Passivity vs. Aggressiveness


Reaction to conflict is a gigantic topic.  Conflict response preference is really a discussion of your way of being in the world.  It can take years to develop a reaction style that feels both comfortable to you and also gets your needs met.  The reason I say both feels comfortable and gets your needs met is because often people’s reaction to conflict feels comfortable to them but does not get their needs met. A person may feel comfortable being more passive but is being taken advantage of and therefore cannot achieve their potential. Or on the other side, maybe someone feels comfortable being aggressive but is often getting in trouble or has few people left on their side due to that reaction style. Your reaction style has to be comfortable for you; I am not advocating for you to act like someone else, someone more passive or aggressive that gets their needs met. It won’t stick as a behavior change if it is not comfortable for you. I think the best way to work towards a healthy behavior pattern in terms of reaction to conflict is to gain knowledge, understand the underlying reasons for your comfortable but ineffective reactions, and to practice. Practice, practice, practice and remain aware throughout.
For your knowledge piece, reaction style is a combination of your genetics and your environment. I like to think that it is more driven by your environment, because I think that response to conflict is very changeable.  I think we learn reaction style from our caregivers very early on by socially observing. Even though ReallyBeU wellness programs are grounded in the teaching and learning of healthy reaction styles, I recognize there is an innate, genetic, hard-wired component to the traits that drive reaction style: impulsivity, passion, emotionality, irritability, self-esteem, anger management.   I respect that genetic component but I also believe you can learn tools to change your behavior.
There is a range of conflict reactions, a spectrum if you will. On one end of the spectrum is passivity, where others’ needs come first in conflict. Disagreement is uncomfortable and rapid resolution is priority. A passive person will sacrifice their beliefs, their comfort, and their needs in the name of mediation.   There is a lot of averting eye contact, a lot of smiling, fidgeting, submissive non-verbals. A passive person will use manipulation, submission, stroking of other’s egos, avoidance, harboring of negative feelings, and indirect venting to others not involved.  Often anxiety drives passivity and the desire to be liked makes it difficult for a passive person to put their needs first. People who are passive feel victimized, put down, hurt, defensive, resentful. You can tell a passive person because when you relay a conflict, they will say things like, “uh oh, aren’t you scared you are going to be in trouble?” “You probably hurt the person’s feelings.” “People are not going to like you if you say those things.” “I don’t think you want to rock the boat that way.” “Yes, that was not nice what they did, but it is better to let things go or stay quiet.”
On the other side of the reaction style spectrum is aggressiveness, where an individual’s needs come first. A debate where the aggressive person wins is the goal. An aggressive person will sacrifice the needs of others, of the group or other people’s feelings to end the conflict. They will use name calling, bullying, outbursts, shaming and direct cutting down of another. There is a lot of eye contact, a lot of gesturing, a lot of frustrated tone of voice, and usually some impulsive or explosive anger. Often anger drives aggressiveness and the desire to be right and recognized makes it difficult for an aggressive person to put other’s needs first.  People who are aggressive often feel judgmental, imposed upon, annoyed, and on the offensive.  You can tell an aggressive person because when you relay a conflict, they will say things like, “why didn’t you stand up for yourself?” “Why did you let them say that to you or treat you that way?” “You let them win, you lost and they won.” “If you don’t fight back they are going to think you are a punk.”
On the spectrum of reaction style the middle, where the most health can be found is assertiveness. The assertive reaction style keeps your needs and the needs of others equal. Assertive people take care of themselves and they take care of others. They make great leaders, they have lots of friends, they enjoy a great deal of success, they are not mistreated by the same person twice, they have less stress and people trust them. Assertive people are recognized for their beliefs and they recognize others for their beliefs. Responding to conflict in an assertive way looks calm, with appropriate eye contact, a smooth brow, a respectful tone, and a firm statement of need. Assertiveness is driven by compassion and confidence. You can tell an assertive person when you relay a conflict and the person says, “that was not appropriate, how did you handle it?” “It sounds like you stood up for yourself but you were not malicious about it, that will serve you well.” “I don’t think he meant to hurt you, I am glad you let him know that is not ok with you.” “I think she is looking for you to teach her about the way you want to be treated; I bet if you explain your needs, she will listen.” “You are nice to others, you deserve to be treated in the way you treat others.” “I think if you provide them with feedback in a less critical way, they may be able to hear your needs more clearly.”
There are many tools that ReallyBeU provides to adjust your reaction style. There are many strategies that can be learned to begin the process of practicing other ways of responding. One of the most effective ways to begin is to observe and emulate an assertive person. However, truly assertive people are difficult to find. It is easier to find others who fall on the opposite side of the spectrum from you and then practice acting as if you were them. If you are passive, watch how aggressive people respond. Observe, gather information, understand their motives and watch the conflict resolution. The next time you are in a conflict act as though you are that aggressive person and see what happens. If you are aggressive, watch a passive person in conflict. Observe, gather information, understand their motives and watch the resolution. The next time you are in a conflict act as though you are that passive person and see what happens. When you have “acted as if” once or twice, evaluate what works for you and what doesn’t. Did you get your needs met? Did other’s get their needs met? What can you do differently next time to get more resolution? How did it feel to use a different response style? What challenges came up for you during the practice? If you are unable to begin the practice, you may need a coach/mentor to help you deal with the self-esteem issues that drive your response style whether it be passivity or aggressiveness. Please know, that assertiveness is a learned behavior for most everyone. It does not come naturally to anyone and this is great, because we know we can change it! We all lean towards one side or the other of the spectrum and we can all learn techniques to move us more towards confidence and compassion. At ReallyBeU we are confident that increased assertiveness means increased health and happiness. With both confidence and compassion, I am asserting to you that you can learn to REALLY BE U!