Passive, Assertive, Aggressive: Three Ways to Deal with Disappointment

Raise your voice, not your wordsThere are three ways to deal with disappointment.

Passive:  We notice an event or relationship that bothers us or feels disappointing, but we choose not to speak up. We are valuing the rights of others over our own.  That works in certain situations, yet it can become a pattern or a way of responding that is not helpful to us.

Assertive:  We choose to engage in a conversation and explain our perspective. We think about the rights of others and about our rights. This is a mindful, balanced approach that can become a strong civility practice.

Aggressive:  We speak up in a way that values our rights above others.

In an article titled, What is Assertiveness? Dr. Mark Ettensohn writes:

When thinking about assertiveness, it is helpful to remember the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Like Goldilocks in the story, being assertive is a matter of finding the happy medium between two extremes. In this case, assertiveness lies somewhere between being passive and being aggressive.

One way to consider your own approach for dealing with disappointment is to think about the last time you experienced poor customer service. Which of the three situations is most like your experience?

  • I got frustrated and ended up telling others but didn’t say anything to the business or the people who could actually meet my needs.
  • I asked for a supervisor to explain what happened and my preferred resolution.
  • I got upset and started speaking to the customer service person and blaming them.

If your most recent experience was the first or the third response, take time to reflect. Is this your normal pattern?

When we build the skill of assertiveness over a more passive or aggressive approach at work we start to build a culture of mindfulness and civility.

Dr. Ettensohn writes:

Learning to be assertive can be difficult, especially if you’ve fallen into the habit of engaging in cycles of passivity and aggression. Often, people attempting to make changes in their behavior will encounter feelings of discomfort when they try new things. They may also notice that others resist their attempts to change established relationship dynamics. This is perfectly normal and is usually a sign of growth.

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Speaking Up: Small Words Matter

Small Words Matter

In a recent post, Leading With Civility: 4 Lessons for Speaking Up at Work, the case was made for the importance for speaking up in the workplace.

When speaking up even small words can impact meaning.

The problems with small words came to my attention after reading a blog post of a mediator and attorney in private practice.  I  had just met Kristen Hall of KH Mediation at a Des Moines West Side Chamber of Commerce event.

Ms. Hall explained that a mediator is an impartial party that helps conflicting participants first identify issues, determine the breakdown in communication and develop a plan for moving forward with an eye toward preventing future conflicts.

The blog post that caught my attention on the KH Mediation website gives an example how selecting the right words can impact how communication will be heard. Ms Hall writes:

Focus on what is, rather than what “shoulda, coulda, woulda” been.  At the end of the day we are where we are.  A good example is the proverbial glass of water.  Optimism says it is half full.  Pessimism says it is half empty.  Being present says it is four ounces, how do we make the most of it. It allows us to be solution oriented.  One way to do this is to replace “but” with “and.”   For example, consider these two sentences.

I want to turn in our report in three days but my partner wants to get everyone’s input before we complete it.


I want to turn in our report three days and my partner wants to get everyone’s input before we complete it.

This made me remember the problem with the word “but.”  According the the dictionary, this word is used to contradict something that has already been stated. So when we use that word we are negating everything stated prior to the word.

In the example above, If I were the speaker, I would be saying that I want to turn in our report. However in reality, because I used the word “but” I am implying that my partner is the reason for my lack of action on the three day time frame. Now, the listener sees me as less powerful because I am placing blame and not accepting responsibility. I move from a position of standing tall to appearing weak without even physically changing my physical posture.

In the cartoon at the top of the post, the listener is confused.  The speaker used words to say that the listener had a good idea.  Then he or she takes the compliment away with the use of the word “but”.

What are some other ways you’ve noticed that small words matter?

Keep the conversation going by tweeting @seesdsofcivility .

Graphic of CultivateThe Seeds of Civility is a blog that is created by The Wallace Centers of Iowa.  Here we cultivate conversations about civility in the workplace.

Leading With Civility: 4 Lessons for Speaking Up at Work

Visual from Seeds of Civility about Speaking UpWhen people think about civility, they often think about being kind, having manners or being nice. Civility is a path to results that leads to respect for others. But it also means respecting yourself and figuring out how to speak up.

When I first read Choosing Civility by P.M. Forni I was happy to see that the author included a chapter called Assert Yourself.

Why does speaking up matter?

When you work to achieve results in an organization there are as many perspectives on the right way to do something as there are people.  To get your opinions and perspective heard you will need to be comfortable sharing them. Consider these lessons:

4 Lessons about Speaking Up at Work Graphic of Leading with Civility ; 4 Lessons for Speaking Up

1.  Silence can mean you agree 

Have you been in a meeting where people just remain silent?  The meeting might go fast but there is a danger in an organization when everyone agrees. By not saying anything or even asking any questions we give our tacit approval and one or two people lead rather than including varied perspectives in decision making.  In an emergency situation that is fine, decisions of leaders need to be made quickly.  However for longer term decisions such as developing new products, communicating customer service issues, or day to day operational concerns, each person involved need to share his or her perspective.

2.  Everyone deserves to know where they stand 

Do you have a hard time speaking up if you don’t agree with another person’s idea or approach? It is uncomfortable to criticize someone. Criticizing someone can bring up negative emotions. This brings discomfort but it is the way the human brain processes emotional information. Everyone deserves to know how you stand with them.  Even if the person doesn’t like it and doesn’t respond well, it still makes the workplace better. For help on how to do it check out a great post from Columnist Kevin Daum who wrote How to Give (and Receive) Positive Criticism.

3.  Being consistent adds volume

The goal of speaking up is to make a difference. Being consistent is the most effective way to have your voice add up to being heard. There are a lot of competing messages so repetition is necessary.

4.  Hard work won’t make up for not speaking up

Even if you don’t see yourself as a leader, and you don’t speak up, you are hurting both yourself in your career and the organization which needs your unique perspective in order to perform optimally.

Gather 510 px squareThe Seeds of Civility is a blog that is created by The Wallace Centers of Iowa.  Here we gather tips for leading (and developing emerging leaders) with civility.