Ask the Doc: How do you balance assertiveness with combativeness?

By Dr. Michael Sessions, Senior Consultant TLG

This is a great question and a distinction that confuses a lot of people. The confusion has its roots in the way that conflict is generally understood. Conflict can best be understood as the consequence that arises when the means of addressing one’s concerns are blocked by the efforts of another to address their concerns.

With respect to balancing assertiveness and combativeness, the short answer is that these are not approaches one typically wants to balance. Combativeness is simply an extreme form of assertiveness. Assertiveness refers to the advocacy for the means to address an issue or circumstance about which one is concerned. Combativeness is essentially assertiveness on steroids.

The transition from one to the other is generally the result of an emotional escalation associated with fear or frustration. Fear follows the assessment that if one is blocked from addressing their concern the consequences will be dire, hence securing a solution is essential and urgent. Frustration can result from doubting the motives for the other’s opposition.

The doubt frequently follows an interpretation that the other’s failure to appreciate the value of one’s position is a product of their own self-interest or ignorance. What can be overlooked in this escalation is the creation of blind spots that tend to follow any rapid emotional escalation. Tunnel vision ensues and now winning at whatever cost becomes the sole objective. Generally speaking, outside the context of war, combativeness is more something to be avoided than balanced.

An attitude one might more constructively seek to balance with assertiveness is cooperativeness. Cooperativeness is the attitude that leads one to advocate for the means to address another’s concern, even if at the cost of addressing our own. One adopts this attitude when you can agree that the concern of the other is both more important and urgent than our own concern.

Alternatively, cooperativeness may result from the desire to avoid friction or from the realization that you are in a fight you can’t win and support for the other is advanced as a means of building political capital for a future campaign.

To be wholly assertive or cooperative implies an environment in which one concern or another can go completely unaddressed. These kinds of conflict can be thought of as simple conflicts which can typically be resolved through strength of argument or political acumen. In truth, these are the minority of conflicts that confound most organization.

The conflicts that are most confounding are complex conflicts. Complex conflicts result when two positions are advanced, each designed to address only one concern, and it is apparent that the organization cannot afford to ignore either concern. Under these circumstances, the ability to balance assertiveness and cooperativeness is essential.

There are two forms this blending can take. The first is to partially address each using pieces of the solutions advanced by both sides. The term for this approach is compromise. Compromise is a win some/lose some approach that is embraced when the two sides can’t reach consensus but the ability to move forward is of paramount importance.

It breaks the log jam but leaves some elements of the concerns of both parties unaddressed. As such, compromises represent temporary and generally unstable solutions that promise to be revisited as the consequences of the unaddressed concerns begin to be experienced.

In circumstances where all aspect of both concerns must be addressed it becomes clear that neither solution advanced so far will suffice. In these cases, both positions must be abandoned, and an entirely new solution must be sought to address what amounts to a redefinition of the problem to be solved which now includes both concerns. The term for this approach is collaboration.

Collaborative solutions are more time consuming than compromises and more difficult to create but they are also far more likely to prove to be both comprehensive and stable. The dictates of the context in which the conflict arose will generally determine which solution style is best suited to the issues at hand. Resources, typically time, personnel and money are the most frequent drivers of that decision. Group cohesion, buy in and morale and are also likely to be contributing factors.

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