…vs. assertiveness

It’s a subtle difference, but assertive behavior is very different from aggressive behavior. Although they both might be considered a kind of reaction to a stressful or challenging situation, the outcomes are often very different. Assertion is a way of effectively communicating with others in a rational and reasonable way, and in its modern sense, with respect for the rights of yourself and others. Aggression is impulsively acting upon animal instinct and fear.

How can we know if a person’s reaction is assertion or aggression? How can we learn to be less susceptible to aggressive behavior, but maintain assertive qualities?


Assertion is a noun, originally found in the Latin assertiō, which also uses the prefix “ad” but is instead combined with the root word serere. The root has two meanings that were somewhat related concepts in the Ancient world. To “protect” or “maintain” (as in one’s rights) was seen as something like sowing seeds or to bind things together in the right way for successful production.

ad- (“toward, upon”)

+ serere (“to join, to intertwine, to protect”)

OR + serere (“to sow, to produce, to beget”)


For comparing these two definitions, I’ll not only look at the noun assertion and the adjective form assertive, used to describe a characteristic of a person or action, because they both can tell us something about their similarities (and differences) from aggression.

assertion [uh-sur-shuhn] noun

: a positive statement or declaration, often without support or reason

Synonyms — claim, affirmation, allegation, contention, insistence, pronouncement

Antonyms — silence, denial, rejection

assertive  [uh-sur-tiv] adjective

: aggressive self-assurance; given to making bold assertions

: having or showing a confident and forceful personality

: having a distinctive or pronounced taste or aroma

Synonyms — confident, forceful, decisive, forward, empathetic, bold
Antonyms — indefinite, meek, unsure


Last week we talked about human aggression being like a fight-or-flight response. In response to stress or fear, the brain is “hi-jacked” by the aggressive amygdala. Higher level thinking areas (like the prefrontal cortex) are overridden, resulting in angry or perhaps irrational behavior, that a person often feels is outside of their control.
When talking about assertive behavior, we’re usually referring to “standing up for yourself” or refusing to be taken advantage of by others, while at the same time refusing to succumb to impulsive reactions. These may or may not be the same people that find themselves susceptible to that quick impulse of aggression.

Today, you might hear of “assertiveness training” or someone’s desire to be more assertive when it comes to work and relationships. Usually, this is someone describing how easily persuaded they might be, or how they allow themselves to be taken advantage of in confrontation.

For those with a passive (or less aggressive) nature may find that subtle changes in communication techniques help to empower them, and help them more effectively influence the outcome of a real or potential conflict. This chart might give some insight into the styles of communication.

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