Aggressive, Wimpy, or Assertive?
Updated: Jul 9, 2019
Marisa Guerin PhD – July 11, 2018
Updated July 22, 2018
Did you know it’s virtually impossible to switch from one end of the interpersonal style spectrum – whether wimpy or aggressive – directly to the other? If you try it, what happens instead is fascinating! Regardless of your starting point, you end up in the middle – in assertiveness.
Here’s what I mean, and how I know it.
For a time in my career, I delivered conflict management skills training to people in corporate jobs – project leaders, first line supervisors, middle managers, research or engineering specialists. The training covered the theories about how conflict arises and why, and what models exist for dealing with it. While the conceptual foundation was important, the most impactful part of the training was the live-role-play video recording that we did for each participant, followed by group review and discussion of the videos.
The exercise provided invaluable feedback to these learners, because in truth we almost never have the chance to actually see ourselves as we come across to others, especially if we are enacting a situation in which we are confronting someone with an issue that needs resolution.
Each participant in the program had already been through a battery of tests to assess their comfort zone in interpersonal exchanges, their default stance in light of their personality. In particular, they zeroed in on whether they were by nature more likely to be “accommodating” of the needs and preferences of others, or whether they were inclined to be “dominating” of others in favor of their own needs and preferences.
They learned that the most effective interpersonal style for managing successfully through conflict situations is referred to as “assertive.” In that context, assertiveness means being able and willing to stand up for one’s own preferences, and also able to hear and engage with the preferences of the other person. (* See below for reference for further study, and for a link to a very helpful recent NYT article.)
The people in the program were hoping to strengthen these valuable assertiveness skills. They realized that if an accommodating personality were unable to mobilize their assertive firmness, they would run the risk of being perceived as wimpy, a pushover, or weak. Similarly, if the dominating personality were unable to present themselves with calm assertiveness, they would risk being experienced as aggressive, pushy, or combative.
For the exercise, each person play-acted on camera with another participant a brief 2-3 minute exchange in which they raised an issue they found problematic, along with making a request or describing the solution they would like to see.
But here’s the thing. This very same script, with the very same issue and very same solution, was to be play-acted three times. The first time, the confronting person deliberately attempted to raise the issue in the way they imagined a wimpy, overly-accommodating person might do so. The second time, the confronting person deliberately attempted to raise the issue in the way they imagined an aggressive, combative person might do so. The third time, they went through the same script in what they imagined to be an assertive stance, simultaneously strong and open to engagement with the other.
What they saw on the recording was a revelation to them.
If the actor’s natural style was accommodating, then no matter how hard they tried to simulate an aggressive, combative style, the closest they could get to it was something that on camera came across as firm assertiveness. The reverse was true for those whose natural style was dominant. No matter how hard they tried to mimic what they felt to be wimpy, weak behavior, they ended up on camera looking reasonable and assertive.
When we attempt to “flex” our style, the INTERNAL experience of the shift is much greater than what is perceptible to the outer world. We may FEEL like we are coming across too strongly, or too weakly, but the most likely effect on an observer is that we are moving to the effective middle – the place where we are equally able to stake out a clear position, and to respect and work with the position of the other.
You might want to remember this if you are aware of feedback from others about the need to mobilize a more effective interpersonal skill set when it comes to confronting issues – no matter if you’ve heard that you need to be more forceful, or if you’ve heard that you have to be more cooperative. Be willing to risk an internal feeling that the change you are making is “big." That’s what it will take just to make a modest adjustment in the right direction. Don't be worried about over-correcting; it's very difficult to do.
It’s worth learning how to mobilize your assertive self. Without the willingness to stretch to the more effective middle, the frustrated "accommodator" may exacerbate their default style by falling into passive-aggressive manipulation, and the frustrated "dominator" may do likewise by turning to bullying. Neither approach is going to be helpful when you need to address and resolve issues with others.
This dynamic can also help you to calibrate your response to the personal or cultural style of another, too. If you happen to be engaging with someone who is naturally forceful in their way of being, they will end up coming across as aggressive without even meaning to if you don't meet them with some assertive energy of your own. I suspect a fair number of people with a reputation for being bossy or "Who does she think she is?" are, in fact, simply strong personalities that expect others to come at them the same way. For them, this is normal. (Think Mediterranean cultures, like Spain, Italy, Israel, Greece -- like some people I am related to!) Many such persons are not thrown in the least when the other says, "Well, no, actually, I don't see it that way; here's my view...." They roll right with it.
Likewise, if you find yourself engaging with someone who doesn't speak up easily for their wants, you may totally miss that they have unmet needs unless you display the willingness to listen that goes with effective assertiveness. Asking questions and making clear what each party actually thinks, feels, or wants is an active form of assertive communication that lays the foundation for resolving a difference.
Not all conflicts are of the type that can be solved by effective interpersonal communication, but it’s surprising how many of them can be prevented if you cultivate a way of being in the world that is equal parts standing up for yourself and respecting the valid perspectives of the other.
* For more information about conflict resolution styles, look into the Thomas-Kilmann model, http://www.kilmanndiagnostics.com/overview-thomas-kilmann-conflict-mode-instrument-tki
* Excellent article on assertiveness in the New York Times