Today I would like to discuss a concept which is a significant cause of conflict in personal and work life: the quality of being socially dominant and its counterpart, passive aggressiveness. From my own observation, these two yin-yang approaches result in two camps of thoughts which are constantly at war with each other.
The benefits of being assertive
Assertiveness has been a well-known concept that contributes to good communication skills. Being assertive means to be able to speak up and project your point of view so as to protect your self-interest and create win-win situations through clear communication. It is a more healthy way of channeling aggression than said, bottling up inside just to explode later.
Potential benefits of being assertive:
- Protect your personal benefits
- Communicate and find win-win situation in teamwork
- Make individuals more stress-resistant and hence, improve productivity
- Speak up and protect your boundary, thus improve mental healths
- Be happier in general and reap associated health benefits
- Feel more confident and competent, and therefore improve self-esteem
The definition of assertiveness: a skill or mindset?
The definition of assertiveness can range from a very positive meaning to domineering or openly aggressive. 16personalities.com, a very popular psychometric site, defines assertive individuals as “self-assured, even-tempered, and resistant to stress”.
So the keywords here are low on stress and aggression, or simply, low on neuroticism on the Big Five scale. For the discussion of this article, we will stick closely to the definition of Assertiveness as “the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive“.
The implication is that loud and aggressive people can still be considered as not assertive if the underlying motivation is frequent excessive stress and aggression. Assertiveness in this sense closely resembles the laid-back type B in the popular Type A/ B personality model.
How is assertiveness a mindset? I have observed two distinct patterns among people. On one hand, assertive individuals find it easier to set boundary. Their typical emotional reactions are either neutral or anger towards things or other people. It’s not that they cannot take blame or feel guilt, but they just do not dwell on it and instead quickly fix the issues either through correcting their own or other’s behaviors.
On the other hand are apparently meeker individuals who shy away from displaying outward anger or judgement and tend to internalize feelings of shame or guilt. That doesn’t mean they do not have aggression. These individuals may appear easy-going on the surface, but can harbor victim mentality and passive-aggressive behaviors.
Yin and Yang: Is assertiveness all good and passive-aggressiveness bad?
Like most of other mindsets, being openly or passive-aggressive tends to be reinforced and biased by our egos. Passive-aggressive people tend to have a martyr complex, thinking that other people are immoral or ignorant, but keep such thoughts to themselves. They view assertive people as insensitive, domineering and even shallow.
Openly aggressive people on the other hand, view the majority as too inefficient, soft, overthinking or even lazy. While passive people often furnish their thought system with idealism, morality and sensitivity, assertive people reinforce their egos with the ideas of logic, efficiency, survival and bottom lines.
Such self-reinforcement results in a continuous battle between the overly assertive and the passive, like yin and yang, in our social interactions. The effect of a domineering personality is easy to see but passive aggression can be equally nasty. Especially when having a superior position, passive aggressive people can intentionally or unintentionally channel their aggression through guilt tripping, sarcasm or petty politics to cause pain to others.
From an objective standpoint, both of these perspectives are valid. When something goes wrong, you can look outside and find faults in the system or others. You can also look into yourselves and find reasons for shame or guilt, or to do better next time. The key is balance so that you don’t over-blame yourself at the expense of leadership or don’t blame yourself enough to learn and improve.
How does assertiveness correlate with personality types?
Overall, introverted feeling types such as ISFP, INFP, ISFJ and INFJ tend to be the least assertive while extraverted thinkers such as ESTJ and ENTJ are often assertive to the point of being brash. Genders also play a role where females would likely downplay their assertiveness which is traditionally considered a masculine quality.
How to practice assertiveness
- Avoid the martyr complex: people can’t read your mind even if they try to. We often have very skewed and over-simplistic views of other people’s minds so we shouldn’t expect others to understand us with the same depth and details as we understand ourselves. Communication is key!
- Read books to improve soft skills and communication. There are many well-known books out there such as the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, How to Win Friends and Influence People… Having the foundation on communications and people’s skills will allow you to transition from being closed up to assertive without coming off as brash or confrontational.
- Read books on psychology to understand different personality types: learning about MBTI, Enneagram, Big Five can all help us to recognize the distinct personalities and their corresponding point of views, which are all valid.
- Understand and tame your aggression: Ultimately, it’s a matter of channeling our aggression effectively or best of all, not having one in the first place. Meditation, talking to our support network, contemplating to see a wider perspective and challenging our own biases would help to alleviate our inner tension.