Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggression

Difficult Conversations in the workplace

Don’t confuse assertiveness with aggression

Is assertiveness training the way towards a more harmonious workplace? We can’t avoid difficult conversations – how you handle them is what matters.

Difficult conversations are part of being assertive – we all have to engage in them. It is almost part of growing up. Everyday we can find an opportunity to avoid a difficult conversation, or get into one. Just having to say no to a personal request, change an appointment or change a date for something re-arranged could get pretty tricky if managed badly.

The workplace takes the whole ball game to another level. This is where mistakes can get measured and monetized – this is where getting your point across with the right tone, appropriate manner and meaning really starts to count.

If you handle that client incorrectly, and they walk, it could spell financial disaster and reputations could be seriously damaged.

We’re not just talking about external relationships here – internal conversations matter too. Telling your colleague you are unhappy with their idea is one thing that can test your nerve, giving your boss notice is another.

Whether we like it or not, we need to manage up to our bosses, down to our suppliers and across with our colleagues.

The organization is, above all, social. It is people.

Peter Drucker

In recent years, one way or another, I have had my fair share of difficult conversations. Some I have handled better than others. Some have affected me – others changed me.

This is where assertiveness training comes in to play: the idea of putting yourself in the driving position – the idea of changing yourself.


I wanted to change the world. But I found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.” Aldous Huxley

So what are the main tenants of assertiveness?

Assertive is about being confident and direct when communicating. You are open to other people’s views even though they may differ to yours.

You do not blame others when things go wrong.

You give and take compliments and criticism.

And here is the nub. Assertiveness is not aggression, which is a pure determination to get your own way, or the opposite of being passive, which is putting your own needs to one side in favour of others.

It is not the ever-present passive aggressive which is the indirect approach of sly and manipulative behaviour – the avoidance approach.

To simplify: assertiveness is the use of the ‘I’ word over the ‘you’ approach.

It is about positively framing the argument from your own perspective rather than using the word ‘you’ in an accusatory fashion.

So where does assertiveness as a concept originate from?

I first came across assertiveness training 20 years ago when a friend of mine passed on a training manual to me after she had completed a course. This friend has to be one of the best negotiators I have worked with, firm and always fair and a consummate professional in getting information across.

‘Have a close look at this Wendy,’ she said. ‘You will thank me for it.’

The first research in assertiveness can be traced back to the 1940s and work with understanding depressed clients.

Assertiveness and the idea that we should be able to advocate for ourselves without harming the rights of others, and controlling aggressive impulses, can be traced back to the 1960s and the advent of Humanist Psychology.

Civil rights movement psychologists in 70s saw assertiveness as a way of protecting human rights, and by the new millennium this interest in assertiveness had really gathered pace.

By now the application of assertiveness had shifted into schools, higher education and HR departments.

As a trainer and coach with Coralstone, my research and experience has provided me with ample opportunity to sharpen my skills professionally in this area.

I have mediated away days for dysfunctional staff groups, handled staff grievances and coached professionals in and out of jobs and different career paths.

I was brought up and educated in the times when young people, and especially girls, were not encouraged to challenge the status quo, let alone speak of personal success. The first person singular was practically forbidden.

What I’ve learnt is that the ‘I’ word is a powerful, assertive tool, leading us away from the finger-jabbing tone of the ‘you’ word. The first person singular takes a powerful of its own and puts you right where you belong – in charge of yourself.

Here follows 10 examples of powerful statements

‘I’ statements mean you take ownership- you statements may lead to an attack and blame

I find..

I am sorry you feel like that

I wish you had not said that

I don’t understand – can you clarify?

I can see how you might think that

I prefer not to answer that

Where do we differ?

No I am sorry I can’t

I would like to help however I have a

Can I get back to you later?

Writer coach and soft skills trainer, Wendy Smith runs training courses in Effective Communications. Assertiveness and Presentation skills.