrontation, which have distinguishing factors and lead to very different outcomes.
  • First, assertive behavior is typically a positive form of expression, while aggression is a negative form of expression.
  • Additionally, assertive behavior is rooted in respect, while aggression is not; for example, voicing your opinion through aggressive acts communicates that your feelings are more important.
  • Aggression also often makes matters worse, while assertive behavior is more productive.
  • Finally, assertive behavior is all about standing up for yourself and your values in an unthreatening manner, while aggression puts others down.

My junior year of college, I spent about 5 weeks living and teaching in Rwanda. In the days leading up to my trip, I felt increasingly nervous. What if I don’t enjoy my time in this other-worldly, little village? Quickly, however, these worries subsided. I came to love the rolling hills, the dirt roads, and the beautiful, unfamiliar faces within days. I wasn’t fearful, nor uncomfortable—I was liberated. Until I met a hostile man on a walk home.

My students always insisted on walking my colleagues and I home at the end of the school day. On this particular afternoon, we kicked rocks, sang songs, and hopped over puddles. But as we approached my driveway, the kids suddenly grew quiet. Within seconds, a man grabbed my colleague Kim and attempted to kiss her. Fortunately, my other colleague Alex reacted quickly, gripping the man’s shoulders and asking him to stop. The man conceded, letting Kim out of his grasp. He giggled and carried on his way.

Assertive and aggressive behavior are two totally different approaches to confrontation. Alex demonstrated assertive behavior, as he confidently confronted the man who grabbed Kim, but in a nonthreatening manner. He could have, instead, acted aggressively by threatening the man either physically or verbally—but odds are, the outcome would have been much different. While it can be difficult to differentiate the two, there are distinguishing factors (including their subsequent outcomes). Let’s take a look:

  • Assertive behavior is often a positive form of expression, while aggression is often a negative form of expression. It’s typically a good thing to be assertive: you know what you want and you’re asserting your value, but you’re also respecting others involved. Assertiveness sits right in the middle of passivity (undervaluing yourself) and aggression (ignoring the value of others) and is the best way to approach a confrontation or negotiation. Aggression, on the other hand, is perceived poorly due to the disregard for others.
  • Assertive behavior is rooted in respect, aggression is not. As we just mentioned, assertive behavior respects everyone involved. Aggression, on the other hand, typically doesn’t. For example, assertively telling your boyfriend what you want out of the relationship shows that you’re serious, but also respects the both of you. Aggressively telling your boyfriend what you want puts your feelings before his and communicates negativity.
  • Assertive behavior is productive, while aggression is ineffective and often makes matters worse. Let’s look back at the example from earlier. Alex took the assertive route, as opposed to the aggressive route, which led to Kim’s immediate release and safety. Had he chosen the aggressive route instead, there’s no telling what could have resulted. The man may have retaliated with his own aggression and the situation could have become a much graver one.
  • Assertive behavior is all about standing up for yourself, but aggression usually involves threatening, attacking, or (to a lesser degree) ignoring others. Assertive individuals stand up for themselves—for their beliefs, their values, their needs. And they do so in a respectful, unthreatening, nonviolent way. Here, everybody’s best interest is at heart. Aggression, on the other hand, typically hurts others or doesn’t bear their wellbeing in mind.

It’s often easy to lose one’s temper or patience and act with aggression. However, as you can see above, acting with assertiveness is better for all involved. So, when you find yourself in a situation that may involve confrontation, steer yourself away from aggression. Ask yourself: What’s my goal? What do I want to get out of this confrontation? How can I achieve that? Your answers to these questions will likely guide you in the direction of acting assertively—rather than aggressively—and reaping the best possible benefits from the situation.

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