Behaving assertively is a goal of effective communication. Being “assertive” is sometimes confused with being “aggressive.” We behave assertively when we state our wishes directly and honestly, while simultaneously taking others‘ needs into account. A classic book — The New Assertive Woman by Bloom, Coburn, and Pearlman — is subtitled “How to know what you feel, say what you mean, and get what you want.”

This doesn’t mean you do all the talking or that it’s O.K. to be hurtful as long as you’re being honest (see feedback guidelines). When both people are being assertive there is mutual respect. In assertive interaction, both parties listen and seek mutually beneficial outcomes.

In contrast:

  • People who are passive communicate from a one-down position. They go along with others’ opinions and decisions just to get along or because they don’t know how to assert themselves (for some people it takes practice). Sometimes people aren’t even aware of what they’ve given away. When we’re passive, others’ needs and wishes get met at the expense of our own.

“Well, uh, I don’t know, maybe we could…well, what do you think?”

  • Sometimes our implicit desire to have our needs met at all costs shows up as passive-aggressive behavior. It’s passive in that it’s indirect (or manipulative); it’s aggressive in that it doesn’t show respect for the other person. But it’s usually pretty subtle (and hard to recognize in ourselves). When we’re passive-aggressive we’re usually surprised if people react with anger or defensiveness, but when we’re open to learning, their response is good information that we’ve been passive aggressive:

Did you finish that project yet?” (When you know s/he hasn’t.)

“Why do you keep nagging me?”

“I was just asking a question…”

  • People who are aggressive aim to satisfy their own needs and wishes without regard for those of others. This kind of behavior is usually obvious to others:

“I said we’re going to do it that way, and I’m not interested in any discussion!!!”

But aggressive behavior is not always obvious to the person who’s being aggressive. Someone might, for example, just take charge without asking anyone else’s opinion, and fail to notice that other people feel bent out of shape.