Why Being Assertive and Disagreeable Pays Off (And Being Nice Doesn’t)

by STEVE BLOOM

Living together - 187/365

If you met me in real life, you’d probably say I’m a friendly person.  In general I like to get along with people and will go out of my way to help someone even if I don’t know them very well.  But meet me under the right circumstances and I can be a downright prick to you.

It’s not that I go around looking for reasons to be rude or disagreeable to people I meet.  In fact it’s the other way around.  I’d rather be nice to everyone all the time.  But being assertive and disagreeable is often unavoidable and absolutely necessary to get where you want in life.

Don’t Let People Walk All Over You

Let me use a personal story to illustrate my point.  A few months ago I made a business call to a woman who suddenly started getting angry and hostile.  It seemed to come out of nowhere.  I was trying to help her out and explain things to her, but she really didn’t seem to want to listen to me.

So you know what I did?  I hung up on her while she was talking in mid-sentence.

She called back a few minutes later and went right back to where she left off.  She was still angry and continued making nit-picking comments about things outside of my control.  I tried to calm her down, but it wasn’t working.  So I hung up on her again.

This time it took about twenty minutes for a third call back.  This time things were completely different.  All those problems and nit-picking comments were gone as if they never even existed.  And to this day we have a great working relationship.  She’s actually really friendly now and I’ve never had any other problems with her.

All it took was to tap into my inner jerk and summon the courage to hang up on her two times.

Stand Up For Yourself

As my story illustrates, it’s not that I was looking for a reason to be mean; it’s just that it was a response given the situation that unfolded in front of me.  I felt as if she was being completely unfair and unreasonable and I didn’t feel like I should put up with it.  Given the ultimate resolution, it appears to be the correct response too.  And this isn’t the only time I’ve successfully used the “hang up on the person” tactic before.  So what’s going on here?

I could have easily taken the “nice” way out and let her air her grievances and worked hard to make her happy simply to avoid conflict.  But ultimately I think this would have created more problems for me than solved them.  My goal was to establish an equal respectful relationship and being too nice to her outrageous demands would have undermined that.

And that’s a big problem with being too nice.  Just imagine for a moment a typical nice person who is always avoiding conflict and going out of their way to be nice so no one ever gets mad at them.  Eventually they end up bending to other people’s demands and abandoning their own goals and dreams.

Tap Into Your Assertive and Disagreeable Side

There’s a scene in an episode of The Simpsons that I think really shows what it means to be too nice.  In the episode, Principal Skinner is driving the school bus and stops at a busy intersection.  Not wanting to be assertive and cut someone off, he waits for a driver to wave him into the lane.  Hours later and he’s still waiting for his chance.

That’s why you need to be assertive and disagreeable at times.  Nice people bend over backwards for people hoping that someone will be nice enough to give them what they want.  Someone who is assertive and disagreeable decides what they want and goes out to get it.  To put it simply, are you going to actively pursue what you want or wait for it to come to you?

There is a natural fear that being too assertive and disagreeable will make you look like a jerk and nobody will like you.  Being liked is certainly important, but being respected and pursuing what you want is more important.  Nobody respects the person who is too nice and lets you walk all over them.

And there is some proof that being assertive and disagreeable has its advantages.  A recent study by the University of Notre Dame found that people in the workplace who were described as disagreeable earned more on average than those considered nice.  Money earned by disagreeable men is 18.31% higher than agreeable men and the difference for women is 5.47%.

Now don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that jerks always win.  Being assertive and disagreeable doesn’t mean you have to be a massive jerk.  All it means is that you know what goals you want and won’t give them up simply to avoid conflict.
photo credit: tranchis

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Comments

  1. just a human says:

    “Being liked is certainly important, but being respected and pursuing what you want is more important. Nobody respects the person who is too nice and lets you walk all over them.”

    I disagree with most of this article and was disappointed this was on “Do Something Cool”. It was pretty uncool. While I completely get what was supposed to be the point of this (and agree with standing up for yourself, etc)…I think it missed the mark. It came off as a little arrogant and reflective of the self-absorbed “me me me” world we humans live in (no offense).

    I think you are assuming that someone deemed “nice” or someone who doesn’t speak up when you or I or others would speak up to say “hey, you can’t treat me this way” is a “pushover”…when it is quite possible, they have mastered skills most of us haven’t. Perhaps they dabble in mindfulness or conserve their words/energy for actual important big picture events. I’ll spare you the novella of skills and reasons why I admire and respect the “nice” person and not the assertive person and just say I disagree with what was written in so many ways.

