by Andrew Lawless, John Quinn, Sue Wilcox

Assertive behaviour

Let’s look at assertive behaviour in contrast to the other possibilities of aggressive or submissive/passive behaviour. Look for your own patterns in these descriptions, and think about how you behave in different situations.

The basic difference between being assertive and being aggressive is how our words and behaviour affect the rights and well being of others.

Sharon Anthony Bowler

Assertive – win/win

The aim of assertive behaviour is to communicate productively with another person, achieving what is often described as a win/win outcome.

This involves standing up for your own rights without violating those of the other person. To do this, you need to express your needs, wants, opinions, beliefs and feelings in a direct, honest and adult way.

An assertive person might say things like...

I’d like to tackle the task in this way; how does that affect you?

I understand what you are saying; however, I’ve got to go. Can we deal with the problem in the morning?

Assertive behaviour

How you say things, and your non-verbal body language are equally as important as what you say.


  • Steady and firm
  • Tone – middle range, full and warm
  • Clear, sounds sincere
  • Neither too loud or too soft

Speech pattern

  • Fluent and confident
  • Pauses are intentional, not awkward
  • Key ‘action’ words are stressed
  • Even pace
  • If interrupted, waits for silence, then repeats calmly
  • Use of ‘I’ phrases, rather than (accusing) ‘you’ comments


  • Smiles when pleased
  • Frowns when angry
  • Normal expression is friendly, approachable and open
  • Expression steady, does not flicker
  • Jaw relaxed, but not ‘loose’

Eye contact

  • Meets the other person’s eyes often
  • Does not stare them out


  • Open hand movements, inviting others to speak
  • Sits upright or relaxed, does not slouch or cower
  • Stands with head held up
  • Makes firm and definite movements, does not fidget

Aggressive – win/lose

The aim of aggressive behaviour is to win, if necessary at the expense of others. To achieve this, you stand up for your rights in such a way that you violate those of other people. It involves expressing your needs, wants, opinions, beliefs and feelings in inappropriate ways, often ignoring or dismissing the rights and opinions of others.

An aggressive person might say things like...

It’s a load of rubbish – typical of the Finance Department – they haven’t got a clue

I don’t agree with you

That’s stupid

Do it this way

Surely you don’t believe that?!

Aggressive behaviour

We are, fortunately, unlikely to meet with actual physical violence in our working lives, but an aggressive voice and stance can still be used to intimidate other people. As assertive behaviour is sometimes confused with the milder end of aggressive behaviour, it is useful to compare the two and note the differences.


  • Tone cold, may be sarcastic
  • Hard and sharp
  • Strident, may be loud
  • Voice may be raised at end of a sentence
  • Often the loudest voice

Speech pattern

  • Fluent and very confident
  • Often abrupt and clipped
  • Often interrupts, shouts down if interrupted
  • Stresses blaming words and ‘you’ words.
  • Often very fast


  • Smile may be wry or disbelieving
  • Scowls when angry
  • Normal expression is set and unfriendly
  • Jaw set firm, teeth clenched
  • Chin thrust forward

Eye contact

  • Eyes narrowed and cold
  • Tries to ‘stare you out’ and dominate
  • Looks ‘over’ you


  • Fist clenching/thumping
  • Finger pointing
  • Sits bolt upright or leans forward (invades personal space)
  • Strides around impatiently
  • Folds arms unapproachably

Submissive (passive) – lose/win

Often, the aim of submissive behaviour is to avoid perceived conflict and to please others. This involves failing to stand up for your rights or doing so in such a way that others feel they can disregard them. Your needs, wants, opinions, beliefs and feelings are expressed in apologetic, tentative, self-effacing or even dishonest ways.

A submissive person might say things like...

Sorry to take up your valuable time, but I’ve got a little problem I need some help on

It’s only my opinion, but I don’t think you’re entirely right

If you say so, we’ll go to your mum’s for lunch

Yes, boss, I’ll do that right away.

Submissive behaviour

As the passive person is suppressing their own needs, this can make them feel resentful and undervalued, so in addition to the submissive signs listed below, you may also observe signs of resentment and bottled anger which can surface as passive/aggressive behaviour.


  • Sometimes ‘wobbly’
  • Tone may be whining
  • Very soft, quiet or childlike
  • Often dull or monotonous
  • Drops away at the end of a sentence

Speech pattern

  • Hesitant, many pauses
  • May stress ‘you’ words
  • Frequent throat clearing
  • Gives up when interrupted


  • ‘Ghost’ smiles when expressing anger or being criticised
  • Eyebrow raised in anticipation (of rebuke, for example)
  • Expressions change frequently – grimace/smile/frown/drop eyes, within a few seconds

Eye contact

  • Evasive
  • Furtive glances
  • Often looks down or away from the other person


  • Wrings hands
  • Hunches shoulders
  • Steps back
  • Covers mouth with hand
  • Nervous movements – shuffles feet, if holding anything fiddles with it
  • Arms crossed for protection