Do Others See Your Proven Assertiveness Or A Miserable Bully?
Your ability to determine if you’re being assertive or a bully may lay in understanding that expressing oneself is an output of both, while acknowledging the difference in your motivations, approach, and consequences.

The line between assertiveness and bullying can be blurred as you use it to boost your confidence and assert greater respect for yourself. Exploring and understanding the difference between assertiveness and bullying can help improve your self-awareness of how you’re using it and perhaps how you’re perceived by others depending on how you’re using it. Here is a look at 5 behaviours and characteristics of each and some differences between them, to help you reflect on your assertiveness journey.

What Is Assertiveness

As a communication style, assertiveness reflects on how you might express your feelings, and share your thoughts and needs, without imposing your will on the rights of others. You would achieve this while communicating in a direct and honest manner. Leveraging this approach helps you demonstrate positive assertiveness by advocating for your needs while being able to maintain respect for other’s perspectives. For example, imagine you had a co-worker who always interrupted you during meetings, challenging your ability to finish speaking your ideas. The next time it happens, you might address it through positive assertiveness by saying, “I appreciate your input and I’d like to finish expressing my idea before it is discussed further. Could you please let me finish?”


5 Behaviours of Assertiveness

This example demonstrates five key behaviours of positive assertiveness that include:


  1. Non-aggressive Responses: Avoid hostility and keep your engagement void of intimidation or manipulation to achieve an own goal.


  1. Clear Communication: State your opinion, preferred approach, or boundaries while avoiding ambiguity and steering clear of aggression.


  1. Confidence: Maintain a strong sense of self-worth while believing in your own right to express your ideas and yourself.


  1. Problem-Solving: Focus on being constructive while addressing issues and support mutually beneficial solutions.


  1. Respect For Others: Acknowledge and respect the opinions, views, and feelings of others, even if there is disagreement between you.


All these behaviours will help foster healthy relationships. They do it by promoting an open approach to communication to support mutual understanding and cooperation while empowering you to self-advocate and maintain respect for the dignity and autonomy of those you’re interacting with.  


When Does It Become Bullying?

So where does the line get crossed that assertiveness becomes bullying? Bullying is demonstrated when your behaviour becomes aggressive in a way that is intended to intimidate, dominate, or ultimately control another person.  As a bully you are attempting to assert your perceived superiority over another individual. That individual may be seen as a victim as the power imbalance starts to take shape. For example, using the example from earlier with an office colleague, a bullying response may look something like this, “We are not going to do that. I am putting my foot down and you’re going to listen to me because I know what is best. Clearly, you do not understand and you’re going to do what I am telling you to do.”  


5 Characteristics of Bullying

This example demonstrates five key characteristics of bullying that include:


  1. Intentional Harm: While assertiveness aims to find a mutual understanding and respect, bullying is focused on controlling or demeaning others and there may be instances where this is driven by an intent to harm others.


  1. Lack of Empathy: The bullying behaviour is focused on achieving the bully’s goal above all else. There is a disregard for anyone else’s feelings, rights, and boundaries.


  1. Coercion: There are elements of manipulation, threats, and sometimes physical force, although as online engagements have replaced in-person situations, the latter can transition into micro-expressions and the use of body language. The bully’s goal remains to intimidate others into submission and compliance to their wishes.


  1. Repeated Behaviour: It is valuable to assess if there is a pattern to the bullying. Often, it is a recurrence instead of a one-off instance, and understanding the behaviours will help identify if this has happened before or may happen again. Again, word selection, body language, and micro expressions can be keys to spotting repeated behaviour.


  1. Negative Impact: The output of bullying can have varying degrees of impacts to the impact, depending on the situation. Those variations can include harm, discomfort, or even distress to the victim, potentially impacting their self-esteem and ultimately their emotional and physical well-being.


These are just a few characteristics and bullying can take on many forms, sometimes adjusting its make-up as society changes. It can manifest in the form of physical aggression, exclusion, verbal abuse, or even cyberbullying. The impacts of bullying can be complex, influencing emotional or physical trauma, isolation, and psychological issues for anyone who is a victim to it.


The Difference Between Assertiveness & Bullying

As you absorb the behaviours of assertiveness and characteristics of bullying, raising your awareness of the difference between the two may help in your self-help journey either as a perpetrator or as a victim. Four of those differences and their impacts include:


  1. Intent: While assertiveness is focused on being able to demonstrate your feelings and opinion while respecting those of others, bullying is focused on controlling, dominating, or even causing harm to others.


  1. Impact: The output of assertive communication is a positive and healthy relationship, while the output of bullying results in a lack of trust, increased anxiety, and maybe even the creation of fear.


  1. Respect: There is a greater chance of achieving respect through positive assertiveness as it creates value for the rights of all those involved. Alternatively, bullying tends to disregard the rights and feelings of others.


  1. Behaviour Patterns: Patterns for assertiveness may demonstrate a more direct communication approach with a foundation in honesty. Bullying patterns demonstrated manipulation and coercion.


Finding opportunities to embrace positive assertiveness and avoiding bullying characteristics and behaviours can contribute to a more trustful environment that demonstrates inclusion, greater communication, and shared value.


Will You Be Assertive Or A Bully?

Your ability to determine if you’re being assertive or a bully may lay in understanding that expressing oneself is an output of both, while acknowledging the difference in your motivations, approach, and consequences. Like many challenges that you may try to overcome, self-reflection and a desire to improve yourself is at the core of being able to take the next step after you’ve educated yourself on the difference between being assertive or a bully.  Sometimes, you may not see yourself as a bully, or create your own narratives and justifications for your behaviour and sometimes in those cases, professional help may be needed.


Whatever path you choose towards self-improvement, know that positive assertiveness often contributes to greater integrity, nurtures positive relationships, and helps build trust, understanding, and respect.  On the other hand, bullying creates division, causes harm, and deteriorates trust, understanding, respect, and relationships.


This is an opinion article by Guido Piraino of  The Monthly Social Podcast. It may also be heard on The Path Radio Mix Online. You can read other opinion articles on the blog page. You may also enjoy video content of The Monthly Social Podcast on YouTube or The Path Radio Mix on YouTube.  For sports content, please consider The Coach's Call YouTube Podcast.


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