As we have learned in the previous chapters, we all express our anger in some way, either inwardly or outwardly.  The most common types of behavioural and verbal expression fall into three categories: aggressive, passive or assertive.  Of course, there are those we know as passive-aggressive or social deviants (like our friend with antisocial personality disorder from the last chapter, “I wanna kill the guy”). Unfortunately, the behaviours associated with those “splinter factions” are for the most part outside the scope of this book.

Before I start defining or describing the three major categories of expression, let’s do a little self-evaluation to determine your own “Assertiveness Quotient”.

✓ When someone treats you poorly, do you call it to his/her attention?
✓ Do you finish other people’s sentences for them?
✓ Are you reluctant to speak up in a discussion or debate even when you have strong opinions on the subject?
✓ If a friend is late returning borrowed money, books or clothing, do you mention it?
✓ Do you continue an argument even after the other party has indicated they want to stop?
✓ Do you frequently step in and make decisions for others?
✓ Are you able to refuse unreasonable requests from your friends?
✓ Do you frequently avoid people or situations for fear of embarrassment?

How did you rate on these questions? When you were asking yourself these, were you trying to decide in your mind whether your response indicated your passiveness, aggressiveness or your assertiveness levels? Which of these questions if answered “no” or “yes” indicate a high level of assertiveness?

What do you think assertiveness means? We all have pictures in our mind of aggressive people and passive people. (Think, for instance, of Popeye and Olive, or Tarzan and Jane. Perhaps you remember your “strong, silent” grandfather, and your harping grandmother.) What does an assertive person look like? Let’s first clarify what are aggressiveness and passivity, and then we will define and describe assertiveness.


The aggressive individual has little or no consideration for the rights and feelings of other people. Aggression can be indirect in the form of gossip, gestures, or sarcasm; or it can be direct in the way of verbal or physical assault, threats, name calling, public humiliation, hostile remarks, yelling or throwing things. The aggressive person may achieve his/her goals, but at others’ expense. Sure the aggressive person is expressing his/her feelings, but hurts other people in the process. Aggressive people may try to make choices for others. Those around the aggressive people may feel taken advantage of, humiliated, abused or embarrassed.

The aggressive person may feel self-righteous, justified, superior, and in control; and the intent of aggressive behaviour is to dominate or humiliate. This sounds like a terrible profile to have associated with one’s character, right? So why would anyone want to engage in aggressive behaviours? Because there is a payoff!

Remember this, everything a person does, he does for a reason. If we were not meeting at least some of our needs by doing certain behaviours, we would not do them! Also, remember that people will do what makes sense to them. William Glasser maintains there is no such thing as common sense, and in some ways I believe this statement to be true. If being verbally abusive brings the desired results (or makes sense), then why change?

The negative consequences of the behaviour are not as powerful an influence for change as are the immediate consequences (getting what you want and having control). The payoffs for using aggressive behaviour are being able to vent the negative energy of anger while feeling superior, powerful and in control.

Need I describe the negative outcomes of using this style? Why not take a blank piece of paper and write down all the reasons why you think this style would be damaging to an individual who chooses to use it. You can feel free to use the descriptions of the anger styles from Step One to help you.

Passive (Non-assertive)

The passive person has trouble expressing his/her wants, needs, ideas, feelings and opinions; or expresses them in a self-depreciating way. We have all heard someone say, “This is probably a stupid question but…” That has got to be the classic self-deprecating remark. This type of individual not only has to deal with the reality of hardly ever getting what she wants, but s/he also has to cope with the guilt, anxiety and disappointment of constantly battling between wanting to be heard and being too afraid to speak out.

Sometimes, the passive person feels superior; “keeping the peace” is his way of having significance and power. He could rock the boat if he really wanted to, but he is bigger and better than all of that, right?

The passive person may deny himself or put himself down, does not express his real feelings, often feels hurt and anxious, allows others to choose, and seldom gets what he really wants. The intent of these types of behaviours is to please others. The message this individual sends to the world is, “I’m not okay, but you sure are.”

