Assertive or Aggressive?

The words “Assertive”  and “Aggressive” are sometimes used interchangeably, but we shouldn’t ignore the profound differences between them. As far back as the 1920’s (according to my dilapidated Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary) the verb “assert,” meant  ”to affirm, state positively,” or “to maintain; vindicate a claim or title to.”

By contrast, the verb “aggress” meant, “To commit the first act of hostility or offense; begin a quarrel or controversy.”

In recent decades, the field of psychology has adopted “Assertiveness” as the label for a confident style of communication that neither dominates others nor surrenders to aggression.

In my writings, I take the modern definition as my starting point. Whereas pop psychology speaks of “rights”, I believe that truly non-aggressive communication requires a servant’s heart. The following comments spell out my understanding of the difference between assertiveness and aggressiveness.

Aggressiveness is determined to have its way. Focused on achieving a specific outcome, it sees people as obstacles or tools, not as human beings with consciences and free will. Although it’s possible to be aggressive within the limits of propriety and morality, aggressiveness often strays beyond the limits, manifesting itself as discourtesy, dishonesty, manipulation or intimidation.

Assertiveness is not coercive. It recognizes and respects appropriate boundaries. It tries to persuade and recruit. Assertiveness means having the courage to advance one’s agenda while respecting the rights of others to do likewise

Aggressiveness pulls the levers of emotion to “get” people to do what it wants.

Resistance to such lever-pulling is a natural part of assertiveness. Because assertiveness routinely leaves other people free to make up their own minds, the assertive person is content with the fact that others will not always approve, agree or understand. Assertiveness maintains its course in the face of aggression.

What are the levers that aggressive people use to manipulate others?

  • Shame
  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • The desire for approval

These basic emotions were built into humanity for good reasons, but their misuse can be very destructive.

The specific techniques of aggression are myriad, but most of them depend on these basic levers. Future blogs will take a closer look at each of them in turn.



  1. Fantastic. Super helpful for present and future circumstances on how to be more like Jesus against people who don’t understand what following Jesus means and to be steadfast in the face of an aggressive generation.


  1. […] post begins a four-part series about the emotional pressure points used by aggressive people to manipulate the behavior of others. We who want to live assertively need to stand our […]