When you think of the word aggressive, you probably picture someone yelling, punching, or breaking something. This is definitely one form of aggression, but not the only one. Social scientists use the term “relational aggression” to describe social interactions that are designed to cause harm, such as isolating someone from their friends (Cairn et al., 1989).
Think about someone who has intentionally sabotaged someone else’s reputation so no one would want to be around them. The concept has been identified as an entirely different form of aggression than “overt aggression” like punching someone or yelling at them (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Perhaps unsurprisingly, people who engaged in these intentionally cruel social interactions tend to be largely disliked by their peers, which has been seen in children as young as third graders. Even worse, children who participated in studies on relational aggression reported themselves that they knew they were disliked. Additionally, people who engage in relational aggression have been shown to rate high on measures of loneliness and depression (Crick & Grotpeter, 1995). Misery loves company.
By this logic, being aggressive in valued relationships is harmful and not a great way to get what you want. It may give you an immediate sense of control that feels safe in the short term, but it causes both you and your loved ones harm in the process. Being assertive is a much better way to get both your and your loved ones’ needs met. But what is assertiveness exactly?
In a nutshell, assertiveness is your ability to get your needs met, serve your own best interest, and be honest with yourself and others about how something impacted you without violating other people’s rights or feeling unnecessary anxiety (Speed, Goldstein, & Goldfriend, 2017; Alberti & Emmons, 1970). It exists on a spectrum ranging from submission to aggression with true assertiveness being somewhere in between both extremes. People pleasing, or suppressing your needs for someone else’s comfort, would lie on the submissive end of the spectrum while screaming your demands at someone would lie on the aggressive end of the spectrum. Neither of these behaviors is effective. Suppressing your needs and pretending they aren’t there definitely won’t get them met and will likely cause resentment toward the person that comes out in other ways like sarcastic comments and withdrawing from the person when they try to connect. This is called passive-aggression, a combination of the two extremes, and involves the most relationship-corroding elements of both passivity and aggression all at once. On the other end of the spectrum, screaming in desperation will likely trigger the other person’s defenses and cause them to react with a similar level of aggression by yelling back, which shuts down effective communication, or withdrawing and giving you the cold shoulder, which also shuts down effective communication.
So how do you become more assertive? The Mayo Clinic (2022) suggests taking a few basic steps. First, draw your awareness to your emotional state, body language, and vocal tone. One way people who are listening to you instinctually read into the current state of your internal emotional world is by listening to you speak and noticing factors like how high or low-pitched your voice is, your volume, how fast you talk, whether or not your voice trembles, and if you stutter or repeat yourself (Hall, Morgan, & Murphy, 2019). Build your awareness of your emotional state and how it is expressed to others to regulate your emotions and use body language that facilitates effective communication.
Next, pay attention to how you usually respond when you’re upset. Do you yell? Do you shut down? This will give you clues to your default communication style when under stress. Then change that response by intentionally stating how you are affected by something instead of focusing on what your friend, partner, or whoever did wrong. Say something like, “I feel hurt and angry when I think you’re not listening to me.” If responding to a request that you are unable or unwilling to do, practice saying no without guilt. Setting limits and boundaries allows you to budget your time and energy to meet your existing responsibilities more effectively and reduces stress and resentment. Take your power back and stop being angry with people for asking you for favors when you’re the one saying yes even when you know the answer is no.
Remember to start small. Build your ability to communicate assertively over time with practice and don’t be hard on yourself if you don’t get it right away. Assertiveness is a skill well worth developing. It serves you to help you get what you want and need to be the best version of yourself. It improves your relationships. It helps the people in your life get what they want including a strong relationship with you. Why not make an effort to improve it in your life?
Alberti, R., & Emmons, M. (1970). Your perfect right: A guide to assertive behavior. San Luis Obispo, CA: Impact Press.
Cairns, R. B., Cairns, B. D., Neckerman, H. J., Ferguson, L. L., & Gariepy, J. L. (1989). Growth and aggression: 1. Childhood to early adolescence. Developmental Psychology, 25, 320-330.
Crick, N. R. & Grotpeter, J. K. (1995). Relational Aggression, Gender, and Social-Psychological Adjustment. Child Development, Vol. 66, No. 3, 710-722. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1131945
Hall, J. A., Horgan, T. G., & Murphy, N. A. (2019). Nonverbal Communication. Annual Review of Psychology. 70, 270-94. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-psych-010418-103145
“Stressed out? Be Assertive.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 13 May 2022, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/assertive/art-20044644.
Speed, B. C., Goldstein, B. L., & Goldfried, M. R. (2017). Assertiveness Training: A Forgotten Evidence-Based Treatment. Clinical Psychology Science and Practice. 25(1). Retrieved from https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/cpsp.12216.