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How To Be Assertive vs. Aggressive In Difficult Conversations

Updated: Sep 25, 2018





Conflicts are an integral part of our lives and workplaces. And yet, many of us avoid them like the plague. We'd rather endure toxic and abusive behaviors than speak up to address the source of the problem and set healthy boundaries.


Over time though, avoiding conflicts creates resentment. If we don't release some of that “steam” accumulated in our system, we might “explode” one day in ways that are regrettable or damaging to our reputation.


We humans are wired for connection and belonging. The most primal part of our brains (the “reptilian brain” that hasn't evolved much since Stone age) can easily make up stories about how conflicts are threatening our survival. No wonder then that speaking up or being #assertive can feel difficult, if not overwhelming. Especially if you lack confidence, if you're in a junior position or if you come from a cultural background where conflict is not acceptable. It is not impossible to slowly change though and to practice having difficult conversations.


Below are some tips on how to deal with difficult conversations, and how to communicate in an assertive (vs. aggressive) manner. First off, you want to make sure that you are prepared for the conversation:

  1. Be clear about what you want to communicate, keep it short and simple as much as possible. Be clear about what you don't want to communicate, such as personal judgment and blame - this is very likely if you use “You are” statements. Avoid these as much as you can;

  2. Be clear about your motives and your conflict hooks (see my other Blog post on this topic here). Is your ultimate goal to hurt the person back as you felt hurt, or you want to focus on what you can deliver together, united, in the pursuit of a greater purpose? What outcome will best serve you, the person, and the organization (or the family, or the group)?

  3. Prepare ahead of time, maybe by role-playing with a friend or a coach;

  4. Timing is key. Chose the right time to have the conversation, maybe when you feel that you and the person are in a good mood (vs. stressed out and under pressure);

  5. Think about several things you respect about the person. Your goal is to preserve the relationship. Go in with a positive mindset and an open heart, not a heart at war (i.e. leave your “revenge warrior” costume at home);

  6. Have enough evidence to support your message. You don't want to come up with a laundry list of what is wrong with the other person. Collect facts and situations when the things that bother you have occurred. Focus on YOUR experience here, don't tell them about when the same situation happened with other colleagues/friends;

  7. Think about who you want to BE in the conversation (calm, courageous, confident, open-hearted, etc.). Develop a strategy to recover to that state of being. How will you notice when you're slipping? Do you want to suggest that you both take a break and come back to the conversation when you feel emotional?

  8. Always make clear requests about what you want to see change vs. spending time in “Complaining and Blaming Island”.

In addition to the above tips, below is a great four steps formula for practicing being assertive in difficult conversations:

  1. Make a short, simple, objective statement about the other person's behavior, the part you'd like to see changed. For example: “when you ask me if the report is ready several times a day/week” or “when you interrupt me during meetings”. The less personal the statement (such as “You are”), the less emotional your words sound (such as “when you attack me”), the better;

  2. Describe the negative impact this behavior has on you. For example, if the first part of the formula is “when you continually interrupt me during meetings,” you might then add, “I don’t get a chance to voice my opinion.” With this part, you build a cause-and-effect logic and make them aware of their impact. It is very likely that the person is not aware of their impact so if they are opened to receiving feedback, this can be very beneficial for them. Don't make it sound like you are helping them grow though, as they haven't asked you for that;

  3. Share a feeling statement, where you describe how the behavior hurts your feelings. For example, following the example above, a feeling statement might be “when you continually interrupt me, I feel marginalized”, or “when you constantly ask me if the report is ready, I feel I am not trusted.” While the person may feel surprised, it is hard to refute your feelings. If the person does, don’t be defensive as this can become a slippery slope that takes both of you on a negative/aggressive downward spiral;

  4. End with a short and simple request. This could sound like: “when you continually interrupt me during meetings, I don’t get a chance to voice my opinion, and I feel marginalized. I would appreciate it if you could let me express myself in meetings.”

Can you practice with topics that are “easy” for you, before you deal with more difficult ones?


Sources: Molinsky A. A Simple Way to be More Assertive. Harvard Business Review, August 2017. Kimsey-House K. Difficult Conversations as Opportunity. HuffPost, May 2013.

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