Reneau Peurifoy
From Anxiety, Phobias & Panic

There are three basic ways to resolve conflict: You can become nonassertive, aggressive, or assertive. Understanding the differences among them is the first step to effective conflict resolution.

Nonassertive Behavior

The goal of nonassertive behavior is to avoid conflict. When you are nonassertive, you place the needs and wants of others ahead of your own. You allow others to make choices for you and take advantage of you. When most or all conflict is approached nonassertively, it is called general nonassertiveness. When nonassertiveness is restricted to a limited number of situations it is called situational nonassertiveness. Situational nonassertiveness is much more common than general nonassertiveness. Situational nonassertiveness usually involves authority figures, such as supervisors, teachers, and parents, or people you are close to, such as a friend or spouse.

One common myth is that nonassertive people are always passive. While passive people are usually nonassertive, people who are active and enjoy interacting with others can also be nonassertive. Whenever you do not stand up for your rights or do not work to satisfy your needs and wants because they conflict with the rights or needs of others, you are being nonassertive. While this is appropriate in some situations, the frequent, habitual use of nonassertive behavior usually causes loss of self-respect and self-esteem. It is difficult to think well of yourself when your needs are not being met and others are trampling on your dignity and disregarding your rights.

Nonassertiveness sometimes results in passive aggressive behavior. This is getting back at someone indirectly such as by forgetting an important commitment or being late. When people are unable to fulfill needs and wants in a direct manner, they sometimes resort to sulking or crying. Others develop a seesaw pattern in which they swing back and forth between nonassertive and aggressive behavior. People with a general nonassertive pattern often blame others for their problems and refuse to take responsibility for the quality of their lives. They may even play the role of martyr.

Whenever you choose nonassertive behavior, you choose definite irritation within yourself instead of possible irritation to others. Because a nonassertive response encourages unwanted behavior from others, it blocks improvement in undesirable situations. In fact, it usually guarantees that relationships and events will remain the same.

Aggressive Behavior

The goal of aggressive behavior is to gain control or power. When you are aggressive, you express needs and wants freely but in a hostile, tactless, or angry manner. You stand up for your own rights and work to satisfy your needs and wants; however, the rights, needs, and wants of others are ignored whenever they interfere with what you want.

In harsh conditions, aggressive behavior can often aid in survival. In modern, stable, democratic societies, though, aggressive behavior can be as self-defeating as nonassertive behavior. People who are the object of aggressive behavior usually feel as if they are being attacked. Sometimes this intimidates them and they do what the aggressive person wants. Other times, aggressive behavior causes others to become hostile and resist cooperating with or helping the aggressive person. In either case, aggressive people are usually avoided. As a result, aggressive people are often as troubled about their inability to make or keep friends as are shy people. Sometimes, after mistreating others or failing to solve an interpersonal conflict in a satisfying manner, they feel guilt and dejection.

Assertive Behavior

The goal of assertive behavior is to resolve conflicts in a way that is satisfying for both you and others. When you are assertive, you express problems, feelings, needs, and wants in a way that is both self-satisfying and socially effective. You respect the rights and dignity of both yourself and others. There is a personal focus on reasonable compromise rather than on winning. Solutions are sought that everyone can agree on.

Many people think that aggressive and assertive behavior are the same. The confusion may derive from the fact that much is said in books and workshops about changing nonassertive behavior into assertive behavior, while little is said about changing aggressive behavior into assertive behavior. Assertive and aggressive behavior both involve expressing yourself freely, standing up for your rights, and working to satisfy your needs and wants. However, an aggressive approach ignores the rights, needs, and wants of others, while the opposite is true of an assertive approach.

One common roadblock to being assertive is anger. The angrier you are, the more aggressive you will be. Another common roadblock to assertiveness is irrational thinking. There are many irrational beliefs about assertiveness that can keep you from asserting yourself. These are explored in the next section. Irrational thinking that blocks assertiveness can also be generated by an excessive need for approval, a fear of being incompetent, or a fear of losing control.

Two common myths often associated with assertiveness are that being assertive is always the best way to resolve a conflict, and that assertive people can get whatever they want. While an assertive approach is usually best in social situations and societies where people have equal rights and have similar power, it is not always the most appropriate or most effective way to resolve a conflict. There are occasional situations where aggressive behavior is appropriate, such as when there is imminent danger to life or property, or when a person or group will respond only to an aggressive approach.

There are also occasional situations where nonassertive behavior is appropriate—usually those where the cost of asserting yourself in terms of time, energy, or resulting negative consequences outweighs the benefits you would receive. This is especially true for people who live in societies where there are large discrepancies in rights between socioeconomic classes.

As you become more assertive, you find assertiveness occasionally makes situations worse. At other times it has no effect. In most situations, however, an assertive style is the most effective and gratifying way to bring about positive change. Even when no change takes place, you usually feel better for having spoken up. The main question to consider when deciding whether you want to be assertive is, “Do I wish to risk the possibility of irritating others, or do I choose to definitely irritate myself by holding my feelings in and doing nothing?” In making that choice it helps to remember that when you use a truly assertive style, those who matter won’t mind, and those who do mind seldom matter.