icon Assertive vs Aggressive Communication in the Workplace | HRDQ Skip to content
HRDQ will be closed on Friday (5/24) and Monday (5/27) for Memorial Day
HRDQ will be closed on Friday (5/24) and Monday (5/27) for Memorial Day
Assertive vs. Aggressive Communication in the Workplace - HRDQ

Assertive vs. Aggressive Communication in the Workplace

When it comes to advocating for yourself, advancing your career, and successfully leading a team, clear and firm communication can go a long way. Practicing assertive communication is a sure-fire way to ensure you’re engaging productively in the workplace while also achieving personal goals. Yet being assertive in the workplace involves walking a fine line between being aggression and assertion. This requires a delicate dance of balancing your needs with those of your coworkers, being collaborative while also making clear decisions, and being respectful while disagreeing. In this post, we’ll discuss the differences between assertive and aggressive communication in the workplace, and we’ll share tips to help you become a more successful communicator.

Use the communication skills training materials available at HRDQ to develop a more collaborative and communicative environment in the workplace. Shop Now.

What is Assertive Communication?

Between passive, aggressive, and assertive communication styles, assertive is often the most effective. Assertive communication means you’re able to express yourself in an open, honest way. This means being authentic in the way you communicate your values, thoughts, opinions, attitudes, and feelings. It means standing up for those parts of yourself while also being able to respect others who may disagree. Communicating effectively, however, is balancing act between getting what you want and being respectful of those above you, below you, and alongside you.

Here are some other indicators of assertive communication:

  • Concerned with personal needs and needs of others
  • Expresses themselves constructively with other people
  • Responds respectfully to disagreement
  • Asks for help when needed
  • Able to make decisions with confidence
  • Knows when to say no
  • Takes responsibility for behavior and actions

What’s My Communication Style?

Through this powerful assessment, participants can identify their preference for one of four types of communication styles, recognize the various facets of communication, and learn how to use their style to enhance communication.

What is Aggressive Communication?

Aggressive communication is similar to assertive communication, but it often excludes empathy and respect. Aggressive communicators place themselves at the center of every issue, concerned primarily with their needs at the expense of others. Without perspective, aggressive communicators only think about their needs, and they often communicate with frustration and anger when people don’t respond well to their actions.

Here are some characteristics of aggressive communication:

  • Concerned only with their own needs, especially at the expense of others’ needs
  • Easily loses temper and gets flustered
  • Makes decisions for other people, instead of listening to them
  • May bully to get their way or use obscenities
  • Argues when faced with a disagreement or when they don’t get their way
  • Uses confrontation and intimidation to get what they want from others
  • Openly criticizes or shames those who disagree

What is Passive Communication?

Passive communicators fall on the opposite end of the spectrum from aggressive communicators. This personality is easily intimidated and finds it exceedingly difficult to stand up for themselves and their needs. This typically occurs in a debilitating way that may result in stagnation in a career or resentment toward colleagues. It’s important for passive communicators to remember that they are their best advocates and that a need not communicated is a need not heard.

Here are some ways to recognize passive communicators:

  • Easily gives in to other people’s wishes, forgetting their own needs and wants
  • Never says no to people and find it difficult to draw boundaries
  • Unwilling or unable to make decisions
  • Lacking confidence in skills and abilities
  • Finds it difficult to maintain eye contact
  • Avoids confrontation at all costs. This covers benign subjects such as correcting another coworker's pronunciation of their name or something more significant like inquiring about a skipped promotion

Interpersonal Influence Inventory

This powerful learning tool helps people understand how they come across to others and work toward becoming more effective communicators.

Interpersonal Influence Inventory | HRDQ

Tips to Improve Communication in the Workplace

It may seem overwhelming as you learn about all the fine lines one must walk to communicate productively and effectively at work. However, it’s important to remember you’re not going to please everyone. On the whole, there are some steps you can take to help improve your communication and listening skills.

