Have you ever been in a situation where you disagree with someone or something, but you’ve kept quiet for fear of causing offence or a negative reaction? Perhaps you’ve been asked to work late but you don’t want to, or your manager has made a proposal with which you fervently disagree, or you’ve received your performance rating and don’t think it’s fair?

Health warning

But did you know that – by not speaking out – you might be putting your health at risk? This is because it is impossible for human beings to hide their true thoughts and feelings forever, so unless you deal with them in an appropriate way, they’ll come back and bite you in ways which will negatively affect your physical and/or mental health.

The 4 responses

When anything happens in your life which requires you to respond, there are four typical ways you can respond: passively, aggressively, passive-aggressively or assertively.


When you respond passively, it means that you are more concerned with everyone else’s rights, opinions, views, ideas and feelings than your own. There are many complex reasons for people doing this; they might fear the consequences, or they don’t want to upset someone, they think their thoughts and feelings are not as important as other people’s, or they want to be liked or a people-pleaser. Essentially, they ensure that they put everyone else’s needs and happiness above their own.


Responding aggressively is the opposite. This is where people ensure that their rights, opinions, views, ideas and feelings are expressed but they do not listen or consider other peoples. Again, there are many complex reasons for behaving in this way; it could be because they think that they are right, or that they know best, or that they are the only ones who matter. Essentially, they put their own needs and happiness above those of other people.


Responding passive-aggressively is when non-verbal aggression manifests in negative behaviour. This means that if you are annoyed with someone, for example, instead of telling them to their face, you give them angry looks, or slam doors, or make snide comments behind their back.


Responding assertively is where both parties are able to express themselves openly, honestly and respectfully and are, ideally, able to arrive at a compromise where they are both – mostly – happy.

From reading these descriptions, which one do you think is your most common response? If you’re unsure, read the following question and potential responses, and decide what you would most likely do if you were in these situations.


It’s Friday and your boss – who will determine whether you get a promotion next year – asks you to work late again. This is the fourth Friday in a row and you are fed-up with your work affecting your personal life (and you seem to be the only member of staff at your level staying late). You had arranged to meet a friend, but you could cancel and stay late if you really had to. 

  1. Say, ‘of course, no problem,’ while seething inside. You nip to the toilet and phone your friend in a rage. You re-emerge when you’ve calmed down and get on with your work feeling resentful.
  2. Say ‘no’, you’ve stayed late for the last three Fridays and you’ve had enough. No one else at your level has stayed late. Tell your boss that s/he should organise her/his workload better so that the team don’t have to suffer. You slam the door on your way out to meet your friend.
  3. Say, ‘of course, no problem, I’ll phone my friend and let him/her down, again.’ You do the work but do it really slowly. If you have to stay late then you’ll make sure your boss has to stay really late too.
  4. Explain that you are committed and always work hard, including being the only member of staff at your level who has stayed late for the last three Fridays, however, you feel it’s important to have a life outside of work. Ask if there’s a compromise, for example, is there anyone else who could stay late instead? Could the work be completed on Monday morning if you got in early? If the answer’s ‘no’ to both these questions, agree to stay late on this occasion but request that someone else do it next time, or ask if you could come in late on Monday.

Which option did you choose?

If you answered 1), you are being passive. The problem with this response is that your boss will not know that you were bothered by having to work late. S/he is likely to ask you again and again thinking you’re happy to stay. You might get the promotion you want but at what cost to your work/life balance? If you can’t stand your ground at this level, what hope have you got at a higher grade?

If you answered 2), you are being aggressive. The problem with this response is that, while you don’t have to stay late, you will annoy your boss. S/he will not consider you a team player, and you will not be promoted.

If you answered 3), you are being passive-aggressive. The problem with this response is that your boss will know you’re unhappy, but will not respect you or your attitude. S/he might ask you to stay late again to see if your attitude improves. If the same behaviour continues, you will not be promoted.

If you answered 4), congratulations, you are being assertive! This is the only response that enables you to express your true feelings about staying late and you offer a compromise without dumping a specific team member in it. While your boss might not like that you stood up to her/him, s/he will respect you. This is the only scenario where you are most likely to get what you want in the short-term (a night out with your friend) and in the long-term (a promotion).

All of them all of the time

You may find that you display all four behaviours depending on the person you are dealing with or on the situation. You may also find that you typically react one way at work and another way at home. Whatever the answer, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of you fall into the passive or aggressive or passive-aggressive categories because, as human beings, it is far easier to do these behaviours automatically. This is because they are instinctual responses; think how a child throws down a toy in anger or sulks if they don’t get the toy they wanted. Compare this to assertiveness which is a learnt behaviour and so requires conscious and considered thought as well as a lot of courage. It takes courage because assertiveness requires you to be open and honest about your thoughts and feelings, which is something a lot of people find difficult, especially as they don’t want to offend or hurt another person.

What has this got to do with health?

Let’s take a passive person as an example. Imagine you are like an empty volcano but, every time you deny expressing yourself and let other people walk all over you, you build up anger (lava) inside of you. These bottled feelings grow and grow until they get too much and they explode out of your volcano with force. This explosion takes the form of an aggressive outburst and is usually aimed at an innocent victim over an insignificant incident that had nothing to do with the original problem or person. I would suggest that road rage is such an example. Of course, this outburst makes you feel awful so you go back to the beginning and continue being passive until the anger (lava) builds up to such an extent that it has to burst again.

This continuous cycle puts a strain on your mental and emotional well-being and could be damaging to your physical health: stress, headaches, blood pressure and stomach ulcers. And, in terms of road rage, it could land you in prison!

Compare this to how it feels to be assertive where you continually express what you want whilst considering other people’s rights too. Have you ever had to deal with a difficult situation and you were courageous enough to face up to it by being honest? Remember how great you felt about yourself afterwards? That’s how positive being assertive can be on your self-esteem and health.

Choosing your behaviour

What this doesn’t mean is that you have to be assertive in every situation and all of the time. Instead, you need to make a conscious choice of how you are going to respond, rather than just responding automatically. You need to decide what behaviour is most likely to get the best outcome (for yourself and the other person) by being assertive versus when it’s better to be passive, or aggressive (I can’t think of when a passive-aggressive response is appropriate, but I’m happy to hear suggestions though).

Sometimes keeping quiet or telling a little white lie (passive behaviours) are the best solution. For example, telling your sister that she’s a lazy, good-for-nothing slob might not be the best solution for harmonious family relations no matter how truthful. Equally, if you think refusing your boss’s request is going to get you fired, then do what they asked!

Equally, if your persistent assertiveness is falling on deaf ears, then maybe being aggressive is the last resort to get you want you want. In the words of Aristotle: ‘Anyone can become angry – that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way – that is not within everybody’s power and is not easy’.

Whatever response you choose, you’ve made a conscious and considered choice, which in itself is empowering. This is the only way to release you from the pendulum swing of passive to aggressive behaviour, and in doing so, your health in this regard remains intact too.

So, the next time someone says to you: ‘What do you think?’ maybe it’s time to express yourself honestly (or at least diplomatically honest), or if someone asks you to do something that you don’t want to do, maybe it’s time to say: ‘No’ but figure out a way to help the other person win too.

Your team

If you lead or manage a team, imagine how much more effective your team could be if they were to choose their responses, instead of shooting from the hip? Imagine how much healthier and happier they would be in themselves and as a cohesive unit? Imagine how much easier it would make your life? If you think your team could benefit from learning how to be more assertive, check out my personal brand, impact & assertiveness course?