how to be assertive without being aggressive

Striking the right balance between assertive, but not too assertive so that you appear aggressive, isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. These 8 practical tips are designed to show you how to be assertive without using aggression.

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Being assertive, but not too assertive, enables you to communicate clearly and be heard. However, some people aren’t assertive enough and rarely speak up, while others are too assertive, and interrupt and talk over people. 

Generally speaking, if you’re lacking in assertiveness, you tend to agree with people, even if they’re wrong. And if you’re extremely assertive, you’re more inclined to focus on your own feelings over everybody else’s. 

Striking the right balance between assertive, but not too assertive isn’t easy, but it’s not impossible. These practical tips are designed to help you boost your assertiveness without using aggression: 

be clear 

This involves asking for what you want in an open and straightforward way. State your feelings clearly without directly or indirectly demeaning somebody else. 

At the same time, speak in a normal tone and avoid shouting. And no matter how passionate you may feel about something, don’t make demands or try to appeal to other people’s emotions by manipulating or forcing them into doing something they don’t want to do. (For more on communicating clearly, openly and concisely, take a look at the DEARMAN technique, which was developed by dialectical behaviour therapist, Dr Marsha Linehan, in the 1990s), or our guide here 

make eye contact 

It’s common knowledge that people respond better to individuals who make eye contact with them. However, too much eye contact can make people feel like they’re being stared at (it’s a clear sign of aggressive behaviour too) and really uncomfortable.  

When it comes to making eye contact, make sure you make the right amount. Aim to maintain eye contact for around 70% of the time. This will help show you’re interested in the other person; you respect their opinions and you’re willing to listen to them. 

maintain a positive posture  

Body language is a key part of being assertive. It applies to almost every part of your body, from your head to your toes, and even the tiniest of movements and facial expressions. To create a positive posture you need to: 

  • sit or stand in an upright yet relaxed posture 
  • lean slightly forward towards the other person within invading their personal space 
  • keep your arms down by your sides (don’t fold them because it immediately makes you look defensive) 
  • make sure your facial expression is neutral or positive – e.g. your jaw needs to be soft rather than clenched or set 
  • avoid using lots of hand movements or dramatic gestures 

If you can, try practicing your body posture in the mirror and, if it helps, rehearse what you want to say out loud at the same time. 

do your homework 

If you’re requesting something from a colleague or your manager, you’ll feel a lot more confident and less likely to become aggressive or defensive if you can back it up calmly when challenged. 

In order to do this, you must do your homework and research first. If you’re asking your employer for a pay rise, for example, prepare your case by noting down why you think you deserve one. This could include how you’ve saved the company money or generated new business, or details of the key objectives you’ve met, or exceeded, over the past year. 

take a step back 

If you tend to find yourself easily getting angry or frustrated in difficult situations, if possible, try to delay dealing with matters until you feel calmer. 

It may not always be easy to keep your emotions in check, especially if something is happening that you think is unfair or you simply don’t agree with. You will have a much better chance of being able to handle what’s happening more effectively if you avoid tackling it when you feel all wound up about it. 

avoid making accusations  

Try not to react to situations by blaming others, as the most likely outcome is that you’ll be seen as aggressive while others may feel hurt and become defensive. 

Use statements that start with ‘I’ rather than ‘you’ - they’re less likely to make others feel like they’re being attacked or blamed for something. For instance, say ‘I disagree’ rather than ‘you made a mistake’. Or ‘I feel frustrated’ rather than ‘you made me angry’. This will enable you to voice your reactions instead of putting the other person directly in the frame. 

keep your cool 

Following on from points 5 and 6, dealing with confrontational situations isn’t easy. The calmest of people can lose control of their emotions if they feel they are being unfairly treated. What you need to remember is that losing your temper won’t allow you to assert yourself effectively.   

By all means, go ahead and say that you are angry (you have every right to stand up for yourself if you feel you’re being challenged), but try to do it in a calm and respectful manner. 

set personal boundaries 

What are your personal assertiveness boundaries? Being clear on what they are will help make sure people don’t take advantage of you and that you don’t come across as being a bully. Establishing these limits is extremely powerful for helping you decide when and when not to be assertive. 

Assertiveness is a valuable quality, especially in the workplace, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you instinctively know when and how much of it to use. We hope the practical guidance above has opened your eyes to the impact assertiveness can have and helps steer you on the right path to striking the right balance when applying it.


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