    • Thanks for the feedback. I wasn’t trying to come off as arrogant or self-absorbed. Perhaps I could have explained things better.

      I was trying to say that you need to stand up for yourself and go after the things you want out of life. Unfortunately, that may mean stepping on a few toes here and there.

      I honestly wish the world treated really nice people in a good way since that is the kind of person I usually am. However, in my experience overly nice people tend to get used and abused. It’s happened to myself in the past and I’ve seen it happen to others.

      I hope you didn’t think I was discounting niceness in general or mindfulness since they are good qualities to have. However, those qualities shouldn’t prevent you from initiating conflict when it is necessary.

      Thanks again for giving feedback. It’s always good to hear things from other points of view.

      • just a human says:

        i totally got and get what you were trying to say about being assertive. i just think it wasn’t conveyed in what you wrote and somehow equated “nice” with “pushover” or “people-pleaser”.

        and i still disagree (sorry). i was the only person who stood up to the tyrannical manager in my biochemistry lab….so she eventually left me alone, never yelled at me, etc. and i watched people take her explosive moods. and to be honest…i wish i was like them. they taught me something: they taught me that it’s completely her problem, not theirs, and she wasn’t worth spending an ounce of energy on. they tuned her out while she yelled. i took it personal, defended myself, and made it known i wouldn’t stand for that type of treatment. sure, i didn’t get yelled at that much…but in the end, i think they were the wise ones. they didn’t react to her because perhaps they have far more important things going on in their worlds…that this one lady isn’t even worth it.

        the whole “choose your battles”.

        i would much rather be like them, the “nice” ones you are referring to. because, at the end of the day, that’s what they were: really, really nice and genuine. and that is quite refreshing to find in this world. and really, i don’t think i’d ever be happy in an environment where i had to earn respect that way. i’d much rather just be a good person, a good friend, reliable, honest, knowledgeable, genuine, and a hard-worker. and if that doesn’t get me respect (i don’t think i seek out respect on any level, to be honest…just an equal), well, i don’t need to step on any toes at that point. i, think (know), too, it is quite different being a female. assertiveness isn’t respected. (you can disagree with me here…but personal experience, i speak the truth.)

        • It’s interesting, there are so many ways to look at these things. Do you think it was nice and genuine for other members of the lab to not check your managers behavior? I think it was a kindness for you to give her some push back and to express your genuine feelings. I see the other people’s behavior as cowardly and avoidant. Perhaps it was genuine, but I would be surprised if they were genuinely feeling kindly towards her. People tend not to be empathetic to disagreeable people, perhaps because they make them defensive, but clearly this woman needed some help regulating her emotions and behavior and, in my eyes, you were the only one brave and genuine enough to say what needed to be said.

      • Steve,
        It’s funny that “Sarah” The person who doesn’t agree with what you wrote is actually doing what you stated in your article but doesn’t agree with it.
        In telling you she doesn’t like it, she is actually standing up for herself and in a way not being nice i guess (lack of a better word).

        I think that this is your blog and this was your experience as you stated in your post “In MY experience” with an emphasis on this being YOUR experience. I share the same experiences.

        I have been extremely shy and introverted my whole life. Being nice is great, it’s fine but it was only when i was assertive or stood up for myself that i made headway. I had this rude awakening when i first got divorced and suddenly had to raise two small children by myself with no child support. Being assertive and sometime disagreeable got me more money, more promotions more respect. Being assertive does not mean that you are not nice. They can exist together.

        To me it sounds like you touched a sensitive spot with Sarah. Sorry Sarah but i have to disagree with you on this topic.

        But that’s the beauty of it. You can disagree with others and I can disagree with you. Doesn’t mean i think any more or less of you.

        Peace..

        • Hey Annie,

          That’s an interesting story about being assertive. You just show that it can work. And I think under that situation I’d start to be a little assertive and disagreeable to get what I want too.

          I know all too well about being introverted and shy. That’s how I was when I was younger. I never really got anywhere until I started being more assertive.

          I completely agree with you that being nice and assertive can exist together at the same time. There’s no reason why you can’t be both. Like most things, striking a good balance is necessary.

  2. I understand the intent of the comment above as well as the intent of your article. I think we all would agree that in a perfect world treating everyone with respect and kindness is the way to go. I think the key point DoSomethingCool is making is that we don’t live in a perfect world.

