By Mark Lamendola

Many people are afraid of being assertive, or consider assertive behavior to be impolite. Usually, that’s because they confuse assertive behavior with aggressive behavior. Instead of confronting a problem, they use other strategies. And those strategies, being maladaptive, quite often make the situation worse.

Being assertive is the best way to foster good relationships, manage your boss, deal with petty people, and avoid problems with neighbors. If that seems counterintuitive, you really should be reading this article.

So, what is aggressive behavior? Behavior is “aggressive” when you’re trying to get your needs met but, tread on the rights or feelings of others in the process. You are controlling them, intimidating them, coercing them, abusing them, or otherwise invading their personal space or abusing their rights.

Two main options to this approach are “assertive” behavior and “passive” behavior. A passive response means just what the name implies—you decide to take a non-active approach.
You let the other person decide for you. You do not try to actively get what you want. You take your chances that someone else will get it for you or perhaps circumstances will allow for you to get what you need.

An assertive response is one in which you are trying to get your needs met without infringing upon the rights of anyone else. An example will illustrate the differences between these three approaches.

Suppose you’re seated in a movie theater. Just a few minutes before the film is scheduled to begin, someone with a rather large hat sits down in the seat in front of you. The hat obstructs your view of the screen.

Now, let’s look at some ways of responding to this situation.

The aggressive response

If you were responding aggressively, you might lean up and shout in the person’s ear, “Hey! Can’t you see there are other people in this theater? Take off that $%&*$# hat before I knock it off your head.”

This response might get you what you want (or maybe much more than you bargained for!), but you’ve resorted to threats, verbal assaults, intimidation, and rudeness to get it.

All of those things are disrespectful of the other person’s feelings. It doesn’t matter that the other person wasn’t respectful of your feelings by sitting in front of you with that big old hat on in the first place. Another person’s disrespect or rudeness doesn’t give you the right to be disrespectful or rude. Even if it did, what is your goal here? To show you can lack civility, or to solve an irritating problem?

Another person’s disrespect or rudeness gives you the right to say something… but this is not it.

The passive response

The passive response in this situation might be that you sit there and do nothing. You won’t be able to see the movie. You might be thinking about your rotten luck and how rude some people are. But, you suffer through it.

Another passive response might be to say nothing and get up to move your seat somewhere else in the theater. (Of course, in this day and age, when you cannot assume how a stranger in a theater will respond even to an assertive response, perhaps moving your seat is not a bad thing to do. But, for the sake of our demonstration, we’ll consider it to be less favorable than our next option.)

The passive-aggressive response

This response combines two bad responses. In this example, you might sit there and sigh loudly. Or do something else that cryptically hints at the problem. This is the coward’s way of being aggressive. It’s ineffective, at best.

The assertive response

The assertive response might go as follows: “Excuse me. You probably didn't realize this, but unfortunately your hat is blocking my view of the movie. Is there any reason you can't take your hat off until the movie's done? I'd greatly appreciate it if you could. Thanks.”

Notice that in this response, you are still telling the person what you would like from him/her and why. But, you are not using control tactics or scare tactics to get your way.

You are being honest about what you need and you are giving the other person the option to meet your needs voluntarily. And you are being polite. You’re not accusing anyone of anything. You’re just stating the problem and stating what you’d like done about it. Your tone and body language need to be consistent with this message.

Sure, the other person may still ignore you or react angrily (and inappropriately). You could still get up and move. You might be tempted to utter something derogatory as you do. That just sends the other person a message that you deserve to be mistreated. In other words, that negative energy will be bounced back to you.

You could discuss the matter with a manager, but what is that person realistically going to do? You’ll just make him or her uncomfortable.

So just get up and move. You’ve communicated to the hat wearer what’s wrong. In the future, that person is likely to leave the hat at home. Persisting in this situation would merely make that person determined not to be made “wrong” so that hat will stay on and that person will be fuming about what a jerk you are for not just “giving it a rest.”

Where the stakes are higher, you may need to be persistent well past your comfort zone (as Nelson Mandela was, for example). But for small matters, the offending person will interpret persistent assertiveness as social tone-deafness or maybe even aggressiveness on your part. Go to Plan B for solving the problem, and let it go at that. You can’t always get your way.

Author's Bio: 

Mark Lamendola worked extensively with Dr. Jay Prince to develop Mindconnection's Behavior Modification series of downloadable courses,

Mark has managed conflict resolution for a variety of organizations, basing his approach on assertiveness.