Passiveness is a way of life, part of a long standing culture, in the Pacific Islands. The vast majority of people are shy, and find it difficult to speak up for themselves when faced with others who they know or perceive to be of higher rank, hold greater authority or hold seniority in age. Their passiveness extends to the desire, the cultural need, for consensus in business matters of both government and private enterprise.

Passiveness in business is not exclusive to the Pacific, however. Many organisations have key leaders and leadership groups that are passive. They tend to be slow in decision making, endlessly seeking consensus and with individual leaders seemingly incapable of articulating what they want.

Of course, some organisations have leaders and leadership groups that demonstrate aggressive tendencies. The kind of organisations where it is ‘my way or the highway’, where people are micromanaged and left feeling disempowered.

The worst of all traits of leaders and leadership groups is of course, passive-aggressive.

Passive-aggressive leaders feign acceptance in meetings and reject the assertions or outcomes destructively when out of meetings. I would rather deal with an aggressive person than a passive-aggressive person. These kinds of organisations are dangerously dysfunctional with many political issues played out beneath the surface of normality.

Just about all organisations I have encountered are a polyglot of expressive styles. Their leaders are a combination of aggressive, passive and passive-aggressive styles. What I see least of, however is an assertive style. People who are truly assertive are often mistaken for aggressive and over years fall back into passive expressions as the passive and the passive-aggressive shun interactions with them.

What does being assertive mean?

First, let’s look at the definition of assertiveness:

Assertive (adjective): confident and direct in dealing with others.

Source: Collins Concise English Dictionary

Assertiveness is the ability to express your needs and uphold your own integrity and dignity without violating others’ rights.

The distinction between Assertive, Passive and Aggressive is rooted in the rights of people with the following definitions:

  • Passive: You are more concerned about others than yourself
  • Aggressive: You are more concerned about yourself than others
  • Assertive: You are concerned about yourself and others

Benefits of being assertive

As communication means multiply, especially one to many means, it is almost necessary that we as a society become more assertive. We must be confident in who we are and present our views without fear but also with respect for others. In business, it’s not just about people treating each other with respect. Assertiveness is a key to better and quicker decision making and faster and more productive actions.

When people can express themselves freely without fear of others, more ideas can be generated which leads to more creativity and productivity. Organisations benefit greatly from a workforce whose members can debate, argue and challenge any system, process or concept. Debates are no longer led by those who shout the loudest. Instead, the assertive style of communication comes to be the mainstream, boosting the naturally shy to be more talkative and moderating the expressions of the naturally aggressive and encouraging them to be more considerate and open to others’ ideas.

Naturally, an assertive tone sounds confident. Confidence comes from knowing what you want and where you want to go. Confident people always seem to have a clear mission, a goal that will come to define their behaviour. When you know your goals, it is much easier to look beyond words and gestures and start to search for the true intention and meaning. You want to know the motivation behind every action and communication. This attitude reduces misunderstandings between people as everyone will have their view as well as others’ views in mind.

To be able to express yourself freely, you need to know what your rights are. In fact it is necessary to know everyone’s rights so you can successfully find the common interests and act upon them.

What Style are you?

Verbal styles

People distinguish their style by the words they choose to use in conversations, particularly those involving a disagreement.


  • Uses apologetic words and phrases such as “Sorry”, “I am afraid”, …
  • Creates a lot of ambiguity and uncertainty in the sentences delivered, emphasised by words such as, “possibly”, “may be”, “if possible”, “perhaps” and “not sure”.
  • Ends sentences with an inflection making them seem a rhetorical question
  • Brings themselves down in comparison to others by stating “I am not really good at this”, “You obviously know more about this than I do”, “I have never done this before”, “It’s my mistake really”
  • Expects to need permission and may ask directly for this. For example, “Can I do this?”, “Do you mind if I go ahead?” and “Is this OK with you?”
  • Dismisses their own needs. For example, “It’s OK, I should be alright”
  • Uses very few “I” statements in sentences.


  • Uses accusatory phrasing in their language.
  • Uses a lot of “I” statements. It is all about the person who is delivering the request.
  • Uses threatening language. There can be many “if” statements which lead to punishment if the request is not satisfied. For example, “If you don’t comply, I will …”
  • Delivers opinions as facts.
  • Uses sarcasm and mockery.
  • Uses forceful words such as “must”, and “will” frequently.


  • Composes sentences logically.
  • Thinks through the request and has an obvious solid structure to the reasoning.
  • Uses clear and concise statements. The receiving end has no problem understanding what is wanted of them.
  • Cares about the opinion of others and is willing to compromise as necessary to achieve the higher aim
  • “I” statements are present but are used sparingly when appropriate.

Non-Verbal Styles

Body language equates to more than 60% of the communication that people take in to determine what we are saying. What we say and how we say it; tone and pace of voice accounts for approximate only 35% of what people use to judge what message we are actually conveying. Thus, your body language will often tell more about your style than anything else.


  • Nervousness
  • Keeps distance
  • Hunched shoulders
  • Little or no eye contact
  • Smiles when criticised
  • Frequent throat clearing
  • Pauses frequently as if not sure about the appropriateness of the sentence
  • Eager to finish the conversation and move on
  • Overtly conscious of the implications of the conversation


  • Piercing eye contact. Keeps the gaze.
  • Eyebrows can be angry (raised) and facial expression is intense
  • Body language is defensive/aggressive: arms crossed, legs apart and pointing fingers
  • May walk or stride around the place while talking
  • Makes loud noises such as banging on the table or makes extra noises by being a bit more forceful when moving objects around (as if to make a point that ‘I am not happy’)


  • Emotionally relaxed and reserved
  • Erect and solid without having a threatening posture
  • Good eye contact without seeming to want to demean

Being Assertive General Guidelines

Be direct: Get to the point as clearly as possible and deliver it confidently

Be brief: Less is more. Don’t confuse the other person by extra details or vague conservative requests. Deliver your request and stop.

Provide reasons: To support your requests, provide a number of rational reasons. Make sure to present concise reasons directly related to your request.

Ask questions: Seek clarification and confirm understanding.

Make good eye contact: Make eye contact appropriate for the culture, always with a friendly gaze and never seeming to demean.

Keep good posture and body positioning: Don’t seek to dominate or to subjugate yourself. Keep an open posture at angle to the listener.