Assertive vs. Aggressive

Posted by Akosua Agyepong | Feb 16, 2020

I sometimes hear clients say, “She's not aggressive enough.”  

While no one likes to be criticized, I actually take it as a compliment. You don't need to be aggressive to be successful – in many ways, aggression is a detriment. In the legal context, assertive lawyers state their opinions and make themselves heard while remaining respectful of others, including the Judge and the opposing party. On the other hand, aggressive lawyers attack, demean and may not see reaching an agreement as a good outcome for their client. Aggressive attorneys can damage their client's case, but an assertive attorney is able to rise above the noise.  

It is sometimes preferable to face an aggressive attorney on the other side because their arguments tend to get lost in the bluster and inflammatory presentation. When faced with an opposing attorney who is on the attack, responding calmly and succinctly shows the Court that your attorney (or you) is focused on resolving the issue rather than continuing a fight just for the sake of fighting. Much like those who lack compassion or empathy, overly aggressive lawyers often cannot understand anything but their client's position (and sometimes they don't even understand what their client wants!). They can lose sight of what may be a better outcome for everyone because they focus entirely on getting what they want exactly how they want it. As a result, it often makes them ineffective and thus incapable of getting to a reasonable solution.

Sometimes a lawyer's antics can distract from the actual issues at hand. Even worse, overly aggressive lawyers act without consideration for others, sometimes leading to a worse outcome for their clients. In Probate and Family Court, the party on the other side is usually someone that you will need to continue to have a relationship with in one way or another. If it is the other parent of your children, you are going to have to deal with them for the rest of your life (think graduation, weddings, grandkids). Is it worth it to completely destroy them and walk out of court with a lifetime of resentment?

How to Distinguish Assertive from Aggressive

Drawing the line between assertive and aggressive can be difficult. The trick is to get the balance right.

To put it simply, to be assertive is finding the happy medium between the two extremes of aggressive and passive. Adopting the “my way or the highway” stance will come off as hostile and passive people may be called pushovers, giving up their power and allowing themselves to be taken advantage of.

Assertive people exhibit a calm demeanor and generally being assertive is a personality attribute that is useful in professional and personal life settings. To be assertive means asking for what you want openly and in a straightforward manner, stating your feelings and opinions clearly without demeaning the other person. Being assertive is a constructive way of dealing with [difficult] people, and allows you to achieve your goals and effectively solve problems.

If you are assertive, some people will admire you for being able to navigate challenging situations with ease and professionalism, while a small minority may perceive it as weakness. The aggressive person may win a sprint once in a while, but the assertive person usually comes out on top in the long run. Family law is almost always a marathon, so I am happy to be called "not aggressive enough" any day.

About the Author

Akosua Agyepong

Associate Attorney

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