Definitions: Assertive vs. Passive vs. Aggressive
Assertive: Showing confidence and standing up for one’s rights directly and honestly. Synonyms include self-confident, positive, self-assured, firm, and determined.
Passive: Accepting situations and the actions of others as they are without resistance.
Aggressive: Pursuing one’s aims and goals forcefully; being willing to attack or confront others to achieve them. Sometimes mistaken for competence.
Turning Up Your Assertiveness
Aside from conscious and unconscious bias that results in women often not being taken as seriously in business, many women have a more passive communication style than average, which may be another contributing factor to their ideas being dismissed (Maloney & Moore, 2019). Changing to a more assertive style may help women get their point across. The following tips from a medical journal describe how to increase assertiveness in communications (Maloney, 2019).
- Listen actively, which means responding to the ideas of others and building on them with some ideas of your own, if possible.
- Find a way to express your views as often as men do during meetings. If you don’t show who you are and what you have to offer, you are a blank slate upon which it is easier for others to project unconscious bias.
- If you find breaking into a conversation difficult, try starting with “I have a comment on this topic.”
- Avoid words that sound like you doubt yourself or that soften your impact. For example, avoid perhaps; I’m not sure, but. . .; and sort of. Avoid apologizing for or diminishing your contributions (e.g., I’m sorry to bother you, but. . . or This may sound crazy, but. . .).
- Be aware of your body language, voice, and word choice.
- Make eye contact without staring, and use subtle gestures to make it clear you are listening, such as a slight nod.
- When you are the one speaking, make eye contact with everyone in the room
- When speaking, make sure the person furthest from you can hear clearly.
- Avoid raising your voice at the end of a sentence as if it is a question.
- Sit up or stand straight using a relaxed posture.
- Talk to people as if you assume they are not biased and are reasonable rather than making yourself small to avoid being a target.
Assertiveness vs. Aggression
Assertive behavior in women is sometimes misunderstood to be aggressive. Although it does not need to affect how you behave, be aware that some people may define assertiveness differently for a woman than a man. The same behavior that might be viewed as assertive in a man is often called aggressive in a woman (Maloney & Moore, 2019). Assertive behavior is often interpreted differently in men than women. In men, assertive behavior may be considered decisive, forceful, energetic, ambitious, and leader-like. In women, the same behavior may be viewed as hostile, antagonistic, or belligerent (Maloney & Moore, 2019). Some of the bias is unconscious, so it can be difficult to change. One solution is to fine-tune skills that fall within the range of assertive rather than aggressive.
Booth B. A Leadership Imperative: Getting More C-Level Women In Biotech. LifeSciVC. Published September 28, 2015. Accessed August 16, 2021.
Maloney ME, Moore P. From aggressive to assertive,. Int J Womens Dermatol. 2019;6(1):46–49. doi:10.1016/j.ijwd.2019.09.006