Everyone has things they want and need out of the relationships they are in. Most people recognize that aggressive behavior is not a good way to get those things while maintaining the relationship at the same time – you might get what you want, but you might also find yourself with one less friend thereafter. On the other side of the spectrum, passive behavior is a strategy many people use in order to keep a relationship, giving in to the demands of another for fear that standing up to them might lead to the other person walking away from the relationship. What is the middle path? Passive-aggressive behavior is kind of a slow death – you don’t really get what you want, and the relationship suffers from it as well.
The true middle ground is called assertiveness. Assertiveness is where you protect your own rights without trampling the rights of others. Assertiveness allows us to achieve what we want without breaking relationships. It is the most useful approach to communication in virtually all situations. Let’s look at an example:
Jess and Monica are working together on a presentation for work. At the end of the day, Jess tells Monica she needs to leave promptly and asks her to finish up making copies of all the handouts. Jess also was intending to leave in a timely fashion and does not particularly want to stay later making copies. Here is what the different kinds of responses might look like:
- Passive: Jess feels pushed around, overpowered, angry, irritated, or any combination of the above – but she simply says “okay” and stays to make the copies while stewing about the injustice. In this case she does not get what she wants, but she believes that she has preserved the relationship by not getting into a conflict with Monica.
- Aggressive: Jess responds with anger and contempt – “Who the heck do you think you are? What am I, your slave? YOU stay around to make copies! I’m not staying.” She achieves her objective – not staying to make copies – but she has done damage to her relationship with Monica by lashing out at her.
- Assertive: Jess politely but firmly explains that she can’t stay either: “I’m sorry, but I have to run out as well. Can we maybe come in early tomorrow to finish this together?” If Monica pressures her to stay, she remains polite and firm in her refusal to take on the extra burden. In this way she is respectful of the relationship and is also not forced into taking on work she cannot do at the moment.
While aggressive behavior is generally considered unacceptable in our culture, some mistakenly think that being passive is the correct, most refined approach – that it shows humility, kindness and so on. In fact, this is a misconception. Being consistently passive inevitably leads to resentment, which is poisonous for any relationship, and which can build into anger and hatred. And while you may avoid negative feelings on the part of the other person, if you yourself are angry at them, the relationship is bound to suffer anyway.
Moreover, you have obligations not only to your job and your friends, but to yourself as well. If Jess’s staying late means that she will get to bed late too and won’t get enough sleep, she is hurting herself; and if she has a family to take care of, they suffer as well. So while a passive response may be easier in that it avoids conflict, it is not the healthiest approach.
Assertive communication is not the natural mode that most of us grow up with or are taught. However, it is a learned behavior and can be developed with practice and professional guidance, and it is a reliable way to improve and maintain the relationships that are important to you.