Passive people might rationalise their behaviour by calling the result a Class Two experience: remember, it doesn’t feel good, but is good for you, good for others and serves the greater good… But we have to keep in mind that the greater good, must somehow serve us as well. Being passive does not feel good; this is true. Is it good for you? Ask Sue who has to take her ulcer medication three times a day. Is it good for others? Sure, if the “others” are aggressive types. Everything may look good on the surface, but if the passive person is left with guilt and anxiety, and the “others” can only feel irritation, pity or disgust with his or her lack of spunk, then passive behaviours do not serve others or the greater good.

Again, we ask the question “why?” Why do people use this style? The payoff is that in volatile situations, the peace is maintained (at least on a superficial level). Unpleasant situations, conflicts, overt tension and confrontations are avoided when the passive approach is utilised.


Before we get too much deeper into the discussion of assertiveness, allow me to share this story. About two years ago I wrenched my back quite badly after a day of digging up my garden. I was suffering from intense pain, so I booked appointments with both my chiropractor and my massage therapist. The appointment with my massage therapist was first, and he applied heat to my back as he always did prior to “torturing” me. He then told me to come back the next day. I went directly from there to my chiropractor who very assertively expressed his displeasure that the massage therapist had applied heat to my back! The heat had swollen my muscles to the point that the chiropractor could not manipulate my back into its proper position. He commanded me to return the next day, and to let the massage therapist know that he should not apply heat to my back.

Now, the problem was this. My massage therapist was a very outspoken, direct kind of guy. He was outspoken almost to the point of being aggressive in his manner. He was the type of guy who would greet you by saying, “Okay, go in there and get undressed, okay!” If he didn’t like what I was reading while I got my massage, he would remove it without asking and say something like, “You don’t wanna read that garbage! Here, I’ll show you my pictures of my wife and me in Vegas. Here. Take this brochure home to your husband and tell him he better take you there for your next anniversary. See this ring? Me and my wife got matching ones when we got married again at the little white chapel…” He never took “no” for an answer, or that is how it seemed. Although very good at what he did, he had no bedside manners whatsoever!

The strangest thing happened when my chiropractor told me I had to “confront” the massage therapist. I was honestly afraid to do it. The next day, I got up and went to work fighting this incredibly overwhelming anxiety all the way. I even thought about calling the massage therapist to cancel the appointment so I wouldn’t have to deal with asking him not to use heat. It was about 10 minutes prior to my appointment when I realised that I had to “get a grip”. Here I was, an assertiveness trainer struggling with exercising my right of consumer choice!

To make a long story short, my anxiety upon entering the massage therapist’s office was just about to reach maximum levels. But I decided that pain relief was more important to me than keeping the peace with my massage therapist. So, I very bravely approached him and said, “Uh – my chiropractor says I shouldn’t have heat applied to my back before an adjustment, so if you don’t mind, could you just adjust me without using the heat pads first?” Would you believe he patted my shoulder and said, “Good for you! Okay, no heat, just go in and get undressed, okay!” Despite my anxiety, I took the assertive option and won. You see, even after years of practising AND preaching assertiveness, I still needed a reminder that assertiveness works.

The assertive person expresses her wants, ideas, needs and feelings in direct and appropriate ways. The assertive person is honest, and while she speaks her own mind, does not hurt others intentionally. The assertive person chooses for herself what she wants, and often achieves her goals; she allows others to move toward achieving their goals. She is not intimidated by the progress of others, because she respects herself as much as she respects others. The message she sends is, “I’m okay, and so are you.”

Typically, other people like assertive people, because they don’t play games, they don’t try to intimidate and they don’t try to make you feel guilty. Their intent is to communicate, not to dominate. They feel confident and good about themselves and they tend to make others feel respected and valued.

What is the obvious payoff for this type of expression? Well, let’s see… other people respect us, we respect ourselves, we often get what we want since we are brave enough to ask, we feel good, other people feel good about us, and when they are around us, we have good relationships, we have improved self-confidence… It appears to me that assertive behaviour is the behaviour of choice!

There is one challenge though. If assertive behaviour doesn’t make as much sense to us as aggressive or passive behaviours do, then it won’t be our behaviour of choice! Let’s return for a moment to the questions asked at the beginning of this chapter. To which questions did you answer “yes”, and to which did you answer “no”? Why do you do the things you do? What is it about that kind of behaviour that makes you repeat it over and over again? How does it make you feel when you are in the middle of expressing yourself a certain way? The way you feel when you are using a certain style of expression, or behaviour, is the key to understanding why you continue to use it. Do you feel safe? In control? Protected? Secure? If the reason we act a certain way is that it makes sense to us, you must figure out how your behaviours make sense for you.

