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Assertiveness V Aggression - a lesson for everyone

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Written by John A G Smith – Tue 31 May 2016

Although most booking on to the popular Assertiveness and Confidence course are business clients, learning how to be assertive is beneficial in many everyday situations.

Assertiveness and Confidence are often confused with aggression or selfishness.

We asked our business consultant and story teller extraordinaire John A G Smith to weave a yarn to show the difference.

Image by Chris & Karen Highland

Heads I win, tails…..

The queue snaked along the corridor of rope.  At the head of it were two refectory tables and distributed behind them were four harassed clerks.  Occasionally, not often enough, we moved forward by one place as one of the people occupying a chair in front of a clerk stood and left to be replaced by the next supplicant.  I had been here nearly an hour.  Thank goodness for my paperback novel.

It was all my own fault, I suppose.  The first day of term at the local evening institute was always the same as those eager for knowledge or companionship signed up for a variety of classes: physical, spiritual or cerebral.  It had been quite possible to enrol for the last two weeks but, like everybody else it seemed, I had left it until the last minute to sign on for my third year Spanish class so now I stood, shuffling forward until I would eventually reach the front, get my forms stamped and pay my fee.  Then I would join my class.

Suddenly, a rather ‘robust’ woman, wearing a formal business suit and an expression that would intimidate the Sphinx, bypassed the line, strode to the front and started to speak over the shoulder of the seated enrollee.  Being British there was some rather stiff muttering among those waiting.


“There’s a queue,” snapped the form-filler, indicating the waiting mob with a flick of her pen.  But the woman was not that easily put off.

“I don’t want to enrol.  I just need to ask a question.”  The clerk sighed and raised an eyebrow.

“What do you need to know?”

“Which is the room for the Introduction to Assertiveness Course?”  There was a chorus of laughter from the audience, mainly appreciation for the break from the boredom.

“It strikes me that’s the last thing she needs,” whispered the man behind me as the harridan was directed to the appropriate room.


But it set to me wondering.  Was what she did assertive or was it something else?  Forceful, definitely?  Borderline aggressive, perhaps?  What was very clear was that my queue-mate had no idea what was … or was not … assertive.

It is widely understood that, in any negotiation, each party must give and receive … that’s the point of negotiation and is the only way that a mutually acceptable agreement may be arrived at.  The word often used is ‘compromise’ and this is sometimes explained thus: “One party demands ‘red’ but the other demands ‘yellow’.  The solution is ‘orange’.


So the only way out is for neither to have want they want and for them to end up equally unhappy?

In fact, the whole point of negotiation is to find the common ground: everything that can be agreed by both parties and work forward from there.  But there is a problem because each may well ‘draw a line in the sand’ and refuse to budge.  And that’s where the negotiation process stalls – and nothing is resolved.  On the other hand, where the negotiators understand assertiveness, the process moves forward because both realise that, if it does not, they will both lose out.

In negotiation there are three positions a negotiator can take:

Aggressive – “I will get what I want regardless of what anybody else wants.”  But the problem is that the other parties will inevitably end up dissatisfied with the outcome.  And we’ve all seen what happens if two aggressors go head to head. Think ‘bosses and unions’ in any one of dozens of labour disputes.

Passive – “You take what you want and I’ll accept it.”  But they are likely to be unhappy with the deal to which they agreed.

Assertive people believe that all parties should walk away from any negotiation as happy as possible.  So assertive negotiators begin the process by understanding exactly what they must have … their ‘line in the sand’ … but beyond that all else is on the table and can be used as a bargaining chip.  “If I give you this will you give me that?”

The outcome of poor negotiating can be disastrous.

Take, for example, the customer who beats a supplier down to a minimum price without considering that they need to make a profit.  There are possibly severe results … the supplier may cut corners and the customer can end up with a shoddy job. In extremis the supplier may even go out of business, leaving the customer with an unfinished job … again as we have seen in a number of cancelled government contracts.

A hardworking employee may feel she is entitled to more pay but, browbeaten by a manager, fails to make her case and doesn’t get an increase.  Although the company has saved a few pounds on its salary bill it now has a disgruntled employee who may then be less productive, more inclined to take time off sick and may well leave for a competitor at the first opportunity.

Assertiveness almost always leads to positive outcomes.

Customers and suppliers build lasting, productive and profitable partnership.  Assertiveness is built around truthfulness and this leads to trust … great for any relationship.

So the assertive manager will recognise a valuable employee and want to help.  Although unable to offer the full amount she may be able to offer alternatives: training courses, promotion or the like.  Good compromise.  Happy, productive employee.  Happy company.

Of course, sometimes all the assertiveness in the world doesn’t always work.  My wife and I decided that we would save money – and the environment – by cutting down to one car between us.  My choice would have been ‘large, sporty and manual’.  Hers was ‘small, sedate and automatic’.  We compromised:  ‘small, sedate and automatic’.

Oh well. 

Get yourself some more confidence and learn how to be a little more assertive by joining one of our Assertiveness & Confidence Building training courses.


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