Try following these principles for clear, firm, and concise expression in the workplace:

  • Body language: Be aware of your body language. Are you making fists? Slouching? Shifting from foot to foot? Arms crossed? Avoiding eye contact? The way you physically hold your body makes a huge difference in the way people perceive you. If you’re standing up, firmly plant your feet and uncross your arms. If you’re sitting, make sure it’s up-right, with shoulders back. Make deliberate eye contact with everyone in the room, without singling anyone out. Channeling these power stances also helps you to feel more confident in otherwise tense situations.
  • Speech: Speak clearly, calmly, and in an even tone, regardless of the situation. This builds a sense of calm and trust and helps people feel comfortable, not attacked.
  • Use “I statements”. When addressing the focus of your needs, speak in the first person: “I can’t make that deadline” or “I would like to help you reach your goal.” This demonstrates that you’re taking responsibility for your actions.
  • Be clear and direct: When you’re making your point, be specific and direct. For example, if you can’t make that deadline you mentioned earlier, instead of “I can’t do it,” try, “I will need four more hours to meet that deadline.” Or instead of “Do you think you’ll finish the assignment today?” try, “Please have that finished by 5 p.m. today.” This ensures you’re communicating exactly what you want to say and avoids the confusion that comes with being unclear.
  • Avoid confusion: Sum up the main point of your conversation and agreement. This is especially helpful to do in writing over email once you and your team have come to a decision. Summarizing the decision and next steps in writing ensures that everyone is on the same page about the outcome and process and feels included as part of the decision. It also leaves a paper trail in case of a disagreement later on.
  • Pick your battles: You can’t go to bat for every single thing you disagree with in the workplace. That’s a sure way to gain a perception as an aggressive colleague. Make sure when you do choose to engage in an argument, that it’s one that’s consistent with your values and will advance you and your team.

Communication Derailed

This powerful, simulation-based communication style game will help you to proactively equip your people with the skills they need to become good communicators.

The Importance of Assertive Communication in Leadership

Demonstrating assertive communication is critical for setting positive examples for your subordinates. It creates a constructive and inclusive team culture, especially if you’re in a position of leadership. This comes up in particularly when faced with team challenges; that could be anything from confronting issues team members may have with one another to failing to meet a collective goal.

Here are some steps to help you develop your assertive leadership skills:

  • Be objective: Describe the facts of a specific problem, without using the word “you.” Targeting with “you” statements may imply a personal attack and can cause subordinates to shut down.
  • Describe your feelings using the “I feel” statements we mentioned earlier. This allows you to express your personal point of view and reaction to the situation while not placing personal blame on anyone in particular. Here is where you can share your goals, vision, and priorities for the team.
  • Explain why you feel this way in an articulate and respectful way. Remember your colleagues’ perspectives and opinions, and open it up to questions and feedback.
  • Outline tangible steps for moving forward. Describe your expectations from your team and outline specific ways of moving toward those expectations. This indicates you are holding everybody responsible for collective action while also reinforcing that it’s a team effort.

As an assertive leader, the key is to remember yourself and remind your colleagues that you are, in fact, part of the team. You’re all invested in one another’s success, and a win for one is a win for all. Cultivate a positive team environment and earn respect as you move forward in your leadership role.

Your Turn

We hope you better understand the differences between various communication styles and the importance of assertive communication in the workplace. To foster powerful communication practices in your organization, explore the many communication training assessments, workshops, and games available at HRDQ!

Learn more about HRDQ's Communication tools

Related Products of Interest

Previous article Intercultural Management Guide: What Is It and Why Is It Important?


Claire Whitley - March 24, 2022

It’s crucial to know the difference between the two especially when you’re leading a team. As a leader, practicing open and effective communication while maintaining assertiveness is a must.

Zoe - March 22, 2022

My last manager was the definition of an assertive leader. I especially admired her capability to know how to pick her battles. As I start leading my own team, I greatly appreciate having an assertive leader like her to look up to.

Mal - March 22, 2022

Great comparison! This is something everyone has to keep in mind to communicate effectively in the workplace.

Mary - March 9, 2022

It’s very difficult to tread the line between being assertive and aggressive. I was recently promoted to a managerial role and I struggle with this a lot but I am striving to improve. I’ll take these tips into account.

Frances - March 8, 2022

Interesting read. It’s definitely important to make sure you’re being assertive and not aggressive because that can make or break a leader’s impact on his team.

Leave a comment

Comments must be approved before appearing

* Required fields

About our author

Bradford R. Glaser

Brad is President and CEO of HRDQ, a publisher of soft-skills learning solutions, and HRDQ-U, an online community for learning professionals hosting webinars, workshops, and podcasts. His 35+ years of experience in adult learning and development have fostered his passion for improving the performance of organizations, teams, and individuals.