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Guideline for neighbour problems / COMMUNICATING: 3.3 Appropriate assertiveness

Interventions and evidence explained

Most plausible interventions explained

During the orientation process of the available literature, we were able to identify the following interventions for building mutual understanding in neighbour disputes:

  • Appropriate assertiveness
  • Over-assertiveness or aggression

A conflict between neighbours is an example of an interdependent situation in which parties have instrumental goals that are not perfectly aligned (Ames et al., p. 1). The degree to which parties speak out and stand up for their own interests in such a situation can be represented on a spectrum that includes both appropriate and excessive (or aggressive) levels of assertiveness. These distinct approaches are sometimes confused because both behaviors involve the expression of one’s needs and rights (Pipas & Jaradat, p. 652).

Appropriate assertiveness involves speaking and interacting in a manner that respects the rights of others while also standing up for your own rights, needs, and personal boundaries (Pipas & Jaradat, p. 649). An appropriately assertive message should be narrow, descriptive, and direct: the message does not achieve its purpose if it is too aggressive, with the intention of blaming the other, or conversely, expressed in a very shy and passive way (Pipas & Jaradat, p. 651).

Over-assertiveness or aggression can be distinguished from appropriate assertiveness in that it disregards the rights of others (Spitzberg et al.p. 189). It involves pressing for one’s preferred outcome in contentious (aggressive, competitive, or coercive) ways (Ames et al., p. 3). An overly-assertive message may involve threats and social punishments, such as negative evaluation and put-downs (Hollandsworth & Cooley, p. 641). 

Getting assertiveness “wrong” in a particular episode, or chronically, risks costly consequences. Pushing too hard, or in an ineffective way, may cause the other party to resist conceding one’s desired material outcomes or cause the relationship to fray. On the other hand, not pushing hard enough may result in a failure to meet one’s own needs may be detrimental to well‐being (Ames et al., p. 2). 

Because asserting one’s feelings, interests, and rights is central to any interpersonal conflict, we test appropriate assertiveness against over-assertiveness or aggression.

Selected interventions for comparison (defined as a PICO question)

For parties to a neighbor dispute trying to understand each other’s emotions, needs, and interests, is appropriate assertiveness more effective than over-assertiveness (aggression) for well-being?

Search strategy

The databases used are: HeinOnline, Westlaw, Wiley Online Library, JSTOR, Taylor & Francis, and ResearchGate.

For this PICO question, keywords used in the search strategy are: appropriate assertiveness conflict; aggression; blaming; accusing; over-assertiveness; interpersonal conflict

Assessment and grading of evidence

The main sources of evidence used for this particular subject are:

Quality of evidence and research gap

According to our research method, we grade the evidence on aggression and assertiveness in neighbour conflict as low. Available studies and expert opinion are of a high quality, but do not pertain to neighbour conflict in particular. Furthermore, there is a risk that the difficulty of replicating interpersonal assertiveness in an experimental/lab setting reduces the accuracy of these studies’ findings. However, because appropriate assertiveness is unanimously endorsed by experts and researchers – particularly in comparison to over-assertiveness or aggression – we upgrade the evidence to moderate.

Comparing the two interventions

Desirable outcomes of the interventions

Over-Assertiveness or Aggression
Appropriate Assertiveness
Assertive responses elicit greater compliance and provoke less anger in the other party than aggressive responses. A study designed to investigate assertive responding (with “a relatively low probability of provoking anger and a relatively high probability of changing another’s behavior” (Cooley, 1976) found that assertive responses resulted in significantly greater compliance and significantly less anger than aggressive responses (a threat or a put-down) (Hollandsworth & Cooley, p. 644).
Training in appropriate assertiveness has been shown to contribute to positive conflict resolution outcomes. A randomized study of 48 university students found that those who received a 1-hour training session in appropriate assertiveness (along with two other cooperative conflict resolution skills) increased their use of appropriate assertiveness during conflict interactions and were more likely to arrive at a win-win solution than those who did not receive the training (Feeney & Davidson, p. 263-4).
The assertiveness literature reveals that assertive behavior is generally viewed as more normatively competent (effective) than passive behavior, which, in turn, is viewed as more effective than aggressive behavior (Spitzberg et al., p. 190).
Assertive communication skills create opportunities for a variety of opinions, needs, and choices to be respectfully heard and considered. This helps achieve a win-win solution to certain problems (Pipas & Jaradat, p. 649).
Assertive communication can strengthen relationships and reduce conflict-related stress. The direct communication, openness, and honesty that assertiveness entails allows you to receive messages without distortion, which maintains relations with others and helps to solve interpersonal problems (Pipas & Jaradat, p. 649-650).

