Assertion Without Aggression: Seven Strategies

To be sure, we all like to get our way when we deal with other people, especially if the stakes are personally important to us. This is normal – I mean, who likes to lose? Nonetheless, most of us are reasonable human beings who will usually play by the rules and interact with one another in what most would consider being a “normal” way.

Yes, we’ve all known people who were more openly aggressive than others in trying to get their way in winning discussions or achieving their objectives, but there remains a lingering question: Did their open aggression work well for them in the long run? Maybe there was a short-term “win” but my guess is that this kind of behavior cannot last for very long. 

How can you be assertive in your objectives and “win” over the long term (or even for the moment) without becoming aggressive?

In any case, what will aggression do for you? Decrease your chances of achieving your objectives? Probably. Whether your objective is to prevail in a debate, or succeed in requesting help from someone, aggression is probably not a good tactic.

Let’s take a look at some suggestions offered by the Chartered Accountants Benevolent Association of the UK (CABA), “Seven Ways to Be More Assertive Without Being Aggressive.”

(www.caba.org.uk)

1. Be Clear: One way to ensure that you do not get what you want, or to ensure that you are not properly understood, is to avoid coming to the point. Yes, we all want to be diplomatic and we sometimes try to work around the issue by steering clear of the direct approach, especially if some of our messages is not altogether pleasant. However, allowing your interlocutors to interpret for themselves what you are trying to say will often lead them to the wrong conclusion, thus thwarting your desired result. Instead, be more assertive without being aggressive: State your position clearly, and respond politely but firmly to any points that could be misinterpreted. There is never a reason (at least not a productive reason) to be rude or threatening, so making yourself understood with a smile (or at least a neutral demeanor) will more often than not help your interlocutors see what you want without giving offense.

2. Eye Contact: Scholarly research indicates that as much as 70% of any communicative act is effected through non-verbal gestures. This means that how you say something counts at least as much as what you actually say. As anybody language expert can tell you, eye contact is one of the most important components of non-verbal communication. Failure to keep appropriate eye contact (no unblinking stares, please!) can give the impression that you are not confident in yourself, and are therefore not to be taken seriously. Worse yet, an inability to look your interlocutor in the eye from time to time could be misinterpreted as deceit. Yes, some of us are naturally shy types who are uncomfortable with some elements of positive body language displays, but good eye contact is something you can practice in the mirror; once you are comfortable with looking at yourself in the eye, you will be ready for others!

3. Keep Your Posture Positive: Another important component of body language is how you carry yourself, including how you stand, walk or even sit. For example, slouching, slumping in a chair, or shambling can be subconsciously interpreted by others as signals that a person is not to be taken seriously. So stand up straight, walk with confidence, sit with good posture, and directly face the person with whom you are speaking. Standing obliquely to others could be interpreted as a defensive posture, meaning that you lack confidence in either yourself or in what you are saying. A “full frontal” upright posture suggests that you mean what you say, have a healthy self-esteem, and are a person worthy of respect. This will go a long way in helping you to get what you want without resorting to aggressive gestures that are, more often than not, counter-productive.

4. Do Your Homework: In striving to be assertive without becoming aggressive, nothing can destroy your case faster than not knowing what you are talking about. Your attempts to convince others that your opinions are worthy of consideration are weakened when it becomes apparent that you do not have mastery of the subject matter at hand. Thus, take care to learn the relevant facts before you attempt to debate an issue or make a difficult request. Remember, your credibility is at stake! If you earn a reputation for being factually sloppy, it can have negative effects on your ability to be taken seriously over the long term. 

5. Take Time Out (calm down first, then go for it): Have you ever tried to carry on an argument or discussion while angry, or make an angry demand of someone? How did that work out for you? Not too well, would be my guess. So, if you have time to do so, give yourself a “time out” to calm down, and then re-engage in the conversation. Adopting a calm demeanor is a skill that can be learned – and learned more easily if you can internalize the very real fact that your objective is to win, not to simply seek the very short-term satisfaction of scoring an insult. Yes, expressing your anger can give you a momentary sense of victory after “giving someone a piece of your mind,” but your sense of superiority will quickly dwindle when you realize that you have lost the argument, or will not get what you want. So, calm down. You can practice this. Yes, becoming angry from time to time is part of being human, but learn how to be angry in a cool and collected manner rather than like an exploding volcano. Your objective is to win, not to simply prevail in a shouting match. Reason and logic do not improve with volume.

6. Avoid Accusations (use “I” rather than “you”): Do you want to see someone raise their “shields” like the Starship Enterprise, and shut you out completely? The best way to do this is to put people on the defensive, and the best way to do that is to recklessly throw accusations about. Once your interlocutor realizes that you are (rightly or wrongly) blaming them for a problem, real communication ceases. This applies equally to simple debates. Engaging in ad hominem attacks of any sort, calling someone stupid or ill-informed (even though it might be true), or unworthy of further discussion will not help you to prevail. Remember Point 5 above: Your objective is to win, not to insult or shout louder than anyone else. Focus on your position, on what you think, and on your suggestion, and (importantly!) why. Personal attacks are aggressive, not assertive. “Assertive” is reasonable and logical, not accusatory. 

7. Reputation for Cool: Similar to Point 5 above (but different), try to re-establish a reputation for being a deliberate and non-discriminatory thinker. Conversations with colleagues who are already convinced that you are not a hot-head can help your reputation as an honest broker – as a person who views your interlocutors as legitimate people worthy of their own opinions. This does not mean that you must always agree with the people with whom you interact – far from it! Remember, your objective is to bring other people over to your way of thinking, thereby scoring a win! Having a reputation for being reasonable and willing to at least hear the other side will lead others to lower their defenses, making them more likely to actively listen to you.

In summary, we all want to be positively persuasive. Being assertive without becoming aggressive will contribute to both our reputation and our overall record of success in interacting with our friends, colleagues, and other contacts over the long term. To be sure, history is replete with examples of dictators and questionable politicians who managed to hold sway for a limited period of time, but their long-term success was doomed from the start by the way the arguments were presented in the first instance. Are you going to be “assertive” or are you going to be “aggressive” in the way you present your case, whatever that case maybe? Our suggestion herein is that assertion will win out over aggression every time. 

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