26th Jul 2014

The critical difference between being assertive and being aggressive

“It is important to recognise the difference between the assertive and the aggressive conduct of divorce and separation cases.” says Neil Denny of London divorce solicitors Family Law in Partnership.

Very often this distinction is confused.

When we are unclear about the distinction then things can go wrong.

You might have a strongly held belief that you want to do the right thing; you want your separation to be dignified;  you want to minimise the conflict that happens now and in the future and preserve some degree of regard for your partner.  It is likely to be important to you to be seen as being reasonable throughout the proceedings in the eyes of other people – friends, relatives and older children – or indeed in your own self-perception and that means not being seen as aggressive, selfish or `grasping.’

When this happens you can find yourself trapped.

You become aware that your current efforts to resolve matters are not getting the results that you need.  Your needs, rights and opinions are not being recognised or satisfied by your partner or their own conduct of the case.  You feel that your partner is not taking your position seriously or worse, is entirely dismissive of your needs and rights.

You have a choice.

You can either carry on as you have been doing or you can choose to become more assertive.

If you keep doing what you have always done then you will get the same results you have always done.

You therefore need to become more assertive.

For the individual who is concerned about preserving their principles and values, however, this invitation to become more assertive can be a real challenge.  The concern is that assertiveness is the same as being aggressive, selfish or grasping and that is simply not an option for them

It is helpful to consider some definitions to help us distinguish between assertiveness and aggression.

Assertiveness is defined by Ken and Kate Back in their book Assertiveness at Work as follows;

“Standing up for your own rights in such a way that you do not violate another person’s rights.”

We can speak up to ensure that our needs are recognised and met and hold that in balance with the rights and claims of the other partner.  Sometimes those claims will be in direct competition with each other, but not always.

Very often, with the skilful, assertive conduct of a case, using careful negotiation and communications, surprising opportunities to meet both parties’ needs and wants can be created.  This can be particularly true when using collaborative law or mediation.

Assertiveness should not therefore be confused with aggression.  The test is this

“Am I standing up for my rights, needs and opinions and doing so without ignoring or denying the rights, needs and opinions of my partner?”

Being assertive can be uncomfortable.

Often, when people choose not to be assertive they are choosing to avoid a short period of discomfort at the cost of their long term security and provision.  We sometimes need to brace ourselves in order to become suitably assertive.

Often the other partner will start to accuse us, once we take an assertive stance, of many things.  Such accusations can be intended to persuade us to be non-assertive instead.  The accusations might suggest that being assertive means;

  • Being aggressive, selfish or grasping – the very things you are trying to avoid
  • Not being amicable – “I thought we had said we were going to work things out amicably.” they might say.  Being assertive does not mean that we have stopped being amicable.  We can be both amicable and assertive.  This allegation deliberately confuses being amicable with being acquiescent – or being a push over and simply accepting what is on offer.  Being acquiescent is not being amicable.  Being acquiescent is being non-assertive.
  • Running up costs – Adopting an assertive stance is often criticised by the other partner as being a waste of money.  The argument runs that if you reverted back to a non-assertive stance that there would be less legal costs.  That can be true.  After all if you simply accepted the first offer that was made to you by an estranged partner without any research or questions asked, and without any legal advice at all then there would be next to no costs.  It might be highly cost effective but it would be highly unwise.  Legal costs are always an unwelcome expense but are sometimes unavoidable if you are going to be able to access a proper outcome that protects your position.  your solicitor will always be keeping an eye to ensure that costs are proportionate and that the long term benefits to you in incurring those costs is worthwhile.

Let us help you

If you are thinking about or going through divorce or separation, or know somebody who is, then contact us.  You can email us confidentially on info@flip.co.uk or telephone us and ask to speak to one of our divorce lawyers on 020 7420 5000.  We can help you to resolve matters assertively but without being aggressive so that you get the outcomes that you and your family need.

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