If assertive behaviour doesn’t make as much sense to us as aggressive or passive behaviours do, then it won’t be our behaviour of choice!

Martin Luther King Jr. in a letter written while he was imprisoned in a Birmingham, Alabama jail said this, “Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct-action campaign that was “well timed” in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation.” What was he testifying to? That people must experience a high degree of dissatisfaction before they will be motivated to change their circumstances!

If you are not experiencing a high level of unhappiness, frustration or dissatisfaction with your present circumstances or coping methods, you will not be motivated to do anything about them. Glasser describes it as a “frustration signal”, that which is the motivation for action. Robbins calls it “leverage”. No matter what you call it, it means the same thing – if we are to change our behaviours, it must make sense to us.

Think about it. It was after 400 years of slavery that the children of Israel made the move to get out of Egypt. And look at how much convincing it took them to go! It was after over 340 years of oppression and unfair treatment towards blacks that one tired seamstress from Montgomery, Alabama decided she had had enough of racial segregation, and refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger. Just how dissatisfied are you with your passive or aggressive behaviours?

We can sometimes experience righteous anger, and still struggle with finding appropriate ways of dealing with it. It happens all the time. People are treated unfairly at work, and they are justified in their anger, but they respond by stirring the rumour mill or by trying to sabotage the person who makes them angry. Someone is deliberately cut off on the highway, and decides to respond to his justifiable anger by chasing down the bad driver and beating him with a baseball bat (which was conveniently stored in the trunk).

Just because your anger is righteous does not mean that your chosen response will be. This is why the Bible instructs us to never go to bed angry[1]. This little nugget of wisdom in effect is telling us to address anger before it builds up into something that might cause a blast later. The Bible also instructs us to “speak the truth in love[2]”; loosely translated, be assertive – tell the truth, be honest, but show a caring attitude, especially when you are saying things that might hurt (e.g. criticism).

Practical Application: Offering Criticism Assertively

As a supervisor of staff, I have had to practice “speaking the truth in love” quite often, when giving feedback or doing performance appraisals. There is something inherently anxiety-provoking about performance appraisals to begin with. We always go in a little nervous, and we worry that some silly mistake we didn’t know we made will come back to haunt us. Who needs to have a review that is riddled with loads of negative criticism and only spotted with positive feedback?

Many supervisors make the mistake of thinking that the performance review is their opportunity to take their shots at employees for all the mistakes they have made since their last review. Personally, I have never had much respect for a supervisor who cannot speak to an issue when it arises, but waits 6 months to blindside an unsuspecting employee at his/her performance review. Why not offer ongoing feedback? Supervisors could use each informal feedback session as an opportunity to see if their employee have some specific learning or development needs in order for them to do their job more efficiently. Ongoing feedback also allows the supervisor to “nip problem areas in the bud” rather than letting them go for extended periods of time without any intervention.

The problem in following through with this concept lies in the fact that most people prefer to avoid confrontation. We would rather wait until the 6 month or 1 year review and get it over with all at once rather than having to continually address problems. However, if we are to be effective as supervisors, and if we expect to get the most out of our employees, ongoing feedback is the way to go. Remember there is a difference between constructive and destructive criticism. Constructive criticism is the only kind that should be flowing from supervisor to employee. Destructive criticism erodes self-esteem and morale, and contributes to an unhealthy work environment.

When in a supervisory role, T.S.A. is not the best formula to use, especially when feelings should not have that much influence on what is supposed to be an objective report (right?). The approach I most appreciate, and the one that I aspire to emulate when giving feedback is this:

Ask. Start by opening up a dialogue. Ask how things are going, if they are experiencing difficulties in any specific areas, what kind of support do they need from you. Some people are totally oblivious to the fact that they are experiencing difficulty or that they require support. In this case, you would want to point out the areas in which you notice they are having trouble. How do we do this while instilling confidence in the employee that we believe they are capable of making the required improvements?

