Acting Aggressively and Acting Assertively

Although most people maintain a steady behavioral course over time, everyone tends to act assertively or aggressively from time to time. Most authorities agree that assertiveness is more effective in helping people achieve their personal and professional goals, but in some cases, aggressiveness can actually be positive and constructive by compelling people to take action to improve, resolve a thorny issue or otherwise reconcile their differences. To gain some fresh insights into the distinctions between acting aggressively and acting assertively, this paper provides a review of the relevant peer-reviewed literature to define and contrast these terms and to describe a real-life situation in which they are used. A summary of the research and important findings are presented in the conclusion.

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Review and Discussion

In contrast to aggressive behavior which is characterized as being “hostile and coercive,” assertiveness is the “nonhostile, noncoercive tendency to behave with intense and energetic behavior to accomplish one’s goals”; however, “it is hard to distinguish the relationship between aggression and assertion because they have often been conceptually confused in the literature, and can usually only be differentiated by a person’s intention, which remains dependent on self-report” (Keller 2007:57). What is known for certain is that acting aggressively can have some profoundly adverse outcomes on family systems, including children who are subjected to this type of behavior on the part of their parents (Dowd & Leisring 2008:250). While men are typically assumed to be the aggressive party in couples, a significant percentage of women act aggressively with their male partners as well (Dowd & Leisring 250). A number of factors have been implicated in the high levels of aggressive behavior between men and women, including a history of violent or abusive relationships, posttraumatic stress disorder, as well as other mood and depressive disorders (Dowd & Leisring 251). For instance, according to Down and Leisring, “Women who are physically and psychologically aggressive toward their partners are a heterogeneous group. However, they typically present with a history of childhood trauma and/or adult victimization by current or past romantic partners” (251).

Within the constellation of aggressiveness is the subdimension of verbal aggressiveness that involves an element of attack which are either constructive or destructive attacks on another’s self-concept (Johnson, Becker, Wigley, Haigh and Craig 2007:189). According to Johnson and his associates, verbal aggressiveness is defined as “a personality trait that predisposes persons to attack the self-concepts of other people instead of, or in addition to, their positions on topics of communication” (2007:189). Although both argumentativeness and verbal aggressiveness can combine with the type of argument that is involved to determine the constructive or destructive nature of the attack, on a personal level, argumentativeness can actually serve a positive purpose by helping people resolve their differences in a constructive fashion (Johnson et al. 2007). Generally speaking, men have higher trait argumentativeness and verbal aggressiveness scores compared to women (Johnson et al. 190).

Messages that contain verbally aggressive messages are specifically intended by the sender to be hurtful in some fashion (Martin, Dunleavy and Kennedy-Lightsey 2010:726). In some cases, verbally aggressive messages are intended to attack an individual’s competence levels (for example, “You are a moron, you drive like my great-grandmother”) or an individual’s character (for example, “You are a slut, you are spineless”) (Martin et al. 726). In addition, verbally aggressive attacks can focus on physical appearance, background or culture, all with a view toward inducing some type of behavioral response from the targeted individual (Martin et al. 726). In some cases, assertiveness may be less effective than aggressiveness in inducing this positive behavioral change and some people appear to intuitively recognize when this is the case and respond favorably to such motivational strategies. For instance, Martin and his associates report that, “Motivation is a goal or outcome that students recognize as acceptable in using verbally aggressive messages. Students note that coaches, club leaders, and classroom instructors all have used verbal aggression to demand more from their students and those students have complied with these requests” (2010:727).

Although every situation is unique and demands careful attention to what type of message is needed, the “sting” that is felt upon receipt of an aggressive message may be the catalyst people need to improve. In this regard, Martin et al. emphasize that, “Once again, not all teachers, students, or situations use or value verbally aggressive messages, but in some instances, being verbally aggressive appears to work” (2010:727). An analysis of verbally assertive and verbally aggressive messages delivered and received in a university classroom between teacher and students conducted by Martin and his colleagues included the following examples:

1. The teacher told the class that they were stupid and ignorant.

2. The teacher called me a jackass in front of the class over and over.

3. The teacher yelled at students to listen, threatening students.

4. The teacher made fun of students for not knowing an answer.

5. Teacher stated, “My only advice for you is to drop out of school and save some money.”

6. “Any student that received a bad grade in this class is a dumb student.”

