The Differences Between Assertiveness and Aggressiveness

Someone recently asked me the difference between aggressiveness and assertiveness, specifically in asking your partner or children for something. Often we mistake the two, and depending on our upbringing, the two may be similar or are the same thing.

In some families (like my big Italian family), aggressiveness and loud communication are a way of life! The truth is assertiveness can get you what you need without (most of the time) impairing the relationship significantly. On the other hand, aggressiveness can get you what you need but can easily damage the relationship. Over time, hostility towards others leads to breakdowns and endings of relationships, leaving both people in the relationship feeling dismissed.

I would also like to address that these differences are from the viewpoint and study of a white woman living in the United States. Aggressive and assertive traits may be different in some cultures.

Aggressive actions:

1. Threatening posture: Think pointing a finger, arms crossed, or fists clenched. Anger on the face is a scowl, clenched jaw, and furrowed eyebrows. Eye rolling and smirking are not only aggressive but dismissive. In addition, getting too close to a person’s face can be seen as aggressive, so make sure you have some distance between yourself and the other person.

2. Name-calling: This may be obvious, though even some names we believe aren’t too hurtful can be to others, especially if said with a threatening posture and a loud tone of voice.

3. A loud and angry tone of voice: Maybe you have heard people say, “It just sounded angry.” There is a difference between asserting what you need firmly and demanding and yelling.

4. Passive aggressiveness: Yes, this is a form of aggressiveness! Imagine you are walking into your home, and your partner states, “Wow, it’s about time you got home,” or when you ask for something saying, “Well, you are just in time to help me with this shit show.” And it is not just the words we speak; it is how we say them. If you are expressing the above statements sarcastically, that can be seen as aggression and not actually asking for your needs to be satisfied.

5. Threats: If your assert starts with, “If you don’t do this, I am going to…” that is probably a threat. Other threats include “I’m going to be so mad at you if you don’t do this” or “Try this bullshit again, and I will…” Threats can get your needs sometimes met. However, they will lead to distress and mistrust in your relationships.

Assertive Actions:

1. A relaxed posture with space in between you and the person to whom you are asserting. You may have heard the term “getting in someone’s face” That is precisely what we are trying not to do. Open palms and a relaxed neutral facial expression are important

2. Asking precisely what you need the other person to do. Your assert doesn’t need to beat around the bush. Make it exact, clear, and understandable. So, instead of saying, “Hey, how about you do the dishes for once?” Say, “Can you please do the dishes in the sink?”

3. A sincere thank you when the person grants your request. You don’t need to go on and explain why it’s essential. Instead, you can state, “Thank you so much. This is a big help.” That is validating and can make the other person want to grant your request more.

We may not always hit the mark on assertiveness. Sometimes, factors such as stress, previous trauma, lack of sleep, physical illness, and more can get in the way of asserting effectively. However, if you are using any tactics described above as aggressive as your go-to communication style, noting this and seeking help to improve your communication can go a long way in bettering your relationships with others, especially your loved ones.


Shelby Milhoan, LCPC