Undesirable outcomes of the intervention

Over-Assertiveness or Aggression
Appropriate Assertiveness
The use of threats or put-downs may be less effective in gaining compliance and more apt to elicit anger when compared with assertive statements. According to a study of eight role play situations involving several forms of interpersonal conflict in several different interpersonal contexts, the use of a threat is less effective in gaining compliance even in the most immediate of situations. This ineffectiveness was made clear by the data, which revealed that almost half of the subjects responded to aggressive statements with belligerence and indications of noncompliance (Hollandsworth & Cooley, p. 645).
Appropriate assertiveness in conflict may be difficult to achieve without training, which neighbours in conflict cannot realistically be expected to have. A randomized study of 48 university students found that levels of appropriate assertiveness (and active listening) did not significantly increase when a participant interacted with a trained partner, as was predicted. In relation to these two measures, the results indicated that regardless of the training condition of the partner, individuals untrained in conflict resolution are more likely to communicate their views aggressively or not explain adequately their concerns, as well as ignore, interrupt, and criticize the other party during a dyadic conflict interaction. It seems that individuals need direct training in these skills to listen and understand another party’s interests, and to communicate their own underlying interests when resolving conflict (Feeney & Davidson, p. 266).
Over-assertiveness may reduce trust between parties, and ultimately undermine the implementation of an agreement (Campagna, Mislin, Kong & Bottom; Ames et al., p. 6).
Appropriate assertiveness may be at odds with likeability, a potentially important trait to neighbours. A 1982 study found that videotape models who exhibited refusal assertion skills when confronted with the unreasonable behavior of another person were evaluated by observers as behaving in an appropriate and able manner relative to unassertive models. However, assertive models were also rated less favorably than unassertive models on 14 indices assessing their likeability, warmth and social attractiveness. This indicates that while observers describes assertive models as behaving effectively in the social conflict situations, they also felt the models were singularly unlikeable when behaving assertively (Kelly et al., p. 39). Recent investigators have suggested that the presence of still other comments (such as empathy or understanding of the antagonist’s own position) in an assertive individual’s handling of social conflict situations may be necessary for the person to be perceived favorably by others (Mullinix & Galassi, 1978; Romano & Bellack, 1980; Woolfolk & Dever, 1979; Kelly et al., p. 39).
Over-assertiveness can evoke opposition, thereby triggering self-reinforcing cycles of conflict escalation and interfering with desired outcomes (De Dreu, 2010; Ames et al., p. 5). Falbe and Yukl (1992) found that assertive pressure tactics evoked far greater resistance, and led to worse outcomes, than “soft” tactics such as consultation, personal appeals, and ingratiation.
Women may be at a unique disadvantage when it comes to asserting themselves appropriately in conflict. Women who act assertively in pursuit of their own interests are often seen as violating prescriptive gender stereotypes, and are judged more harshly for such behavior than men (Rudman, 1998; Williams & Tiedens, 2016; Ames et al., p. 6). At the same time that assertiveness can evoke social backlash for women, it can also fail to secure instrumental gains or sought-after outcomes. At the same time that assertiveness can evoke social backlash for women, it can also fail to secure instrumental gains or sought‐after outcomes. Compared with men, women’s abilities and competency are more often questioned, their ideas and viewpoints are more frequently challenged and met with skepticism (Eagly & Karau, 2002; Heilman, Block, Martell, & Simon, 1989; Brescoll & Uhlmann, 2008; Brooks, Huang, Kearney & Murray, 2014; Ames et al., p. 6), and sometimes they are less likely to get what they ask for (Amanatullah & Tinsley, 2013b). When women do act in stereotype‐consistent communal ways, their accommodations are sometimes undervalued and go unrewarded. Women are less likely than men to be recognized and rewarded for altruistic behaviors performed in the workplace, and the value they concede in negotiation is less likely to be reciprocated by their male counterparts (Heilman & Chen, 2005; Wazlawek & Stephens, 2017).
Over-assertiveness may be detrimental to problem-solving. Parties may be especially unlikely to transmit information to a counterpart who is problematically over-assertive, perhaps anticipating negative reactions or a low likelihood of change (Wazlawek & Ames, 2016; Ames et al., 8). This may result in an impasse, in which one party walks away or otherwise declines to agree to a solution or way forward (Ames et al., p. 5).
Over-assertiveness can plant the seeds for resentment and revenge. High assertiveness that appears to yield an attractive outcome in the short-term may have long-term, relational costs. People who feel mistreated by a counterpart may subsequently seek to restore equity or balance though acts such as sabotage, retaliation, or conflict escalation (Kim & Smith, 1993; Walster, Walster & Berschied, 1978; Wang, Northcraft & Van Kleef, 2012; Ames et al., p. 5).

Balance of Outcomes

Taken together, the available research suggests that clearly asserting one’s needs in a way that is respectful to the other party (appropriate assertiveness) is more conducive to positive conflict resolution outcomes and strong interpersonal relations than accusing, blaming, and other overly-assertive or aggressive behaviors. Whereas appropriate assertiveness increases the likelihood of arriving at a win-win solution, over-assertiveness tends to evoke anger, opposition, and resentment that get in the way of it.

Appropriate assertiveness is not without its disadvantages. Research suggests that it may be difficult to achieve without training, and that in certain circumstances, it may be at odds with likeability. Women in particular may find it difficult to assert their needs and interests that achieves their desired outcomes, in a way that is perceived well by others.

Even so, the desirable outcomes of appropriate assertiveness clearly outweigh those of over-assertiveness or aggression, and the undesirable outcomes of over-assertiveness outweigh those of appropriate assertiveness. Therefore, appropriate assertiveness is preferred.


Taking into account the balance of outcomes and the quality and consistency of the evidence, we make the following recommendation: For parties to a neighbor dispute trying to understand each other’s emotions, needs, and interests, appropriate assertiveness is more conducive to well-being than over-assertiveness or aggression.

Table of Contents

3. Recommendations on COMMUNICATING
3.2 Appropriate assertiveness