Assertive vs. Aggressive: Why It Matters

This is in response to Atul’s An Aggres­sive Asser­tion, in which he delves into the pos­si­ble dif­fer­ences between the two. As always, his post is beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten, but goes off in such a tan­gent to my frame of ref­er­ence, that I decid­ed to write here in response.

My inter­pre­ta­tion of what Atul is try­ing to say is that there isn’t real­ly much of a dif­fer­ence between the two, that it is a fine gra­di­ent, and the dif­fer­ences are at best, only pedan­tic. He also explains that his opin­ion comes from not hav­ing expe­ri­enced assertive­ness, as dis­tinct from aggres­sive­ness.

Assertive means self-assured, firm, and con­fi­dent. Aggres­sion is intim­i­da­tion, either phys­i­cal or psy­cho­log­i­cal.

Assertive­ness has impor­tant psy­cho­log­i­cal, artis­tic, and philo­soph­i­cal impli­ca­tions.

Psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly, Assertive­ness is a behav­ioral skill. If you act assertive­ly, you are less like­ly to be dom­i­nat­ed by oth­ers in com­mu­ni­ca­tion and rela­tion­ships. You are able to say “No”. You do not let oth­ers abuse or manip­u­late you. You are able to ask your boss for a raise if you think you deserve it.

Assertive behav­ior respects the bound­aries of oth­er peo­ple. Aggres­sive behav­ior does not.

Assertive­ness is an impor­tant skill in nego­ti­a­tions of all kinds, where aggres­sion can lead to unde­sir­able results.

The entire Roman­tic Move­ment in art was because of the assertive­ness of the artists who rebelled against the social and polit­i­cal norms that pre­ced­ed them. Beethoven was being assertive when he spear­head­ed roman­tic music through his sym­phonies. These artists were assert­ing their indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, not being aggres­sive.

Rosa Parks was being assertive when she refused to give up her seat for a white pas­sen­ger. Gandhi’s non-vio­lent dis­obe­di­ence against the British is the most famous exam­ple of assertive­ness. Nei­ther Parks, nor Gand­hi, were aggres­sive. India’s refusal to sign the CTBT is assertive, not aggres­sive.

Fun­da­men­tal­ly, from a philo­soph­i­cal per­spec­tive, Assertive­ness comes from respect­ing your own and oth­ers’ indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. Aggres­sion stems from not respect­ing the indi­vid­u­al­i­ty of any­one else except your­self.

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  • I agree and I think the dif­fer­ence is pret­ty obvi­ous.

    I’m a lit­tle sur­prised to learn that some peo­ple are unclear about the dis­tinc­tion between aggres­sion and asser­tion.

    I’d have thought that any­one who is flu­ent enough in the lan­guage to be a fair­ly pro­lif­ic blog­ger would also be con­ver­sant enough with the under­ly­ing seman­tics to not have to look up a dic­tio­nary for the for­mal def­i­n­i­tion.

  • Hemant,

    Agreed. Which is why I’m afraid if I missed what Atul was try­ing to con­vey.

    But liked writ­ing this up, if sim­ply to clar­i­fy my under­stand­ing. 🙂

    Thanks for drop­ping by!

  • Prathi­ma

    Hi Mahen­dra,

    I could’t find a com­ment box where I want­ed, so leav­ing my com­ment in the first com­ment box I could find in your blog.

    My route to your blog was through one of Melvin Durai’s link of KrishAshok’s posts.

    The first thing I saw in your blog were your pen­cil sketch­es. They are sim­ply bril­liant. Though not blessed with any sketch­ing tal­ent, thank­ful­ly God has giv­en me the abil­i­ty to under­stand (to some extent!) and appre­ci­ate (a lot!) this tal­ent in oth­ers. The best of the lot was of your mother’s. It looks divine to me. The con­cept in this sketch is so nov­el (for me at least!)

    Please don’t stop sketch­ing. And final­ly thanks for shar­ing them. Hope to see more such mas­ter­pieces.

  • Hi Prathi­ma,

    Thank you for tak­ing the time to give me your feed­back.

    It has been a very long time since I stopped sketch­ing, but who knows, may be I will do it again some­time. Respons­es from you and many oth­ers have been very inspir­ing indeed.

    Thank you, again. Very much appre­ci­ate your com­ment.