Are you Assertive or Aggressive?


A good friend of mine recently took a part-time job at a truck rental agency. The job required her to talk to customers about rental policies and prices.  There was one customer who had been flagged for violating the return policy and my friend attempted to work out a compromise so the customer could avoid additional charges and fees even though he was bringing the truck back slightly beyond the return time. Although she was already stretching the rules a bit, at some point the conversation turned ugly. The customer became upset, angry, and hostile. The situation became real when the guy arrived at her office a short time later.

I was completely horrified to learn that my friend, who had no option other than to face the angry client, had to suffer verbally abusive language and name-calling from the discontented customer.  Luckily, my friend is not a novice when it comes to dealing with rough situations and she was able to withstand the confrontation.  The question is: should she have had to endure it at all?

As we talked about the incident after the fact we both acknowledged that it could have been a life threatening moment.  The Department of Labor says that in 2014 there were roughly 5,000 fatal workplace injuries and of these; almost 9 percent were workplace homicides. I insisted that she re-consider keeping that particular job and that she take some time off to re-group. I am at least happy I was able to be a sympathetic ear.

What is the fine line between assertive and aggressive behavior? My friend’s customer was aggressive. Both assertive and aggressive people have the ability to express themselves but, the aggressive person makes others feel offended through their communication. The assertive person maintains the ability to control a situation and is effective in getting a point across without stifling or intimidating others.  Assertive behavior allows room for all parties to constructively exchange words even if consensus cannot be reached.  The assertive person uses positive problem skills to confront adversity as opposed to letting out a loud, negative, and overly emotional response.

Assertiveness can be a good display of positive mental health and confidence. Assertive people will generally stand up for themselves and know their opinion is as important as anyone else’s. Assertiveness is a behavioral trait that allows a person to speak and act confidently, even in the face of adversity, while respecting the thoughts, views, and rights of others. Assertive people speak openly but can an opinionated person be mistaken for being pushy or too forceful? It depends on what additional behavior is being displayed.

By contrast, aggressive people have behavior patterns that include poor listening skills and talking over others. Aggressive people use criticism to control the level of communication, speak quickly with impatience, and forcefully interrupt while others are speaking. Aggressive behavior may mask personal feelings of hostility, resentment, and anger. In the extreme case, aggressive people feel superior and do not respect the views of others.

More than 10 years ago a national survey of workers on the prevalence of workplace aggression in the US found that the general public is the most significant source of workplace aggression as opposed to other co-workers. My friend was in fact, working in a high risk environment. High risk jobs include customer service agents, delivery drivers, healthcare professionals, and public service workers, among others. Since the survey was taken, nearly 2 million American workers are victims of workplace violence each year. Not talking about it doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening, can’t happen, or won’t happen.

According to the survey, at that time more than 40 percent of workers in the US, equal to 47 million people, experienced psychological aggression such as being screamed at or threatened with bodily harm. Actual violence was less common but still impacted almost 7 million workers. Survey respondents also said 13 percent of them had endured aggression from their bosses while 15 percent said they were victimized from co-workers.

What can you do? If you are or believe you might be working in a high risk environment ask about workplace violence prevention policies. If there isn’t one, ask the HR department to consider drafting a policy for immediate implementation. If you’re in a position to create a violence prevention policy get the buy in to start one. A sound policy combined with other administrative supports could help avoid negative behavior from devolving into workplace aggression.

Yolanda Smith is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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