• Assertiveness and aggression are different approaches to handling confrontation, each with distinguishing factors and often 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.
  • 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.

Assertive and aggressive behavior are two totally different approaches to communication and, often, confrontation. But one often reaps better benefits — learn about the difference between the two and which you should turn to.

What Is the Difference Between Assertive and Aggressive?

In 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 here in this unfamiliar place?” I wondered. Quickly, however, these worries subsided.

I came to love the rolling hills, the dirt roads, and the beautiful people within days. I wasn’t fearful, nor uncomfortable anymore — I was liberated. 

Until I met a hostile man on a walk home.

My students always insisted on walking me and my fellow teachers 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 our driveway, the kids suddenly grew quiet. 

Seconds later, a man walking by 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.

Alex demonstrated assertive behavior, as he confidently confronted the man who grabbed Kim, but in a non-threatening 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.

Assertive vs. Aggressive Communication Methods

While it can be difficult to differentiate assertive vs. aggressive behavior, 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 is also respectful to 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 well-being in mind.

It’s often easy to lose one’s temper or patience and act with aggression. However, as you can see in my earlier example, 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.