For many people, the difference between being assertive and being aggressive is not the behavior itself, but the person doing it.
How we feel about that behavior is not always consistent. In many cases, our reactions are based on cultural stereotypes, and reflect unconscious — and, sometimes, not so unconscious — bias.
Emilie Aries is the founder and CEO of Bossed Up, an organization founded to equip women and marginalized people to create progress on their terms. She started the organization after realizing that although her career in political campaigning had seen her championing progressive values, she struggled to advocate for the life and career she wanted herself. She shared the importance of understanding what assertiveness really is, and how it can be empowering for everyone.
What it means to be assertive, and why it’s not aggressive
Like many women, Emilie has been labeled as aggressive when she was being assertive, but for her, the key difference lies in the room left for other people. Both assertiveness and aggressiveness can be about looking out for your own needs and rights, however, the difference is that assertiveness considers other people too.
Aggressive behavior can, in fact, seem much milder than assertive behavior. Emilie uses the example of leaving a note out for a roommate who didn’t tidy the kitchen, although it seems mild, the note leaves no room for response — it is an aggressive action.
Addressing the issues directly might seem more confrontational, but it creates the opportunity for response. The roommate may have had an emergency, been running late, or might just admit they are lazy! Emilie points out, “we can sometimes be aggressive by simply trying to avoid conflict. The leadership move and the human move is to be assertive when you need to make your voice heard, but leave the door open for others.”
There is an intersectionality to assertiveness. This is most notable for women, but also applies to people of color. In short, years of research and numerous studies have shown that people will judge behavior based on the person, not the act: a white man being assertive will be viewed positively, whereas the same action from a woman or person of color will be seen as aggressive and viewed negatively.
Emilie likens this to walking a tightrope. We are all aggressive sometimes — it’s human nature — and getting the balance between aggression and assertiveness is a tightrope walk for everyone. However, society means that women aren’t just on a tightrope, they must tap-dance too. And if they are a person of color, they also have to juggle.
Although these cultural biases have been known and highlighted as problematic for a long time, they still remain and only recently have things started to change for the better.
The hidden benefits of assertiveness
Many will assume the benefit of assertiveness is that you are more likely to get what you want — and that is definitely a benefit. However, most will also assume that comes at the cost of additional stress, but this is usually not the case.
While the act of being assertive may be stressful, sometimes intensely so, that peak of stress should be compared to the alternative. For many, the alternative to standing up for themselves by being assertive is a constant low-level stress. Whether that’s in a workplace, a social group, or a relationship, if your needs are not taken into consideration, it creates a constant, background source of stress and anxiety.
The cumulative effect of this can be devastating. Chronic stress can lead to burnout, and the constant presence of stress hormones can have many negative health outcomes. It’s a high price to pay to avoid a single, but limited, stressful situation.
Being assertive — standing up for your needs, but doing so in a way that allows room for other people’s needs — whether that’s at work or at home, is one of the most important tools to have in your communications toolbox.