    You can still be kind and respectful even if you are assertive and disagreeable. And that is the key to all of this. Don’t be a doormat and fight for what you believe in. You can do this in a kind way most of the time but sometimes you do have to come across stern with certain people. Otherwise they will walk all over you.

    I work with someone who does not value other people every day. She doesn’t respect anyone’s opinion but her own and will actually ignore everything said if she doesn’t agree with this. She bulldozes over most people to get what she wants.

    The only person she fears is me. And it isn’t that I am an evil or cruel person but I am assertative and I disagree with what she says quite frequently. But without me standing up for what is right this workplace would be a worse place to be. Sometimes the nice person has to be the champion and the change agent and that involves being disagreeable and aggressive.

    • I’ve met people like the one you mention here. And I’m glad you can stand up to that person who makes your workplace so bad.

      A perfect world would be where everyone treats everyone else with kindness and respect. It’s true we don’t live in a perfect world though. While I didn’t say that outright in this post, I was implying it so I’m glad you got that.

      I think there is plenty of room for people to have kindness and respect, but room should also be made for assertiveness and disagreeableness. Otherwise people like the one you talk about will just walk in and try to boss everyone else around and make their lives worse off. Sometimes you need to make a stand.

  3. Steve,

    She was PMSing and you did the right thing. Ha ha. I’m just kidding. I guess I would have just put the phone down and let her rant. Wait until it got silent and picked up from where I was before she started.

    I was shy for the longest time, until I had kids. Then I needed to fight for what they needed and that taught me to be more assertive when I want and especially need something. Kids will change you.

    Talking to me you would think that I am not assertive because I’m not loud and actually quiet most of the time. Honestly, I’m measuring you up to see if I even need to waste my time. Ha ha! And I’m just saving my rants for the times it really matters, why anger myself over simple stuff.

    ~Allie

    • Hey Allie, that’s funny. She might have been PMSing or just in a really bad moood. I have no way of knowing. I can see how putting the phone down and letting her get it out of her system might work.

      I agree that you shouldn’t get angry of simple stuff. It’s not worth it and will waste your time. But in those instances where you need to do it, I’m glad I can tap into my assertive side.

  4. Hey Steve,

    I completely agree with the first part of your title and only with the second conditionally.

    Being assertive is often very useful but there are many ways to be assertive and I’m not sure you always need to be disagreeable – plus I don;t believe you would choose to be unless you felt you had to anyway.

    So all in all – I agree with where you’re going with this.

    Or you could try the Japanese approach.

    • Oh yeah, I wouldn’t be disagreeable unless I felt I had to be. It’s often counter-productive when you do it unnecessarily.

      I’m curious what the Japanese approach you’re referring to is though.

  5. Whoa, Steve, I am so glad I read this post when I did and not just shortly after you posted it. This is quite helpful to my current situation. I have a roommate – the man who lived in my condo for the past 2 years while I was living in the Middle East. We agreed that he would continue living here, while still paying rent, for the seven months I’m back home so that he can easily and seamlessly take over the place when I head back to Egypt in January. All was well with us. But now, within the past week or so, he’s begun having an affair with a married woman. As I write this, they are watching a movie back in his bedroom with the door closed. My home is small and having three people here – almost all the time – is far to cramped and uncomfortable for me. Not to mention I don’t agree with the extramarital affair bit.

    So what do I do? Be nicey-nice and pretend like I don’t care? Or be a bitch and make them as uncomfortable and unhappy as they can be while here so they’ll move this affair to a hotel room or somewhere else? I’ve chosen option B because, like you illustrate in this post, I believe it’s the more effective route to getting them to spend their time elsewhere. If I was nice and friendly what motive would they have to take their affair somewhere else? I don’t want to lose him as a renter, so I’m not goint to tell him to move out, but just in this short week or so I have become completely fed up with this situation. Nice is not the right option here. I hope mean works.

    • Hey Sabina, that’s a crazy situation. On the one hand, I can see why you wouldn’t want to lose him as a renter, but on the other hand you shouldn’t have to put up with something like that.

      Since it is your condo, I think you hold the power. You can probably just make it uncomfortable enough for them to take a hint and move their affair to a hotel or anywhere else.

      You situation is a great example of why being disagreeable can pay off. Like you said, if you’re just nice, they’ll continue doing what they’re doing. If you haven’t talked to him about the situation yet, I’d start there, but don’t be afraid to be disagreeable if you have to.

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