Assertive and Aggressive: Know the Difference

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Chimp Paradox" by Steve Peters. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the difference between assertive and aggressive communication? What can you do to avoid being aggressive? How can this help you to avoid conflict?

The difference between assertive and aggressive communication is whether you are in control of your emotions. Another key difference between assertive and aggressive communication is how you present your message. In The Chimp Paradox, Steve Peters says that aggressive behavior is caused by your emotional inner Chimp taking over. 

Read on to find out the key differences between assertive and aggressive communication and what this has to do with your inner Chimp. 

The Difference Between Assertive and Aggressive Communication 

In The Chimp Paradox, Steve Peters introduces his inner Chimp theory. This is the theory that you have a mischievous inner Chimp in your brain, who can sometimes make life difficult for you. 

Steve Peters’ inner Chimp theory can help you to understand the difference between assertive and aggressive communication. Read on to find out how. 

Assertive vs Aggressive Communication: 

Often, your reluctance to speak to the person at the center of your issue is caused by a lack of assertiveness, which in itself is often caused by your Chimp’s fear of upsetting other people because that might cause you to be excluded. This frequently comes from a confusion about the difference between assertive and aggressive behavior and people sometimes avoid being assertive out of fear that they’ll come across as aggressive. 

Assertiveness is explaining to someone what is and what isn’t acceptable. Aggressiveness is doing this with emotion in an attacking manner. Being assertive is good; being aggressive is not. Assertiveness will get your message across clearly and effectively and will lead to solutions. In contrast, aggression will wake up the Chimp in the other person and will lead to conflict: The other person will either attack or recoil—either way, she is no longer listening to your message. 

To be assertive, follow these steps, using “I” statements for each:

  1. Explain what you don’t want the other person to do.
  2. Explain how their actions make you feel.
  3. Explain what you do want them to do.

So, for example, if your manager yells at you for being late, instead of responding with aggression and defensiveness, you could say:

  1. “I would like you to listen to me without interrupting.” Then explain why you’re late.
  2. “When you shout, I feel uncomfortable.”
  3. “I would like to discuss this with you in a calm way.”

Packaging Your Message 

When communicating face-to-face, keep in mind the way you package your message: the way you present your message to the other person. The key to understanding assertive vs aggressive communication is how you present your message. This involves four things: 

  1. Body language: the non-verbal messages you’re conveying with your posture, face, and limbs. You can convey many emotions without words—for example, defensiveness (by crossing your arms), aggression (by towering over someone), or displeasure (through facial expressions). Body language is a key difference between assertive vs aggressive communication. 
  2. Intonation: About a third of your message’s meaning is conveyed through your voice. Faster speeds indicate urgency or anxiety, while slower speeds indicate relaxation or confidence. Louder volume might indicate urgency, relaxation, or confidence, while softer volume might indicate uncertainty. Your emphasis on specific words can change a sentence’s meaning entirely: For example, the sentence “I like you” mean different things depending on if you emphasize the “I,” the “like,” or the “you”). 
  3. Verbiage: We attach emotions to certain words, and when you use emotive words inappropriately, the other person can feel attacked, awakening their Chimp. For example, saying “I hate that” will elicit a different emotional response than saying, “I’m not thrilled about that.” Choose your words carefully so as to convey your meaning without unnecessary emotions attached. 
  4. Attitude: Your attitude is your demeanor—whether or not you come across as friendly and approachable or aloof and cold. Inner Chimps are skilled at interpreting other people’s attitudes so that they don’t approach someone who poses a danger. If your attitude says “Stay back,” then other people’s Chimps will recognize that and will act defensively toward you. 

These tips about packaging your message will help you to understand the difference between assertive and aggressive communication. 

Assertive and Aggressive: Know the Difference

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Like what you just read? Read the rest of the world's best book summary and analysis of Steve Peters's "The Chimp Paradox" at Shortform.

Here's what you'll find in our full The Chimp Paradox summary:

  • Why we struggle to control our urges, succumb to temptation, and sabotage our own success
  • How to manage your inner chimp to become happier, more balanced, and successful
  • Why your psychological world is like a solar system with 7 planets

Elizabeth Shaw

Elizabeth graduated from Newcastle University with a degree in English Literature. Growing up, she enjoyed reading fairy tales, Beatrix Potter stories, and The Wind in the Willows. As of today, her all-time favorite book is Wuthering Heights, with Jane Eyre as a close second. Elizabeth has branched out to non-fiction since graduating and particularly enjoys books relating to mindfulness, self-improvement, history, and philosophy.

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