“I want to be assertive, but I don’t want to be a bitch. So, what can I do?”
This is a question I commonly receive when I’m conducting leadership workshops. Usually, the inquiry is posed by a woman and is accompanied by lots of heads in the audience nodding in agreement that they struggle with a similar predicament.
Perhaps you have grappled with a similar quandary. Well, let’s lay it out on the line.
There is a difference between being aggressive and being assertive. Unfortunately, the two are often confused.
To better understand these concepts, let’s look at how they both relate and differ. Because I am a visual person — and you might be, too — I have created a table to help better explore these constructs. I am throwing in a few other ways people tend to deal with confrontation, too, to really help us comprehend the differences.
When something comes up that goes against your wants and needs, there are four main ways you can handle it: Be (1) passive, (2) aggressive, (3) passive-aggressive or (4) assertive. Each differs in terms of how you express your own wants and needs as well as respect the wants and needs of someone else.
To really grasp the differences amongst these strategies, let’s look at a specific example.
Let’s say your boss makes a comment about your looks that makes you uncomfortable.
You may choose to keep quiet. You don’t want him to feel uncomfortable, or you don’t want to make things awkward between you two because he is your boss, after all. You react in a passive manner, keeping quiet. Here, your actions are represented in square 1: You are respecting his needs/wants, but not your own.
Now, let’s say it keeps going on. And each time, you want to just scream because it is so darn inappropriate. So, finally, he makes yet another comment about the size of your chest, and you lose it. You tell him what a disgusting pig he is and storm out of the office. Here, your actions are aggressive, or square 2: You are expressing your wants and needs in a way that is not respectful to your boss. (NOTE: There are definitely times when being aggressive is a positive strategy. I am not saying it is bad. The purpose here is simply to differentiate the interactive styles.)
Or, maybe, rather than yell at him, you try to get back at him. You make a passive-aggressive — square 3 —comment to his wife or another colleague that your boss “sure does like women.…” In this case, you are neither clearly expressing your wants and needs, nor are you respecting the other person. While passive-aggressive comments may feel good sometimes (come on, admit it ), they do not actually help you achieve what you truly want or need.
That is when being assertive comes in, as demonstrated in square 4. When you are assertive, you are clearly expressing your wants and needs while at the same time being respectful to the other person. It might sound something like: “(Boss), I appreciate that you find me attractive. At the same time, your comments make me uncomfortable, so please stop.” You don’t yell, scream or belittle your boss (i.e., you are not aggressive). At the same time, you stand up for yourself in a respectful manner.
Being assertive allows you to stand up for yourself — and others — in a way that is not “bitchy.”
Now, others may view it as bitchy, but that is a function of their own issues. Some people believe that the expression of any comment that counters their belief is bitchy. In fact, this is a great example of conditional self-worth, which you can read more about in an upcoming blog.
Look for ways to be assertive by respectfully sharing your needs and desires. Not only will you feel liberated and empowered, but others will (hopefully) learn from such exquisite modeling.