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Communication & Relationship Skills Training for Managers - Defining Passive, Aggressive, & Assertive Behavior

Updated on March 16, 2014

Communication Skills Training - Defining Passive, Aggressive, & Assertive Behavior by Melinda Longoria

Passive, Aggressive, or Assertive

Photo by Stuart Miles
Photo by Stuart Miles | Source

Become a More Effective Manager

"A manager's number-one problem can be summed up in one word: communication" (Thorton, B., 1966). Learn the difference between passive, aggressive, & assertive behavior to become a more effective, confident, and respected manager.

The Importance of Effective Communication

At least 80 percent of a manager's waking hours are spent in verbal communication (Whetten & Cameron, 2007, Pg. 243)! So, as a manager, building healthy interpersonal relationships is very important. An energy-zapping manager can cause us to feel drained, less alert, and emotionally exhausted. Positive and professional relationships are created by those who are tactful and pleasant to be around. They lift us up, give us energy, and help us to flourish in our work. Being flexible in our communication is the key to that success. People sometimes don't get upset by what we say, but rather by how we say it. So, body language is also very important. Learning the different types of verbal and non-verbal communication styles can help us to identify passive, aggressive, or assertive behaviors in ourselves and others. It is important to note that each communication style has both positive and negative effects. Our downfall comes when we are overly dominate in one communication style over another. An effective manager knows how to adapt and balance their communication style with tact and professionalism, thereby earning them more respect from their employees.

Before we go further...

Do you feel that you are more passive, aggressive, or assertive?

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Passive Communicator

Photo by stockimages.
Photo by stockimages. | Source

Passive Communication

Passive behavior occurs when someone is submissive, failing to stand up for themselves, and allowing others to take advantage. A person with passive behavior focuses on the other person's desires, rather than their own needs. When communicating, a passive person may express their thoughts and feelings in an apologetic, shy, or in a way that lacks confidence. They may not speak up or react when provoked by another person. They may put their-self down or dismiss their own feelings. Much like the fight-flight-freeze response, a person acting passively will avoid conflict by freezing or fleeing the situation. Passivity can eventually lead to hard feelings due to unmet needs and a lack of personal fulfillment.

Example: Your employee comes in late a few days in a row. A passive person may not say anything to the offender. For someone who is passive, this means learning to say no.

Passive Verbal Characteristics:

  • Quiet, hesitant to speak up, or pauses a lot.
  • Uses words like "maybe", "um", or "sort of".
  • Frequently clears throat and/or apologizes.
  • Says things like, "It's not important", or
  • "I might be wrong, but..." or
  • "I'm sorry to bother you."

Passive - Averting Eyes

Photo by imagerymajestic.
Photo by imagerymajestic. | Source

Passive Body Language Non-verbal Characteristics:

  • Nervous, slouched, looking away or down.
  • Wringing hands, covering mouth, crossing arms.
  • Lip biting, laughing when expressing anger.

Passive Beliefs & Thinking:

Your feelings, needs, and thoughts are more important than mine.


If I speak up, I may hurt your feelings or others might think badly of me.

Positive Effects of Passive Communication

  • Others view you as being selfless, or a good sport.
  • Onlookers may come to your defense, or protect you.
  • You're rarely blamed for anything because of not taking initiative.
  • Avoidance, or delayed conflict can lead to a reduction of anxiety.

Negative Effects of Passive Communication

  • Loss of personal pride, self esteem, or self-confidence.
  • Prone to outbursts of anger due to suppressed feelings.
  • Others will see an opportunity of weakness to take advantage.
  • Hard to change unhealthy relationships because of settling.

Passive Lip Biting

Photo by Michal Marcol.
Photo by Michal Marcol. | Source

Aggressive Communicator

Photo by David Castillo Dominici.
Photo by David Castillo Dominici. | Source

Aggressive Communication

Aggressive communicators use the word "you" a lot. Sometimes aggressive behavior can be confused with assertiveness. For example, a manager who thinks their employee is being too passive might say, "YOU are not assertive enough. YOU need to be more assertive!" As a result, the employee is likely to think the manager should be less aggressive. Assertive people tend to use the word "I", instead of "you". An aggressive person is domineering and can damage relationships. A manager who is aggressive can be hard to work for, because they are insensitive to other's feelings in getting their own needs met. Unlike a passive person, in a conflict situation the aggressor will resort to fighting instead of freezing or fleeing.

Example: Your employee comes in late a few days in a row. An aggressor may respond by standing in the offender's cubicle and loudly saying: "You need to get here on time!" For someone who is aggressive, this means learning to hold your temper, considering your employee's space and feelings, and speaking in a more respectful way.

Aggressive Verbal Characteristics:

  • Fast, loud, sarcastic, harsh, or condescending voice.
  • Uses blaming words, name calling, and threats.
  • Frequently uses the word "You".
  • Says things like, "You're useless", or
  • "I don't have a problem, you do!" or
  • "You haven't finished that yet?"

Aggressive Pointing Manager

Photo by stockimages.
Photo by stockimages. | Source

Aggressive Body Language Non-verbal Characteristics:

  • Intruding into other's space, staring, fist clenching.
  • Pointing, Impatient strides, leaning forward.
  • Arms crossed, scowling, jaws clenched.