7. “You’re too chicken to say something in front of the whole class.”

8. The teacher calls the class “the remedial class.”

9. Teachers rolling their eyes and other disrespectful nonverbals.

10. Teachers saying, “You idiots need to pay attention.”

While it is clear these messages are aggressive in nature since they are intended to be hurtful in some fashion, the exigencies of classroom management and motivation make their use appropriate in some situations. Indeed, Martin and his associates (2010) identified a number of positive outcomes that were related to the use of verbal aggressiveness by teachers in university classrooms. According to Martin et al. (2010), verbal aggressiveness:

1. Motivates students to do better, to work harder, to study more;

2. Encourages students to follow the class rules;

3. Allows the instructor to establish credibility in the classroom;

4. Allows the instructor to “scare straight” wayward students;

5. Can serve as bad role models (e.g., how not to communicate with other people);

6. Stops disruptive students from interfering with learning;

7. Leads to students not making mistakes again (e.g., forgetting to bring course supplies to class);

8. Could lead to greater participation and punctuality; and,

9. Leads to a team or group increasing their effort (727).

Clearly, the foregoing positive outcomes are desirable but there is a high price to be paid for such improvements if aggressive messages are the alternative of first choice. In other words, the main theme that emerges from the relevant literature is the need to first be assertive in interactions with others in order to ensure that everyone’s voices are heard and their respective feelings are taken into account. Alas, this perfect world does not exist and more pragmatic alternatives may be required in order to overcome personal differences or personality clashes that can escalate otherwise-benign exchanges between people into heated and even violent confrontations. For example, when applied to a husband and wife, assertive messages might take the form of several requests from the wife to her husband to, “Since we both work full time, please help me out around the house by picking up your dirty clothes and putting them in the hamper.” After weeks of repeating this same assertive message with no discernible response from the husband, the wife resorts to an aggressive message, [Holding pair of dirty socks up]: “You are a p-i-g PIG! You are lazy and a bum and that’s why you didn’t win your high school football playoff game!” Admittedly, the aggressive message (which can be fine-tuned to any personal foible) is intended to be hurtful, but it is also directly tied to the issue at hand and will be more likely to invoke a thoughtful analysis on the part of the husband concerning his current behaviors than the less effective assertive requests.


One of the harsh realities of the human condition is that despite their best efforts, most people growl, snarl and snipe at others even when they do not intend to do so, while in other situations, people might find themselves acceding to requests they might otherwise decline. A number of factors can account for these different types of responses, including how requests and responses are framed in interpersonal exchanges. The research showed that to the extent the people use assertive techniques will likely be the extent to which they achieve their communication goals (whatever these may be), but in some situations, aggressive techniques may be more effective since they shake people out of their comfort zones and motivate them to take steps to improve their academic or workplace performance. The decision as to which approach to use is frequently made for people as a gut response or intuitive reaction, but successful leaders appear to know which approach is called for in a given situation.

Works Cited

Dowd, Lynn and Leisring, Penny A. (2008). “A Framework for Treating Partner Aggressive

Women.” Violence and Victims 23(2): 249-251.

Keller, Linda A. (2007). “The Differences in Sport Aggression, Life Aggression and Life

Assertion among Adult Male and Female Collision, Contact and Non-Contact Sport

Athletes.” Journal of Sport Behavior 30(1): 57-59.

Johnson, Amy A., Becker, Jennifer A., Wigley, Shelley, Haigh, Michel M. And Craig, Elizabeth

A. (2007). “Reported Argumentativeness and Verbal Aggressiveness Levels: The

Influence of Type of Argument.” Communication Studies 58(2): 189-191.

Martin, Matthew M. And Dunleavy, Katie N. (2010). “Can Verbally Aggressive Messages in the Instructor-Student Relationship Be Constructive?” College Student Journal 44(3): 726-