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Assertive or Aggressive Icebreaker 101
By Joe Bouchard
Published: 12/13/2010

Adult-ed-2 Most communications modules eventually come around to the question: “Where do you draw the line?” Specifically, when is someone standing up for themselves and when does that become bullying? The corrections profession requires that we act in a firm but fair manner. Though perception is in the eye of the beholder, we need to determine in general the difference between assertive and aggressive. What is firm? What is aggressive?

The following icebreaker needs no materials at all – just a facilitator who can tell short stories and a room full of participants.

First, ask the audience to define the words assertive and aggressive. Adopt and mix the varying answers then offer the following definitions if necessary.
    Assertive - Inclined to bold or confident

    Aggressive - Inclined to behave in an actively hostile fashion
Then ask participants the difference between these terms.

Next, inform the audience that you will tell a few quick tales and they must state whether the main character acted in an assertive or aggressive way. Here are a few examples:
  1. Bruce and Freddie- Bruce had a younger sister with a boyfriend named Freddie. One day while Bruce was relaxing, Freddie came to the door and asked for his girlfriend, Bruce’s younger sister. Bruce said to Freddie, “I’ll let you wait here for her only if you walk to the store and buy me a bottle of pop and a pack of cigarettes.” Bruce posed this to Freddie while pointing rapidly in Freddie’s face. There was no hint of joking on Bruce’s face.

  2. Was Bruce assertive or aggressive?

  3. Ellece in hospital – A few years ago, my father was in and out of a small, regional hospital. As time wore on and our father’s health slowly worsened, my younger sister stayed at the hospital many long hours. She would ask many questions of staff about the recovery of the patient. When she was given conditional answers (could, might, may), Ellece politely and persistently asked for more definitive answers (will, shall, must). Though always polite, Ellece asked the same question of many staff and frequently. She did so with unwavering eye contact. On more than one occasion, she asked the staff that she questioned, “Who is your supervisor?”

  4. Was Ellece assertive or aggressive?

  5. Renee seats the mother of the bride - Renee, the planner of a wedding shower, had to attend to many details. She was in charge of everything for a relative’s party that was starting within fifteen minutes. Last minute details were not coming together too well. As crunch time approached and things started to unravel, the mother of the bride politely poked Renee on the shoulder. Uncertain and not wishing to disrupt any plans, the mother of the bride asked Renee, “Where do I sit?” With a straight face, though through clenched teeth, Renee said, “Why don’t you sit there?” Renee pointed to a bathroom and directly to the toilet.

  6. Was Renee assertive or aggressive?
The scenarios are endless. Facilitators may obtain background stories in many ways:
  • Take stories from personal experiences;
  • Conduct an internet search with ‘conflict’ and ‘stories’
  • Look up moral dilemmas and modify as needed
  • Poll students

Facilitators have a choice of using humor, uncomfortable situations, and inconclusive scenarios. I believe that it is best to start with a story that it blatantly aggressive and to work into less clear territory. In fact, the class may provide a good teaching opportunity if it is divided on whether a scenario is assertive or aggressive. This provides a live example of persuasion in action which could be discussed.

I created this icebreaker for a presentation for the Pennsylvania County Corrections Association on the topic of bullying in corrections. The stories were based on slightly modified experiences in my life. The exercise went well, as most of the 100 professionals in attendance responded in some way. Thanks to Deputy Warden Simmons for inviting me to the Keystone State. Special thanks for the professionals who helped me field test this icebreaker.

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