What’s the WORST advice you’ll ever get?

You may be wondering why I’d use a title like that for this article. Frankly, it cuts to the core of the matter. Rather than bury the lead, here it is. What’s the worst advice you’ll ever get…? Be more aggressive.

Read on to learn exactly why this advice is so bad for you – and for everyone else around you.

Although it’s been sixty years (1958) since Psychiatrist Joseph Wolpe introduced the world to his work, some people still consider aggressiveness to be a positive trait, despite it’s damaging consequences. It’s found in both workplace and non-workplace situations.

Aggressive behaviour and communication creates an unsafe workplace climate, destroys trust, and ruins relationships.

Take pro-sports, where the commentary is littered with declarations about how teams or players need to be more aggressive in order to win. (And I’m not against pro-sports, I’m actually a big fan of the NBA.)

The problem with “be more aggressive” is that it’s misguided advice.

Some of the commentators (usually ex-players, not the professionally trained broadcasters) don’t realise the bad advice they’re purveying. Aggressive teams frequently get into foul trouble. People have won by being aggressive, but not without consequences. Hall of fame player Isiah Thomas was excluded from the US Olympic team based on his bad reputation.

I’ve noticed that some of the commentators who are biggest proponents of being more aggressive have never been on or coached, a team that has won a championship.

At the heart of the problem is a misunderstanding of the distinction between aggressive and assertive, when between the two, there is a world of difference.

Let’s take an NBA example. A player that is aggressive on defence is going to play the player. This can lead to causing harm, injury or even worse, to the opposing player or both, and/or it may result in a flagrant foul call, and ejection from the game.

Conversely, a player that’s playing assertively is going to play the ball. They have no intention of causing harm – in fact, they’re trying not to. They’re focused on getting the job done cleanly, safely, and in a sportsmanlike manner. If they do attract a foul it would be called a ‘hard foul’ at worst. Often no foul occurs when it’s executed well.

I had a sales career in the very distant past and was always urged to be aggressive – with competitors, customers, even colleagues. The company was aggressive toward the staff, and the staff, aggressive toward each other. It was a toxic culture of low trust and high stress.

Even back then, I didn’t succumb to the bad advice. Instead, I thought to myself, “why do I have to be aggressive when I can just be very good at my job, really easy to deal with, and help my clients to find the right solutions for their needs? What has aggressiveness got to do with it?”

Being passive also deserves a mention here. It’s equally bad advice, because passive and aggressive sit on a dysfunction continuum, with passive at one end, aggressive at the other, and passive-aggressive sitting at the midwaypoint.

All points on the dysfunction continuum involve a level of anxiety. Joseph Wolpe believed that a person could not be both assertive and anxious at the same time, and thus being assertive would inhibit anxiety.

In the model shown, the pendulum pinned in the centre swings along the continuum, signifying that below the line of choice, you’re stuck in a zone of dysfunction.

Contrary to other models, in this design, assertive does not sit on the continuum. It’s on a higher level altogether. Unlike on the continuum, there’s no such thing as being more assertive or less assertive. There’s only being assertive or not being assertive.

Not being assertive means you’re somewhere on the dysfunction continuum. Being assertive means that you’re rising above it.

Assertiveness is the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive.

People appreciate assertive communicators because they put forth their needs and views confidently and directly. They stand up for themselves without wielding force, are considerate of the views of others, build trust and make communication safe.

Being assertive requires courage, humility and discipline, covered in a previous article, here.

Aggressive people try to dominate others and can sap morale in the workplace by the force of their demands. Ultimately the approach backfires, as trust and relationships are destroyed.

Aggressive managers give orders, use fear and/or position to control people, and force compliance with their demands, but “my way or the highway” diminishes engagement.

Assertive managers ask rather than demand, e.g. “are you able to have this ready by Wednesday?” They’re self‑assured, considerate, non-threatening, make eye contact, and listen to others. In challenging situations, they exercise high levels of self-control and contain their internal reactions until they can respond appropriately and constructively.

The seven guiding principles of assertive communicators:

  • Respect for the boundaries of oneself and others is a human right.
  • Everyone deserves the freedom to express their thoughts, feelings, and desires.
  • Fairness and equity are not trumped by position, privilege, or power.
  • Subordinate your ego to your conscience. Focus on what is right, not who is right.
  • Interpersonal interactions are an opportunity to build bonds, show and receive respect, and demonstrate our regard for other people, as well as ourselves.
  • Everyone deserves the right to an opinion, but opinions are not necessarily right.
  • Seek accuracy with reality via self-evident, objective facts and data.

To keep this article practical, I won’t go into the psychology of the aggressive mindset. Instead, I’ll provide 10 tips to help you learn how to be assertive, based on solid advice from Better Health Channel, Victoria:

  1. Make the decision to positively assert yourself. Commit to being assertive and start practising today.
  2. Aim for open and honest communication. Remember to respect other people when you’re sharing your feelings, wants, needs, beliefs or opinions. Each of us has a right to hold our own opinion, and it goes both ways.
  3. Listen actively and empathetically. Try to understand the other person’s point of view and don’t interrupt when they’re explaining it to you. Listen with the intent to understand, not to respond.
  4. Agree that it’s okay to disagree. Remember that having a different point of view doesn’t mean you are right and the other person is wrong, or vice versa. Each of us has had a unique life experience, which has informed our point of view.
  5. Avoid guilt trips. Be honest and tell others what you want or how you feel without making accusations or making them feel guilty. It helps others meet your needs or desires when they know what they are. Withholding them doesn’t help anyone.
  6. Stay calm. Breathe normally, look the person in the eye, keep your face relaxed and speak in a normal voice.
  7. Take a problem-solving approach to conflict. See the other person as someone with a different point of view, not as your enemy. Seeing things differently doesn’t make you into enemies. Focus on solving the problem, not on your position. Aim for both of you to get on the same side of the problem, so you can combine forces to solve it. Be creative and flexible in developing options and possibilities.
  8. Practise assertiveness. Pick low-risk, low-stakes opportunities to practice being assertive. You may practice talking in an assertive way with a supportive friend. Pay attention to your body language as well as to the words you say.
  9. Use ‘I’. Stick with statements that include ‘I’ in them such as ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’. A variation is to share your thoughts by saying, “My current thinking on this is…”. This allows you to be objective about your own thinking, makes it less threatening to examine it, and makes it easier to adjust it, if needed. Avoid using aggressive language such as ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ which are often affronting.
  10. Be patient. Being assertive is a skill that needs practice. Remember that you will sometimes do better at it than at other times, and you can always learn from experience.

In summary, being assertive means being direct about what you need, want, feel or believe in a way that’s respectful of the views of others. Assertiveness is a skill that can reduce conflict, build your self-confidence and improve relationships in life, and in the workplace.


Craig D’Souza is the founder and CEO of Perth based consultancy Business Velocity, which assists people to achieve success through their organisations, and organisations to achieve success through their people.