The Difference between Assertive and Aggressive

Respect the other viewpoint or behavior and respect your own says Marsha Egan

There is a lot of confusion about being assertive vs being aggressive. Here is some guidance, or at least food for thought that might add some clarity.

Assertive behaviors

  • Assertive people are not afraid to express their opinions, and honor themselves by standing up for their beliefs.
  • Assertive people respect others as equals, with the intention of exuding mutual respect.
  • Assertive people are not afraid to express their needs to others.
  • Assertive people value a fair exchange of ideas.
  • Assertive people have no intention of hurting anyone, including themselves.
  • Assertive people look for the win:win.

Aggressive behaviors are the converse

  • Aggressive people come across as needing to win.
  • Aggressive people see hurting another as a byproduct of a “successful” communication or negotiation.
  • Aggressive people come across as attacking.
  • Aggressive people are self-focused instead of solution-centered.
  • Aggressive people feed into others’ fears rather than confidence.

A word of caution

The caution about trying to avoid aggressiveness, and replacing it with assertiveness is that some people will take it too far the other way… they will elect a passive approach, and assert themselves less than warranted or even not at all. This defeats the purpose of sticking up for yourself, standing your ground, and having conversations that need to be had. It honors others at the cost of sacrificing themselves. The passive approach avoids hurting others at the expense of hurting yourself.


Asserting yourself, although never intended, might hurt others. This is a possible consequence of standing your ground. We can’t really know how others will react, and some may not react positively. The key is that assertiveness is respectful. And if you are truly respectful in the way you assert yourself, the hurt may be minimized.

The grid

When you apply an assertive approach, you’re reflecting equality of respect. In other words, you not only respect the other viewpoint or behavior, but you respect your own. With aggressiveness, you respect your own, but not others. And with passiveness, you effectively disrespect yourself and raise the level of the other side.


The bottom line as I see it is that assertive people respect others and themselves equally. When you approach any communication with a win:win focus, you will improve your chances of a successful result.

Who or what?

Wearing my coaching hat, the coaching question becomes “Is it who you are, or what you do?” So, is being assertive (in appropriate circumstances) who you are or is it just something you do? I suggest that it is most powerful and effective when it becomes WHO you are. And that means respectful, caring, communicative, and honoring yourself and your needs at times when appropriate.

So, which path will you choose? Passive? Aggressive? Assertive?

Marsha Egan, CPCU, PCC is CEO of The Egan Group, a Florida-based workplace productivity coaching firm. She is the author of Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-mail Excellence. She can be reached at, where you can also read her blog. To listen ... (Read More)

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