This article discusses assertive versus hostile communication. It draws on literature categorizing argumentative communication as a subset of assertiveness, and verbally aggressive communication as a subset of hostile communication. Clearly from the words used to define these various types of communication, we can discern that assertiveness may be more desirable, while hostile communication may be much less desirable to give and/or receive. In fact, the research literature in this area argues that assertiveness is constructive, while hostility is destructive to communication exchanges, relationships, and, in fact, even the self-identities of the participants.
In assertive communication, the speaker is interpersonally dominant and forceful, and uses assertiveness to achieve personal goals, while at the same time creating positive feelings in others. Assertiveness uses verbal and nonverbal cues to exert control, obtain justified rewards, and avoid violating someone else's rights. Sometimes assertive individuals might use cues in an aggressive manner, but in a socially acceptable one. When people are assertive, they stand up for, and express, their thoughts, feelings, and beliefs in appropriate ways that are direct and honest -- and they don't violate others' rights. Assertive behaviors include openness, refusal of unreasonable requests, refusal to be intimidated, absence of interpersonal anxiety, initiation of requests, spontaneous expressions, outgoingness, and disagreeing actively, rather than passively. Some research claims assertive people are those predisposed to verbal behavior, as opposed to experiencing communication anxiety, and are precise, not easily persuadable, as well as contentious, which can sometimes mean overly quarrelsome. They also tend to be talkative, leave impressions on and are generally memorable to others who may communicate with them, and can hold their own in their interpersonal relationships. Assertive people defend their own beliefs, are independent , forceful, dominant, willing to take a stand, competitive, and are often leaders. This is considered a personality trait, but one which can be learned and improved.
Argumentative communication is considered a subset of assertiveness because, while all argumentation is assertive, not all assertiveness is argumentative. Argumentative individuals advocate positions on controversial issues and verbally attack other people's contradictory perspectives. In a word, it is an underlying motivation to argue. However, it is important to note that it is the person's position that is under attack in argumentativeness, and not the individual.
Turning from constructive communication to destructive communication, hostility seeks to destroy the other. Hostile people use verbal and nonverbal messages to express irritability, negativity, resentment, and suspicion. They tend to have a quick temper, little patience, are moody, and become exasperated quickly. They have a tendency toward pessimism about outcomes that others find more favorable, refuse to cooperate, and be antagonistic toward authority, rules, and social conventions. Expressions of jealousy and hatred are common resentments, and they often sulk about real or imagined slights, which causes anger to escalate. They are distrustful of others and believe that others want to harm them, reflecting underlying suspiciousness. Hostility has been explained as "an attitude, a dislike of a particular person, object, or issue, accompanied by a desire to see this target injured or even destroyed." People demonstrating predispositions to hostility are often classified as having hostile personalities. These people tend to exhibit common themes: They perceive themselves as victims of persecution from others (everyone's mean to me), view their world as a mean one (people like to do things just to upset me), view themselves as more aggressive than others (you don't want to mess with me). Some research suggests that hostility is a facet of neuroticism, and other research argues that aggressive behavior is learned from aggressive people responding aggressively to aggressive situations. More specifically, frustrating and anger-inducing experiences can create hostility and aggression. In this way, hostility is learned and can become habitual, and can be created and greatly influenced by how a person was disciplined in childhood. This trait emerges particularly when one person is attempting to influence another. Research shows that a predisposition toward hostility and aggressiveness can persist over time and is quite stable, and that young hostile communicators will very likely remain hostile communicators for much, if not all, of their lifetimes.
In general, research has shown time and again that argumentative and assertive communication traits serve to construct positive communication environments and positive affect and the self and others, while hostile and aggressive communication behaviors destroy. This is true in the contexts of parent-child, married couples, dating couples, siblings, work and colleague relationships, and instructor-student relationships. Specific to a work environment, employees with argumentative supervisors report much greater job satisfaction than do employees with aggressive supervisors.
In the context of giving and receiving constructive feedback and criticism, it is important to understand the differences between assertive/argumentative communication, and hostile/aggressive communication. The fundamental difference is the locus of attack. When attacks are focused on a person's position, they fall under the category of assertive or argumentative. When attacks are focused on a person's characteristics, history, behaviors, or any other component of the individual, they are considered hostile, and possibly aggressive. If you want your feedback and critique to be constructive, then it is necessary that you use constructive communication behaviors when delivering your it. If your feedback and/or critique includes commentary such as, "Don't be an idiot," "What did you do it this way for?" (implies something's wrong with you), "I know your dad's not a great writer, but I hoped for more from you," (attack on significant others), "Let's see if you got it right this time," (implies a history of getting it wrong), "These expectations aren't hard for most people, but I know they're kind of hard for you," (implies incompetence), or, "All right, you got it done! There's hope for you after all!" (mockery, implies incompetence), you are engaging in verbally aggressive behavior, which is not at all constructive. For your feedback and critique to be actually constructive, not only do these types of comments need to be avoided, but the entire focus of the discussion needs to center around the work product, itself.
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