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This month, I’m going to talk about assertiveness and how anyone can stand their ground in a variety of situations. Note tone differences between aggressive behavior vs. assertive behavior and talk about the importance of I statements and how they differ from accusatory ones.

Let’s start with the definition of the word assertive: behaving confidently and able to say directly what you want or believe. It’s a straightforward sounding premise, but when a person is put into a situation where they have to assert themselves, sometimes it can be tough.

First, I want to explain that being assertive isn’t the same thing as being aggressive. Sometimes aggressiveness is masked as assertiveness. Someone who is aggressive doesn’t take into account how the other person feels. They push their agenda without regard to repercussions and use defamatory language.

Someone who is assertive is mindful of how they interact with others. They can disagree without turning it into a personal attack. And can stand firm when they reach a decision.

I’ll set up a scenario so you can see the difference between someone who is assertive vs. someone who is aggressive.

Mark works in retail, he’s been on the job for five years and is an assistant manager. A new employee named Steve has just transferred from an out of state store and holds the same position as Mark. Before the store opens, both of the men walk through the store aisles, Steve comments, “I don’t think these aisles are planned out very well, I have a few ideas that we could change to improve them.” Mark thinks to himself, “Corporate headquarters has very specific planograms which each store is required to maintain, changing around the aisle without consulting the store owner wouldn’t go over well.”

Here are two different responses.

Aggressive response:
“I don’t know how you did it in your old store, but these aisles are set up a certain way, and maybe you could use a refresher on workplace practices before you give me suggestions.”

The first thing we should note about this exchange is how personal it is. Mark is questioning Steve’s on the job know how even though they both hold the same position and isn’t willing to hear another person out. And questions Steve’s work competency by telling him to review the workplace manual. This exchange is not likely to foster an amicable start to a workplace relationship.

Assertive response:
“We can’t make any changes to the store without consulting both the store and corporate managers, but I’m open to hearing your opinions, even if we can’t necessarily implement them.”

Note the difference in tone with this response. Mark doesn’t make his response to Steve personal. He refers to workplace standards, is open to hearing another perspective, but is firm in not making any changes without consulting his supervisors nor promises a change after meeting with them. This type of exchange creates a respectful tone between both managers.

Being assertive is not disrespectful. Saying no isn’t disrespectful either. I’m someone who used to say yes frequently, I can do that for a lot of requests, but sometimes I was busy or just tired. Learning to say no, and stand firm with that no allowed me to respect my limits.

Utilize I statements as well. I statements focus attention on yourself rather than the other person. Saying “I can’t do that” is better than “You should know that I can’t do that.” Accusator statements lead towards aggressiveness. Also try to put yourself in the other persons’ shoes and think, if this was said to me, how would I feel? Thinking about it that way lets you adjust your tone accordingly.

The subject of assertiveness is a large one, and I’ve only brushed the surface. It’s also something you have to practice. Maybe you weren’t able to assert yourself in a particular situation, but the next time, you may be able to do so. Hindsight is 20/20, and past experiences can affect how we engage in future ones. I also won’t say that this blog post is a definitive way to address all conflicts, just a few ideas, and if you have any input on this topic and how you’ve learned to assert yourself, I would enjoy hearing from you.


Ziggy is a Certified Peer Specialist in PA and currently resides in Pittsburgh. He is a member of the Let’s Act committee, a group of peers devoted to raising awareness about mental health care. In his downtime, he enjoys reading novels and watching nature documentaries.

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