Passive vs Aggressive vs Assertive

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We all know them, the friend that fly’s off the handle at a waiter in a restaurant, the roommate that covered the house in post-its instead of talking, the coworkers that refuse to stand up for themselves no matter the personal cost. All of these scenarios represent an inability to properly communicate emotions in a way that is productive to all parties involved. There are three commonly used groupings to describe how we deal with all types of emotions – anger, sadness, confusion, embarrassment — and they each tend to have very identifiable and visible effects on the general happiness and health of an individual and their relationships. If you can utilize these identifiable characteristics to better understand yourself and the people around you, it can certainly give you a roadmap to mastering the art of communication and healthy relationships.

The easiest style to identify is aggressive behavior. Aggressive people express their emotions and opinions or assert dominance in a way that violates or harms the people around them. Imagine every stereotypical bully from movies that you’ve seen – it’s not hard to identify them and their anger across a multitude of contexts. I have taken the liberty of including some references for additional context:

Aggressive individuals tend to use physical or verbal assaults to intimidate or injure people around them. They will try and dominate others, using humiliation, blame or attacks to control them. There are real impacts on relationships when it comes to patterns of aggressive behavior. These individuals tend to risk alienating others or themselves, being hated, feared, and never being able to identify or conquer their issues and mature with the people around them. Communication with this type of person can be difficult and frustrating, but understanding their reactions can help you navigate these interactions more painlessly, though there are always boundaries and any abuse of you physically or emotionally should be taken very seriously and never justified.

Whereas the aggressive people try to walk all over others, on the flip side, is the passive individual, who allows him or herself to be walked all over. These people tend to be quiet and often have issues with a low sense of self-worth, low self-respect, and don’t think that their own needs have importance; thus they concede to the needs and demands of the aggressors in their lives. Passive people tend to speak softly, and allow others to infringe on their space, time,  and even rights. These people often feel as if their life is out of their own control, and are mostly unaware of any grievances of resentment that is building up under the surface. (Those who are outwardly passive but actively harboring feelings of anger that they act on in indirect, subtle ways, are called passive aggressive — more on that here.)

The last behavior type is assertive — someone who clearly states their opinions and feelings, and can advocate for themselves and their needs without the emotional or physical violation of others, creating an environment of respect. If aggressive behavior can be boiled down to the need to “win” — doing what you want or perceive to be in your own best interest, without regard for the rights, needs, feelings or desires of others, assertiveness can be characterized as a relationship of balance. Assertive communicators are direct about their wants and needs, but are considerate of the rights, needs, and wants of others. They ask for what they want, instead of assuming that they will get it if they demand loudly enough. So, how does this work in the real world? Well understanding at an essential level that self respect and the willingness to stand up for your interests, is critical. If you can embody these beliefs, then you can begin to construct and implement strategies for confrontation that are direct, respectful, and geared toward action.

So many arguments and hurt feelings can be avoided if we understand these personality types, and evolve our assumptions, expectations, intentions and agreements to help accommodate ourselves and the people around us as we all try to effectively communicate and express ourselves. Communication is key to healthy relationships, and that is what life is about, so the more understanding and effort we put towards this health, the more fulfilled and emotionally satisfied you will become.

Wondering what type of behavior you tend to exhibit? Take 10 minutes to take a free-ish Assertiveness Quiz here from Psychology Today (the “Snapshot” is free, and that’s good enough).

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