Many people keep their opinions, values, and thoughts to themselves because they are afraid of being confrontational. If things are going seemingly well in any relationship, why stir the pot, right? Perhaps you’re worried that if you say what you want, you’ll hurt the other person’s feelings and you’ll both end up fighting with one another. So your “M.O.” (modus operandi or way of doing something) is to keep quiet. The truth is, the confrontation you’re trying to avoid is actually being created by trying to avoid it in the first place. It creates an unhealthy cycle of passivity and aggression, where no one’s needs are being met. Learn the difference between being assertive and confrontational and how assertiveness actually helps your relationships.
What’s the difference between being assertive, confrontational, and passive aggressive?
Being assertive means expressing yourself with the expectation of mutual respect. Approach the conversation with the genuine intention of calmly stating your needs, values, and priorities. Make eye contact, have a self-confident posture, use a respectful tone, and say exactly what you mean in a concise tactful manner. Allow room for willingness to negotiate and compromise to hear the other person. Your agenda should be coming from a place of expressing yourself or conveying a message, not trying to overstep or control the other person.
Assertiveness doesn’t always lead to confrontation (or that is not the intent of being assertive), but the other person could potentially react with confrontation and aggression. You can’t control what they say or how they react, but you do not have to contribute intentionally to the confrontation and anger. Say what you have to say with respect, and if the other person responds with aggression, then set a boundary, excuse yourself, and possibly walk away. If they get mad and disrespect your boundary, that’s on them.
Confrontation is a form of aggression. Unlike being assertive, when you are confrontational you approach the conversation without respect, self-awareness, or good intentions. There’s an agenda of control and power, and no room for negotiation or compromise. It’s a way of expressing yourself with complete disrespect, and is often accompanied by verbal and/or physical threat.
While it is good to be assertive and not confrontational, it’s usually worse to not say anything at all. Honest communication is at the core of any good relationship. It’s always important to speak up, even if the end result turns out confrontational. Avoiding confrontation (and assertion), often leads to more problems in the relationship, continued unmet needs for each other, and anxiety for yourself. Read more on that here. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to be assertive without being confrontational. You still have to take responsibility for your approach to any conversation, but it’s typically* better to speak up than to stay quiet.
*If you are in a physically abusive situation, speaking up isn’t always the best option. Many victims of abuse are afraid of what’s going to happen if they speak up, so they get caught in the cycle of abuse. It might endanger you to express yourself to the abuser, but you can speak up to someone else. Identify someone safe who you can talk to – a family member, friend, medical doctor, therapist, the authorities, etc.
If you’re trying to avoid confrontation, it often leads to being passive aggressive, even if that isn’t your intention. Passive aggression IS a form of confrontation. You’re saying what you think the other person wants to hear, or trying to please them, but behind the scenes, you’re doing what you want. Sure, you’re not being confrontational in their face about it, but resentment and aggression behind the scenes is not problem solving – it’s problematic.
Because passive aggression is so subtle, it jeopardizes trust-building in the relationship. You are hiding your true feelings and desires. The other person doesn’t know what you’re thinking or feeling. At least with confrontation, they know exactly how you’re feeling. Being passive aggressive is more dangerous, and is at the core of anxiety, anger, aggression, resentment, dysfunction, and mental illness. You’re bottling up your feelings over time, causing harm for both you and the other person. Without any kind of release (preferably in the form of assertiveness), it will turn into full blown aggression… it’s just a matter of time. The recipient won’t know when to expect it. Without any warning, it can be really damaging to the relationship and destroy all trust.
If your typical way of doing things is to be passive and not speak up for yourself, it can be difficult to break that pattern. Therapy can help you unlearn those habits and patterns of trying to avoid confrontation, and teach you how to be assertive (without being confrontational) and effectively communicate your needs.
Nurturing Your Values and Priorities
When you go through life without having your needs met or nurturing your own values and priorities, it can lead to anxiety, depression, and disingenuous relationships. At some point that turns into conflict because everyone has their limits. You are putting the burden on yourself to not hurt the other person, but at the expense of your own needs.
Speaking up for yourself and being assertive is about nurturing your values and priorities – that is not a bad thing, even if the other person doesn’t like it. You can’t do or say whatever you want, but think about your boundaries, intentions, and how you’re presenting yourself.
Again, remember to be mindful of your tone, the words you’re using, and your body language. Be calm, clear, and concise. If the other person explodes and doesn’t respond appropriately to your assertive communication, that’s not your fault. They have to be accountable for their own actions and behaviors. They may not be happy with what you’re saying and retaliate or push back, but that doesn’t mean you are being confrontational or aggressive.
Need Help Being Assertive & Setting Healthy Boundaries?
I currently offer teletherapy to individuals to help them assert themselves, communicate effectively, and prioritize their needs and values. Find that balance between getting your needs met and having healthy relationships based on mutual respect. Contact me online or call (754) 333-1484 to learn more about how therapy – even by video – can teach you how to be assertive without being confrontational.
Offering Online Therapy in 39 States
Dr. Heather Violante is a licensed psychologist in the states of Florida and New York. Additionally, I have Authority to Practice Interjurisdictional Telepsychology (APIT) from the PSYPACT Commission. I provide telehealth (online video therapy) to adults living in the 39 participating PSYPACT states listed below. For a list of current PSYPACT participating states, please visit the PSYPACT website at: https://www.psypact.org/psypactmap.
PsyPact enrolled states:
Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, Colorado, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming