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February 18, 2020

Assertive, Aggressive or Arrogant? – #MTtalk Roundup

Yolande Conradie


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"To be passive is to let others decide for you, to be aggressive is to decide for others, to be assertive is to decide for yourself. And to trust that there is enough, that you are enough."

- Dr Edith Eger, Hungarian-American psychologist

Are You Assertive, or Aggressive?

In all my years of lecturing and facilitating training, the one question that I've heard more than any other is, "What's the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness?"

Often this then leads to questions on where arrogance fits into the picture. I'll attempt to explain the differences between the three, as I see them.

It is NOT my intention that this explanation be used as a means for labelling other people. Rather, it's a way to increase your knowledge, so that you can better navigate difficult situations.

The Sound of Aggression

Recently, my husband was channel flipping as he watched television, while I sat reading. I don't usually pay much attention to the television, but this time I simply couldn't ignore what I heard.

He was watching some kind of "housewives" reality program. Two women were loudly arguing and talking over each other, each claiming they were right and the other wrong. After watching for a few seconds, my husband wanted to change the channel – but I stopped him. I was curious to see how this was going to play out.

It was clear that neither of them was in control of their emotions. All that they wanted to do was get their point across and "win" the argument. Both of them tried to drown out the other's voice by talking louder and louder.

As I was saying, "Uh-oh, this is going to turn ugly," one of the women flung her wine in the other's face.

Aggressiveness doesn't always become physical like this, but we've all felt the aggression of someone stomping down a hallway, or slamming down a stack of documents on their desk, or abruptly ending a call.

Aggressiveness is all about dominance, taking advantage of others, and not respecting boundaries. The aggressive person wants what they want, when they want it. They also know that if they get physically or emotionally intimidating, they cause others to shut down or back off. In this way they can "win."

The Ugliness of Arrogance

Arrogance isn't pretty either.

For various reasons, some people develop an inflated sense of self-importance (or at least the appearance of it). They want to be "better than the Joneses" and will often "one-up" people in a conversation, or act like they aren't interested in others.

When someone is being arrogant, they can come across as haughty or condescending about anything (or to anybody) that they regard as inferior to them. They always know better and they're always right.

It's all about an outward show of loud, inflated self-confidence that is propped up by a false sense of superiority. To the arrogant person, only their opinion matters, and in a work environment they often dictate and give orders.

The Cool Breeze of Assertiveness

Assertiveness is far removed from both arrogance and aggressiveness.

It's the ability to express yourself in a healthy way. You're straight without being hurtful, and you respect yourself and others in the process.

Assertive people understand the importance of explanation and don't use force or position to coerce, dominate or manipulate others into agreeing with them. They're willing to listen to others, and will apologize when they're wrong.

An assertive person knows their strengths and weaknesses, and they can control their behavior even when they don't feel calm. They tend to be solutions-focused, rather than focusing on blame or glory.

Contrary to what some people think, it isn't selfish to be assertive. Selfishness violates the rights of others, or gets you ahead at the expense of others. Assertiveness, on the other hand, recognizes the rights and boundaries of other people.

Assertive, Aggressive or Arrogant?

During our recent #MTtalk Twitter chat, we explored the differences between being assertive, aggressive and arrogant. Here are some of your excellent responses:

Q1. Why do you think people confuse assertiveness and aggressiveness?

@Midgie_MT Because they believe you can't have one without the other, that you have to be aggressive in order to assert your views. Yet, that is not the case.

@harrisonia People confuse assertiveness with arrogance because they haven't taken time to distinguish. Also with both, the other party is getting their point across.

Q2. What does arrogance look like?

@DrRossEspinoza Interesting question. A voice that's boastful or calculating. A look that's dismissive.

@DanielMaithyaKE Maybe they think their voice or opinion matters most, over that of others.

Q3. Is aggressive behavior in the workplace ever justified, yes or no? Why?

@MicheleDD_MT No. Aggressive behavior is intentional – the person intends harm or creates an unpleasant situation designed to make someone feel uncomfortable or to demean them.

@Yolande_MT The only time I would justify aggressive behaviour is if I physically need to defend myself. But then it's not aggression, is it? It's self-defence.

Q4. How can arrogance or aggression appear "nice"?

@BrainBlenderTec Passive aggression can be hidden beneath the surface of cordiality, and sometimes arrogance is considered cute so it's really about perspectives.

@SayItForwardNow Passive-aggressive people often seem "nice," but that niceness is generally a form of attempted manipulation.

Q5. What does it feel like to act aggressively and/or arrogantly?

@shamikv There are physiological changes associated with aggressive behaviour.

@JKatzaman Acting aggressively or arrogantly might let the perpetrator feel good, but they have the opposite effect at the receiving end.

Q6. What effect does arrogant behavior have within teams?

@Adaolasunmade Personal agendas rise above the mission; disunity and discord are fostered within teams where arrogant behavior exists.

@PmTwee An arrogant person cannot be a team player. [It causes] more and more pain to the team.

Q7. What's your "go to" strategy when dealing with an arrogant boss? How might you manage an arrogant employee?

@realDocHecht I think the best way is to talk with them and understand why they are acting that way. See if you can come up with a better communicating plan.

@cdauphin IMO, the only strategy to deal with an arrogant boss is to understand and anticipate what they need from you and make it happen. An arrogant boss hasn't the time for a discussion.

Q8. What does assertiveness look and sound like?

@J_Stephens_CPA Assertiveness is willing to listen and to support others' opinions/ideas.

@Midgie_MT Assertiveness looks like firm boundaries are in place, calmly communicated to others with clear consequences if lines are crossed.

Q9. In what ways does being assertive benefit your career?

@Yolande_MT Assertiveness helps your career because it shows your integrity and your character. People know where they stand with you and they know that you're fair. Good management material.

@BrainBlenderTec People think of assertive associates as people with confidence and leadership, which usually benefits a career as it avails opportunities.

Q10. In which situations could you be more assertive and less arrogant or aggressive, and what will you do differently to achieve this?

@MicheleDD_MT When people dismiss my knowledge/skill/experience. It is a trigger. I will keep my cool and use questions to uncover their thinking and assumptions.

@realDocHecht More assertive in what I want. Standing up for myself and proving my point in the best ways possible

To read all the tweets, have a look at the Wakelet collection of this chat, here.

Coming Up

It's natural to experience strong emotions, such as aggression, during or after an emergency. The topic of our next #MTtalk chat on February 28 is "How Do You Cope in an Emergency?" We'd like to know how you cope with an emergency. Please cast your vote in our Twitter poll, here.


In the meantime, here are some resources relating to our discussion on assertiveness, aggression and arrogance (some of which may only be available to members of the Mind Tools Club):

Managing Arrogant People

Understanding the Dark Triad

Managing Volatile People

Boosting Your Self-Esteem

Egos at Work

Developing Character

How to Be Assertive

Managing Your Boundaries

Integrative Negotiation

Essential Negotiation Skills

How to Join Our #MTtalk

Follow us on Twitter to make sure that you don't miss out on any of the action!

We'll be tweeting out 10 questions during our hour-long chat. To participate, type #MTtalk in the Twitter search function. Then, click on "Latest" and you'll be able to follow the live chat feed. You can join the chat by using the hashtag #MTtalk in your responses.

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