Say. “These are some the things that I have observed…they indicate to me that you might be having difficulty in this area.” I do not believe that it is a supervisor’s role to tear down an employee’s self esteem; I would rather view a supervisor as a mentor, who is available to teach, assist and support in the learning of new skills.

This does not mean that we do not set boundaries, and work on goals, deadlines, quotas, whatever is necessary to measure improved performance. It might even be necessary to indicate that “disciplinary” or “remedial” action might take place in future if the behaviours taking place (or lacking) are having a negative effect on the workplace. The key to making these kind of “heavy” statements supportively is in our body language and our tone, as much as it is in the words we choose. (See next chapter on Body Language). What happens now that you have given your feedback?

Continue the dialogue. Ask if they can see the merit of the feedback that you have given. What kind of support do they require from you as a supervisor? It might help if you come armed with resource materials that address the problem areas, and offer copies of them to the employee. Let him know you are on his side, and you want to see him succeed in his job. If you have struggled with similar challenges in the past, if might prove helpful to share that, and pass on the resources that assisted you in overcoming those challenges. You then become allies, not enemies.

Most of all, apply your listening skills. Give lots of opportunities for him to think aloud about the discourse so far, to internalize what he has heard, and to work through any areas of the review that he thinks are unfair or unfounded. Remember we don’t see things as they are, but as we are. You must allow for the possibility that you could be wrong about some things due to the way you see things.

I promise you, this method is more effective than the old “sandwich” method: give a little good feedback, fill the sandwich with negative comments, then gloss it over with another slice of “…but, you’re a valued staff, so work on these things and everything will be just fine”. Proverbs 11:25 says this: “A generous man will prosper; he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” Think of the awesome opportunity you have as a person in authority to contribute to the lives of those who serve under you! Consider it well. Do you want a reputation as an unfair, overly critical, unhelpful boss, or do you want to be remembered as one who refreshed and encouraged others?

“Making others better is a boomerang”.
– John L. Mason

I realize that I am digressing from the topic of assertiveness a bit, but I want to drive home the value of this skill. Without assertiveness, we cannot contribute to others in as meaningful a way as we are capable. Take careful note of these words from John Mason’s book, An Enemy Called Average.

We should look for opportunities to invest of ourselves in others and help make them better.
Somebody did that for you once. Somebody saw something in you and reached out to help you. That act of kindness has determined where you are today. It may have been your pastor, your parents, a friend, a teacher, coach, neighbour, or just someone who offered some extra money, prayers, good advice or equipment and supplies. But whoever it was, that individual had the foresight and the resources to invest in you and take a risk on your future.
…Take a few minutes and reach out to help someone else get ahead. You will find that this will be one of the most satisfying experiences you’ve had in a long time.

(John L. Mason, 1990)

Assertiveness is the skill required to approach someone confidently, and to offer help when you know they are struggling. It is having the ability to say without fear or apprehension, “I think, I feel, I want…” How many passive people wish they could help, but are afraid to offer? How many aggressive people can only say, “I want…” when what they really mean is “I need…”? Assertiveness is what enables you to say, “I am struggling, and I need help.”

Some of you might not be struggling with this concept, but I know that there are those out there who do not believe that they can be assertive. Think about this: when you ask a sales-clerk to help you find an item in a store, you are being assertive. When you hail a cab, you are being assertive. When you initiate looking for work, you are being assertive. When you asked your wife to marry you, you were being assertive! So, don’t tell me you don’t have it in you to be assertive. Stop thinking of assertively expressing your feelings as a prelude to conflict!

Why not challenge your beliefs about what might happen when you say how you really feel. You can do this by evaluating each situation on a conscious level. Use the self-evaluation tool provided for you in Step Three, and face down the demons inside your head. Assertiveness pays in multiple dividends with higher returns than you could ever imagine. Try it for yourself. Even if your investment is minimal, but it is made with complete sincerity, you will see immediate returns.

Excerpted from my book, Anger Solutions: Proven Strategies for Effectively Resolving Anger and Managing Your Emotions

Julie Christiansen

[1] “Be ye angry and sin not; let not the sun go down upon thy wrath.” Ephesians 4:26 King James Version of the Holy Bible
[2] “…speaking the truth in love,” Ephesians 4:15 King James Version of the Holy Bible