There is a lot of confusion about what constitutes aggressive versus assertive behavior in our society. People tend to mistake aggressive behavior for assertive behavior. Yes, assertiveness means not passively letting people walk all over you, but it also means not being verbally or physically aggressive in your interactions. Being aggressive, rather than assertive, may provoke ill-will or retaliation from others. Unfortunately, this mistake can get you into arguments or possibly even get you killed if you provoke the wrong person.
What is Assertiveness?
Just what is assertiveness? According to The Complete Idiots Guide to Assertiveness, by Jeff Davidson, assertive behavior means “You speak up or stand up for yourself or others without diminishing someone else's rights.” Aggressive behavior means, “You diminish someone else's basic rights, communicating in an uncivil or disrespectful manner.” Making threats, insults, name calling, or being physically threatening is aggressive behavior.
Also according to Davidson, assertiveness includes “conveying appropriate self interest, maintaining integrity and upholding rights.” Calm and assertive behavior is the most appropriate demeanor for a person of good character.
Attitude and Assertive Personal Conduct
Effective communication is the other key to learning assertiveness. For example, a calm assertive individual tries to resolve problems by first asking for clarification. If someone offends you, ask for clarification as to what the person meant before assuming they meant it negatively or accusing them. If you assume offense was intended and you react strongly to a perceived insult, it can seem like you are the aggressor in the situation rather than the other person. When you are verbally aggressive, for many people, it becomes a matter of pride that they also attack you, and in some cases maybe even physically.
Aggression and Violence
The goal should be to calmly negotiate and avoid using self defensive force right up until the moment that you safely can't avoid it anymore. This is why it is so important to stay calm and assertive and verbally deescalate conflicts or physically remove yourself if possible before things turn aggressive or violent. Chaotic behavior is rooted in fear. Violence has a very limited effectiveness. This is something humanity would do well to learn.
For many inherently aggressive people, violence and self defense become confusing concepts because of the larger confusion about what constitutes assertiveness versus aggression. Violence comes from the root world violate, as in violate someone's rights. You will notice that the definition of aggression provided above is to act in a way that diminishes someone else's rights. The only appropriate use of force is in reaction to someone using violence or coercion in order to violate your rights, not simply because they made you mad or insulted you.
Throw some anger induced temporary insanity into the mix and most people who are involved in a fight will argue that they were defending themselves even when onlookers can see that both parties acted aggressively by making insults or challenges, leading to the initiation of violence by one or both individuals simultaneously. Ethics, and the law, however, dictate that the person who threw the first punch, or broke into someone's home, is the aggressor. If a situation turns angry, try to remain calm, and deescalate the conflict before it can turn violent, rather than adding fuel to the fire. It's not about winning, its about protecting yourself.
Assertiveness and Personal Boundaries
Physical boundaries also include listening to your intuition. Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza avowed intuitive knowledge, arguing that it is the only type of knowledge which his eternal. Intuition has long been dismissed as a supernatural phenomenon, but newer research detailed in books such as The Sense of Being Stared At, by biologist Rupert Sheldrake, show that intuition is scientifically demonstrable and that there is an evolutionary basis for it as a form of self protection for both humans and animal. Intuition is described as a sixth sense, such as turning suddenly to find someone staring at you, a small still voice, or an internal sense that something is not right with a person or situation. It pays to listen to your intuition and leave a situation if you have a bad feeling about it. Nothing is harmed by leaving anyway.
Emotional boundaries are for protecting yourself from the effects of other people's unethical behavior. Effective communication is essential for communicating your emotional boundaries in interpersonal relationships. If you can communicate effectively in a calm assertive way in the first place, you will be less likely to end up in a situation where you have to enforce your emotional boundaries. Emotional boundaries come up when you are not comfortable with some aspect of another person's behavior. For example, “I am not ok with you road raging while I am in the car.”
It is important to know what makes you uncomfortable about how others treat you or how they act in your presence. You also need to communicate to the person in calm, nonjudgmental way, that you are not ok with behavior x. If the person continues behavior x even after you have communicated that it bothers you or hurts you, then it is time to enforce your boundaries.
Boundaries are not about controlling the other person's behavior. They are about protecting yourself from the person's behavior. An example of how to assertively enforce your boundaries would be to say, “I have told you behavior x hurts me. You are an adult and I can't control you, but I can control my response. If you do x again, I will leave the house/ stop talking to you for a certain amount of time in order to protect myself.” Boundaries can even include ending a relationship in extreme circumstances.
You have to follow through with enforcing emotional boundaries even if doing so is inconvenient or uncomfortable for you. A boundary isn't a boundary if you ignore it or let others cross it at will. For example, if I refuse to drive with you because of your road rage, I can't just decide to accept a ride with you even when it would be more convenient for me to do so. You must be calm and assertive about communicating and enforcing your emotional boundaries.
Sharing the wisdom of the Dog Whisperer and learning to conduct yourself in a calm, assertive way, helps you to act ethically and with integrity. Being calm yet assertive can help you avoid negative and violent interpersonal situations. By being able to communicate effectively and assertively, you differentiate yourself as person of character who garners respect from others.