Welcome to my blog post: Aggressive v Assertive. Which are you?

Last summer I worked with a wonderful lady who had developed low self-esteem and low confidence since starting a new job in a senior management role. She is an extremely intelligent lady, well educated, with over 20 years’ experience and highly thought of in her industry.


Melissa (not her name) had been working in her previous role for 5 years and absolutely loved the job and the company. The new company she went to work for, aggressively (irony here) headhunted her over a period of one year and eventually came up with a job offer she couldn’t refuse. They were desperate for her to join their company.

So, Melissa left and went to work for the new company and as time went on it turned out to be a job from hell.

At first, she overlooked her hatred for the new company, she put it down to the normal adjustment period we all need in new job. After about 9 months however, when her new company insisted she go on various interpersonal skills courses, her husband thankfully realised something wasn’t right and encouraged her to see a Coach.

Reading between the lines and knowing his wife well, he realised that she was probably not the problem here, but it was the company. In the short period of 9 months since starting her new role, to those people who knew her well, Melissa had become a different person.

In her own words Melissa said to me it had got to stage where “I literally doubt everything I do, which results in me endlessly checking and rechecking anything I do before I do it which is exhausting. I’m almost silent in meetings, avoid key conversations and I’m annoying the hell out of my husband and close friends because I need constant reassurance I’m doing the right thing.”

The Problem

Within her first week of being at the company Melissa was told by her direct line manager, incidentally one of the people who had headhunted her, that she was being too aggressive and needed to “tone things down at little”. He politely pointed out that the new company was smaller than her old one and perhaps she needed to be softer in her approach to things.

I’m not going to go into the details about this particular case, but what I will tell you is that aggressive was to become a word she would come to hear almost daily when she tried to do anything and, in the end, she became a shell of the person she was. Literally too afraid to say or do anything.


After a number of coaching sessions, she realised (as her husband already had) that the issue wasn’t with her, the issue was with her new company. As opposed to supporting her in what they had employed her to do, she was branded as aggressive by those people below her, her peers and her small number of superiors.

It was actually staggering that the senior people who had headhunted her to join the company initially had decided to turn against her when she began to uncover the very things she was employed to find.

Aggressive v Assertive

So, Aggressive v Assertive. Which are you?

There is a lot more to this story actually: bullying, discrimination, but I would like to focus on the aggressive v assertive bit for this blog post. I’ve come across so many people, who are incorrectly branded as aggressive, but who are in fact being assertive.

It’s unfortunately commonly the case, that when an assertive person is faced with certain people, normally those people who are aggressive themselves, they are incorrectly branded as being “aggressive”.

So, I would like to identify the key characteristic traits between the two in the tables below to help you understand your own behaviour if in doubt.

I can’t remember where I stumbled across this table (it’s not mine), it’s been sitting in my notes for a while, but it succinctly identifies at a glance the key differences between the two:

General Attitude Domineering, forceful, attacking, insensitive, impatient, ambitious, righteous, hostile, bombastic, prejudiced, blaming, hurtful, reckless, mistrustful, status seeking, punitive.
Words and Phrases “You’d better, watch out, come on, should, bad, you’re a typical, shut up, get out of my way, hurry up, I told you so, you make me feel, you won’t”
Non-Verbal Behaviour Clenched fists, jerky movements, finger pointing, hands on hips, folder arms, big strides, back slapping, loud voice, shouting, staring, glaring, head forward, rigid, stiff.
Emotions Rage, resentment, irritation, loneliness, excitement, thrill, intoxication, passion.
Sense of Humour Caustic wit, sick jokes, put downs, teasing, bitchy, practical jokes.
Lifestyle Fast, full, competitive, many acquaintances, lack of intimacy, financially orientated, risky, short term goals, destructive.
Positive Uses Defence in face of threat, expression of justified anger, authoritive leadership in a crisis, the need to get noticed, acquiring resources for a good cause.
Negative Uses Abuse of power, others are hurt, fosters aggressive and manipulative behaviour in others, encourages dependency, threatening, isolating, ultimate self-destruction.
General Attitude Optimistic, positive, thoughtful, rational, evaluating, respectful, encouraging, sensible, fair minded, sensitive, compromising, self-protective, insistent, decisive, severe.
Words and Phrases “I want, I feel, I don’t like, lets, what do you think? how can we resolve this? Let’s discuss, the alternative options are, I won’t, no, yes, I know that, I appreciate you.
Non-Verbal Behaviour Expressive, relaxed, steady posture, upright, direct, eye contact, strong clear voice, energetic.
Emotions happy, sad, angry, compassionate, calm, serene, poised
Sense of Humour Playful, fun loving, willing to laugh at own expense, witty but not at others expense.
Lifestyle Active, varied, dynamic, innovative, organised, purposeful, ethical, humanitarian, conscientious.
Positive Uses Decisive, active, organised, efficient, team player, democratic, independent, creative, able to manage successfully, effective communication, able to cope with criticism, intimate, able to take calculated risks
Negative Uses Dislike from some people, limited power, restricted wealth, repercussions from mistakes, burdened with other people’s high expectations and demands.

I’m not expecting the tables above to change your life, but they will hopefully give you food for thought if you’ve been accused of being aggressive.

My advice is to slowly go through the traits in each and be true with yourself as and where you think you may sit. If you can ask someone you trust to help you, be it personal life or work life, ask their opinion on where they think you sit.

My point is (and more blog posts to follow), DO NOT automatically assume you’re being aggressive because someone tells you that you are. Read between the lines a bit more and try to subjectively look at yourself.

As I said above, if in doubt ask a friend or work with a good coach to help you!

I will leave you with

“Drive is considered aggression today; I knew it then as purpose.”  – Bette Davis

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