Are You Assertive Or Just A Bully?

John Katebe - kitweonline

John Katebe - of John Katebe Talks And Seminars

It used to be said that a woman was behind every successful man. Could it also be said that a wife is usually behind a man’s aggressiveness at work?

Peter was a Kitwe gentleman with a Master’s degree in Engineering obtained from a university in England. He was married to a beautiful woman – a school teacher. They had three children, all in one of Kitwe’s prestigious secondary schools.

Peter was an engineer with supervisory responsibilities in a multinational conglomerate. You could say that he was comfortable in life, and happily married, if it were not for his wife’s never-ending complaints about what she saw as his lack of assertiveness in life.

“You are too docile for a man,” she would tell him most of the time. “A man must be forceful. You won’t get anywhere in life like that. Be assertive.”

In order to try and please her, Peter developed an aggressive attitude towards his colleagues and juniors at work in the belief that he was being assertive. The results were disastrous. Within a short time he had created several enemies in his department and in the organization as a whole.

His wife kept telling him that if he wanted to be noticed at work as the man to be promoted, he should firmly stand up for his rights. He should be assertive.

Sadly, instead of being noticed by his bosses as the man to be promoted, he received quite a few reprimands from his superiors about his deteriorating relationship with his fellow employees.

Peter is not alone in his predicament. Most people confuse the two behaviors – aggressiveness and assertiveness. It is helpful, therefore, to understand what assertiveness really means. I shall try to briefly explain what assertiveness is and what it is not.


John Katebe making a presentation on "Assertiveness" - kitweonline

John Katebe making a presentation on "Assertiveness" - kitweonline

Basically, we react in one of three different ways to situations. The way we respond depends on various factors. For Peter, his response to situations at work was influenced by his wife’s opinion about him. In some cases the way we perceive ourselves in relation to other people and how we feel about ourselves determines the nature of our response.

The three different responses to situations are as follows:

The submissive response.

The aggressive response

The assertive response.

The submissive response is characterized by a tendency to shy away from saying what you really mean and not seeking to achieve your needs. This is a lose-win situation in which you are willing to let others get their way at your expense. Most people choose this behavior in the false belief that this is the surest way of avoiding conflicts in life and getting people to like them. Consequences of this type of behavior have shown that this is never actually the case.

Some of the behaviors that characterize the submissive response are as follows:

  • Keeping a low profile
  • Saying very little
  • Agreeing as much as you can
  • Saying “I’m sorry” too often
  • Not getting to the point
  • Putting yourself down
  • Not saying what you want, feel or like
  • Complaining behind the scenes
  • Justifying your opinion of yourself

The aggressive response is characterized by a tendency to stand up for yourself in a way that violates the rights of other people. With too many fired-up political leaders urging society to “stand up for your rights” it is easy for people to look only at one side of the coin – their own rights and not those of others.


Members of the Lions Club International listen to a session on “Assertiveness

Members of the Lions Club International listen to a session on “Assertiveness

Some of the behaviors that characterize the aggressive response are as follows:

  • Attacking others
  • Threatening others
  • Forcing others to do things
  • Interrupting others
  • Trying to dominate others
  • Use of sarcasm
  • Putting down others
  • Expressing opinions as facts
  • Rejecting other points of view

The assertive behavior entails getting your needs met without interfering with the rights of others. This means that you seek to express your wants, needs, opinions, feelings and beliefs in a direct and honest way.

Some of the behaviors that characterize the assertive response are as follows:

  • Saying clearly what you want
  • Making brief statements that are to the point
  • Giving praise or constructive criticism when necessary
  • Acknowledging the others person’s stand point
  • Making decisions

Let us take the case of a female employee and examine the three ways in which she can react to a given situation.

Rose has just been transferred to the office of Reuben, her Company’s Finance Director. He is a handsome young man with a reputation for flirting with junior female employees. Rose is quite a looker herself and has just recently married.

Suppose on the very first day when she goes into Reuben’s office, he were to stand up and quickly pinch one of her breasts. What would be her three possible responses?

One, she could giggle or shyly smile although she is unhappy with this kind of behavior. This would be the submissive response. It is a lose-win situation in which she suppresses her need to be respected while satisfying Reuben’s need for sexual excitement.

Two, she could sharply tell him off in a rather angry manner. This would be the aggressive response. A win-lose situation in which her right to be respected is upheld while Reuben’s need for self-expression is denied.

Three, she could calmly tell him that she feels unhappy when she is treated in this way by her superior. This would be the assertive response. Notice how her focus is on stating her feelings rather than attacking Reuben’s action. This is a true win-win situation in which Rose meets her needs without violating Reuben’s needs.

The language of the assertive response is positive but non-threatening. The sentences below are examples of assertive statements:

“I enjoy spending time with you.”

“I prefer to watch horror movies.”

“I feel hurt when you talk behind my back.”

“I know that your studies are important, but I feel sad when we don’t spend much time together.”

Here is an example of an actual assertive text message written by me yesterday for a childhood friend of mine who lives in England:

“I sent you a text message yesterday to which you did not respond. I feel unhappy when you don’t acknowledge my messages.”

Being assertive has its benefits.


Copperbelt University student leaders listen attentively to a talk on “Assertiveness"

Copperbelt University student leaders listen attentively to a talk on “Assertiveness"

First, you are more likely to have your individual needs met when you are assertive.

Second, when you express your needs, you will generally feel happier in life.

Third, unexpressed needs have been known to lead to psychological stress. So, being assertive is a sure way of avoiding the stress that comes as a result of a build-up of feelings of frustration.

Fourth, responding assertively to situations helps one to build good interpersonal relationships with other people.

Fifth, and most important, assertiveness helps one to achieve a high degree of personal effectiveness. By communicating in a non-threatening manner you are more likely to get your ideas accepted and respected by others. This is a sure way of eliciting peoples help and support towards the achievement of your personal objectives.

So, the next time Peter’s wife complained about his behavior, he could have responded by calmly telling her that he felt hurt each time she tried to impose her personal views on him.

Better still Peter could have enrolled on a seminar or workshop on “Assertiveness.” Yes, Assertiveness is a skill that can be acquired through training. Perhaps then, he would have been assertive at work instead of merely being a bully.


John Katebe is a professional speaker and writer with And Seminars.

John conducts .





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  3 comments for “Are You Assertive Or Just A Bully?

  1. Wynegood Malunga
    July 11, 2011 at 2:19 pm

    Assertive: Isidingo’s Vusi Moletsane, Rajesh Kumar, Lolly de Klerk, Ma Agnes Matabane & Frank Xavier.

    Aggressive: Barker Haines, Cherel de Villiers.

    Crooks: Bra Georgie, Slu, Farrow.

    Devious: Benjamin le Roux. Kimberly Haines.

    Downright Foolish: Daniel le Roux.

    Absolute Scatterbrain: Sechaba Moloi.

    Mysteriously Brilliant, Assertive and Aggressive: John Katebe.

  2. Lydia Mhango
    July 8, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Very interesting write up. I have learned something. Which one are you, JK?

  3. Lydia Mhango
    July 8, 2011 at 4:10 pm

    Nice presentation. I enjoyed reading this.

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