Are You Aggressive or Assertive?


It’s fair to say we’ve all been there. We’re being assertive in a heated conversation, or giving tough feedback, or pushing back on someone who has crossed the line. Then the conversation takes a turns. And then you hear it, “Why are you being so aggressive right now?”

A statement like this is intended to do two things: 1) cause a distraction and 2) change the subject. For this reason, when someone tells you this, it’s never about you or your behavior. Here’s why:

  • An aggressive person uses name-calling and bully tactics to dominate.
  • An assertive person uses boundaries and mutual respect to engage in conversation or debate.
  • A passive-aggressive person doesn’t know how to express himself or herself and will resort to deflection to relieve an uncomfortable conversation. This statement is 100% passive-aggressive.

If you struggle with knowing whether your behavior is actually aggressive, I’ve pulled together five articles to help you dig deeper into what it means to be assertive, aggressive or passive-aggressive. Please keep in mind that if you find your behavior is, in fact, aggressive, it’s time to consider better ways to communicate.

1. Aggressive vs. assertive: the secret behind effective leaders.

This article from the Center for Management and Organization Effectiveness (CMOE) gives a great breakdown into what it means to be either aggressive or assertive. It also provides a great framework for how to start using an assertive communication model to start communicating in a more effective way. It also goes into what it means to use non-verbal cues to make your point.

2. Passive vs. aggressive vs. assertive. 

This article from Better and Betterer gives a great overview of the differences between the three methods of communication. It also provides a link to a more detailed article on passive-aggressive behavior. The reality of the workforce today is that passive-aggressive behavior is prevalent these days. We will continue to learn what’s acceptable behavior these days. It’s worth knowing how to identify passive-aggressive behavior, and how to deal with it.

3. How to be assertive without losing yourself.

This article by Harvard Business Review focuses specifically on how to step into the skills of being assertive without losing the elements that make you uniquely you. It also provides commentary from Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, and a link to her book, How Women Mean Business. If this is an area where you struggle (many women do), you might find value in her book.

4. Three key differences between being assertive and being aggressive.

Here are two articles by Meet Mindful and Life Made Conscious that provide simple lists of traits that distinguish aggressive and assertive behavior. They also provide great context on what it means to assume an assertive personality. These articles outline the shift to self-care, self-worth, and self-confidence that makes an assertive personality attractive to others.

5. What to do when someone accuses you of being aggressive.

Because this topic can go deep, I thought it would be helpful to create a YouTube video to go along with this newsletter. The goal here is to give you some examples of responses you can use if you find yourself in this situation. In this video, I talk about ways to create boundaries around someone who has accused you of being aggressive when it’s clear you are not.

And, if you’re interested in reading more about what I wrote about dealing with aggression in the workplace, check out my article on whether your colleagues miss you when you’re gone, and this article on bullying in the workplace, and even this article on setting boundaries at work.

On a final note, I hope you find the video interesting and useful. I’ve been experimenting with new ways to share information on developing a leadership brand. My goal is to create communication toolkits to help you step into your authority without sacrificing what makes you unique.

If you have any comments or feedback I’d love to know … but, please be kind. I know I’m just getting started here and I’m excited to see how it evolves.



Christina Holloway is an executive coach and business coach. She helps executives and entrepreneurs grow their companies faster, create results-driven teams, and increase profitability. She has been featured in ForbesThe Huffington PostAddicted2Success and Fast Company. If you’re interested in working with Christina, take a look at her strategy sessions and contact her to get started.

Christina Holloway