Aggressive Beliefs & Thinking:

I'm only looking out for myself.


I'll get you, before you get me.

Positive Effects of Aggressive Communication

  • You feel in control and things tend to go your way.
  • You feel powerful and are less vulnerable.
  • You get others to do your bidding.
  • Your mind is released of tension.

Negative Effects of Aggressive Communication

  • Tend to need to release the tension of feeling inferior by putting others down.
  • Unstable relationships are created as others resent or find it hard to be around you.
  • Low self-esteem, guilt, shame, paranoia, and fear can result from your behavior.
  • You will find it hard to relax when always trying to control others.

Aggressive Manager

Photo by stockimages.
Photo by stockimages. | Source

Assertive Communicator

Photo by  Ambro.
Photo by Ambro. | Source

Assertive Communication

Assertiveness means standing up for yourself. This happens when a person finds the middle ground between being passive and aggressive. Unlike an aggressor, when a person is assertive they respect others while expressing your beliefs, thoughts, and feelings in an appropriate, direct, and honest way. It's not about being liked, as with passive behavior. It's about being respected. When threatened, an assertive person will tactfully speak up on their behalf instead of resorting to fighting, fleeing, or freezing. Assertiveness is a win-win situation for both parties involved in the interpersonal communication. Assertive people don't overreact to the situation, but give the other person consideration for their feelings. Assertion is about dealing with issues when they are small and not letting them escalate.

Example: Your employee comes in late a few days in a row. For someone who is assertive, this means calmly asking the employee to come into your office. Standing in their cubicle will draw attention to them and may make them feel embarrassed or angry. The assertive manager might then say, "The past couple days I've notice that you've been a few minutes late and I'm concerned." Then, give the employee a chance to explain as there may be a valid reason for the offense.

Assertive Verbal Characteristics:

  • Sincere, warm, firm, steady, and clear.
  • Voice is appropriately loud for the situation.
  • Uses "I" statements, co-operative phrases, & states facts.
  • Considers other's opinions & feelings, suggests rather than tells.
  • Gives constructive criticism without blaming.
  • "What are your thoughts on..." or "How about..." or
  • "When you interrupt me, I feel upset".

Sincere, Warm, Eye contact Assertiveness.

Photo by stockimages.
Photo by stockimages. | Source

Assertive Body Language Non-verbal Characteristics:

  • Direct eye contact, receptive hearing, & erect stance.
  • Open hand gestures, steady features, jaw relaxed.
  • Facial expressions meet person's feelings (happy, angry, etc.)

Assertive Beliefs & Thinking:

I don't have to attack others to win this argument.


I don't have to lose this argument for others to win.

Positive Effects of Assertive Communication

  • Your self-confidence increases as you stand up for yourself in a polite way.
  • Resentment will not be an issue if you respectfully speak up for yourself at the time.
  • By being less preoccupied with self-defense, you can listen and care for others.
  • The likelihood of getting what you want out of life increases dramatically.

Negative Effects of Assertive Communication

  • Coworkers may sabotage your assertiveness if they benefited from your passivity.
  • If not properly conveyed, it can be confused with being rude or aggressive, or
  • Others may perceive you to be overly confident or arrogant.
  • Reshaping childhood beliefs and values can be frightening.
  • There is no guarantee of a positive outcome.

Relaxed Assertive Manager

Photo by stockimages.
Photo by stockimages. | Source

To Conclude...

An overly assertive manager can be confused with being rude or aggressive. On the other hand, bosses who do not speak up can be viewed as weak or cowardly. Remember the aggressive manager who told their employee that they needed to be more assertive? Well, according to the Harvard Business Review, it is not necessary to be assertive all the time. As stated above, an effective manager knows how to adapt and balance their communication style with tact and professionalism, thereby earning them more respect from their employees. Be prepared to use both passive and assertive communication styles in different circumstances. For example, there will be times when your group needs to be motivated to achieve a difficult task. When your employee's clearly understand the steps needed to complete the task, you can take a more passive approach by allowing them to take on more responsibility. Flexibility is one of the most desirable qualities of a manager. Beneath flexibility are the abilities to be non-reactive and non-controlling for a speedy response time. "Use your emotional intelligence to determine when being assertive will be motivating rather than stifling, and laying low will be appropriate rather than discouraging" (Harvard Business Review, 2010).


Michel, F. (2008). Assert Yourself. Perth, Western Australia: Centre for Clinical Interventions.

Sutton, Robert. (2010). Master the Art of Being Assertive. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved on February 5, 2014 from .

Thorton, B. B. (1966). As you were saying: The number one problem. Personnel Journal, 45: 237-238.

Whetten & Cameron. (2007). Developing Management Skills (7th ed.). Pearson Education Inc.: Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.

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Please rate this article:

3.7 out of 5 stars from 3 ratings of Defining Passive, Assertive, & Aggressive Behavior.


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    • Melinda Longoria profile imageAUTHOR

      Melinda Longoria MSM 

      6 years ago from Garland, Texas

      Thank you Eiddwen. I just added my youtube video with a short summary of the article. This was my first time stepping in front of the camera for a very short introduction. ;-) Please subscribe to my youtube channel:

    • Eiddwen profile image


      6 years ago from Wales

      This is one very interesting and useful hub. Very well informed and leaves much food for thought.



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