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Aggressive or assertive communication: What’s the difference?

By Kace O'Neill | |7 minute read

Different communication styles in the workplace can create conflict between colleagues. Understanding the difference between communication styles can be useful for avoiding conflict.

Conflict in the workplace often arises from a breakdown in communication. This breakdown can come from a simple misunderstanding. Not everyone in the workplace has the same styles of communication, and understanding these different styles is imperative to mitigating conflict.

HR Leader recently spoke to Leah Mether, a communications and soft skills specialist, about conflict in the workplace and the key differences between an aggressive and assertive style of communication.


“Most conflict comes down to communication. Conflict often is because of misunderstanding, being misunderstood, not having the same patient style as another person, a clash of beliefs, communication style, or feeling like your thoughts and opinions have been not heard, understood, or been disrespected,” she said.

“Conflict happens between people because we’re all different, and communication is the foundation. It underpins all human connection. So, conflict usually comes down to a communication issue. Someone hasn’t explained their needs or has overstepped the mark, not realising they’ve overstepped the mark.”

As Mether stated, conflict often derives from a communication breakdown, and the key to fixing this is through clarity.

“If communication is usually the issue that leads to conflict, it makes sense that communication is also the key to mitigating conflict because we are able to talk through and explain what we need, explain our position,” Mether said.

“You can’t avoid conflict, but you can certainly lessen the impact or minimise the chance of it happening if you communicate effectively at the start, before it even gets to conflict.”

Communication styles are a key subject of conflict, and often, confusion arises from colleagues over the way that someone is communicating with them. An example would be having the ability to tell the difference between someone being assertive or aggressive.

“The very first thing I’m going to point out here is aggressive and assertive are two totally different things, and a lot of people get them confused. They’re different. Assertive is not aggressive,” Mether said.

“Aggressive communication is ‘I win, you lose.’ ‘I’m right, you’re wrong.’ ‘I don’t actually care what you think. I just need to get my point across.’ They’re just disregarding them, basically.”

Aggressive communication isn’t just the typical yelling, cursing, or shouting; there are numerous ways aggressive communication can come across, and it’s important to recognise when it’s happening so you can put a stop to it.

“It doesn’t have to be the loud, yelling, shouty person. I think this is where people get confused. They think, ‘Oh, but I didn’t yell, so it wasn’t aggressive.’ But if you think you’re right and the other person’s wrong, and you’re not listening to other people, you can do it with a smile. You can do it without yelling, and that is still aggressive communication,” Mether said.

When you’re on the receiving end of an aggressive communicator, it can be difficult to navigate. It’s difficult to know how to react and how to avoid further escalation, especially if you yourself are not an assertive communicator.

“If you’re communicating with someone who has an aggressive style, they will often be an impatient listener. They often are very quick, bull-at-a-gate style communicators. One of the things that you want to do is make sure you get to the point quickly because talking around an issue with an aggressive person is like a red rag to a bull,” Mether said.

“So, if you know someone has an aggressive style, do the thinking first about what you want to say, what is your point, so that you can say it quite succinctly.”

Along with communicating in a succinct fashion, there are a number of other strategies that can be deployed to help navigate a conversation with an aggressive communicator. Things like telling them to calm down or relax often escalate the tension and will further push a communication breakdown.

Instead, it is important to ensure that the aggressive communicator feels seen and heard while also setting a boundary on how aggressive they are acting towards you.

“One of the keys is making sure that they feel heard and listened to. So, this is where empathy really becomes important, and using I statements. So, ‘I can see that you’re frustrated with me right now.‘ ‘I appreciate that you’re angry at the moment.’ ‘What I’m hearing you say is you’re really concerned about this situation. Have I got that right?’ So, it’s acknowledging the feeling and repeating back so that they feel heard,” Mether said.

The other side that often gets intertwined with an aggressive style is an assertive style of communication.

“Assertive communication balances your needs with the needs of the other person. So, a truly assertive communicator will speak up [and] put forward their thoughts, opinions, and beliefs. But they will do that in a calm way with respect, and they will appreciate that you might have a different opinion or different needs, and that’s OK. A truly assertive person is trying to find the win-win, rather than ‘I win, you lose’,” Mether said.

This win-win mentality is key to understanding how to communicate with an assertive person. Although their comments may come across as very straight-up and honest, their goal is to achieve something from that conversation. Being efficient with your words and not wasting their time is a great strategy when communicating with an assertive person.

“For a genuinely assertive person, [communication] is not about winning; it’s about debating the idea. It’s not about being right; it’s putting forward different ideas, listening to each other, getting your point across, but being open to the ideas of other people,” Mether said.

“So, if I’m dealing with an assertive communicator, I know they prefer direct communication, so I will make sure I’ve done my thinking first so that I can make my point effectively.”

To mitigate conflict that arises from a communication breakdown, it is crucial to recognise the style of communication that your colleagues have, ensuring that you have the strategies and plans to de-escalate the conflict, but also the insight to achieve a positive conversation that can boost productivity for all involved.

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill

Kace O'Neill is a Graduate Journalist for HR Leader. Kace studied Media Communications and Maori studies at the University of Otago, he has a passion for sports and storytelling.