An assertive person makes different sounds and has different body positions than a passive person or an aggressive person does. An assertive person gives off an air of command and assurance. In contrast, a passive person appears timid and afraid, and an aggressive person seems overbearing and too strong.
Interpretation of eye contact varies from culture to culture. For example, in various Native American cultures, holding eye contact for any length of time is a sign of aggressiveness and is discouraged. In mainstream American culture, however, most people consider not making eye contact to be a sign of timid behavior. The patterns I describe in this article are interpretations of eye contact from mainstream American society.
What a Passive Person Does
A passive person averts his or her head to avoid eye contact when speaking with another person, looking off to the side instead. In addition, a passive person uses a nervous laugh, which is a sign of uncertainty. These movements indicate the passive person’s eagerness to please, fear of offending, and anxiety about talking with the other person.
The passive person smiles frequently and inappropriately and uses exaggerated facial expressions. He or she draws his or her lips fully back from both the upper and lower teeth into an oblong pattern. This expression indicates a desire to escape from an embarrassing situation. Another common facial expression among passive people is to pull the bottom lip over the bottom teeth and bite down with the upper teeth. This is a clear sign that the person feels subordinate to others.
What an Aggressive Person Does
An aggressive person holds eye contact but in a threatening manner. He or she indicates dominance and fixes the other person’s attention with his or her eyes. The facial expression remains the same with little smiling or laughing.
When the aggressive person does smile, it’s a small smile rather than a broad one. The face is expressionless to avoid giving away thoughts or plans. The aggressive person looks at you with eyes wide open, lips tightly closed, nostrils flaring, and the corners of the eyebrows down. Sometimes the aggressive person talks through his or her teeth with very little movement of the lips.
What an Assertive Person Does
As an assertive person, you want to appear firm but kind. When you make eye contact with another person, hold your head erect and not to the side. You want to look assertive and interested.
Use a relaxed, steady gaze as you look at the other person’s eyes. On occasion, look away. By looking directly at the person, even if you’re anxious, you send the message that you aren’t afraid to deal with this person in an assertive manner. Your confidence will cause you to blink less, and that will make you seem to be a better listener.
Practice paying attention to where your eyes are and how often you blink in your conversations with other people. Do you look straight at the other person when you listen but not when you talk? Do you look away when certain subjects come up? Do you blink often?
Don’t smile an automatic, plastic smile. Instead, put your face in a relaxed but firm position. Mainstream American culture teaches women to smile much more often than men do. If this is a habit with you, notice how often you smile and whether it seems plastic. If you find you smile most of the time when you speak with others, make a conscious effort to smile less often.
Develop a firm but kind facial expression. To find out how to hold your face in an assertive manner, practice in front of a mirror. Smile as broadly as you can, and hold this pose. Feel the tightness in your face as you hold your smile muscles. Look at the lines in your cheeks and around your eyes.
Now relax your face by releasing the tightness in the muscles of your smile. Continue to relax your face until your jaw is resting and your mouth is open slightly. Then tighten up your face somewhat so that you look firm when you see yourself in the mirror. Look yourself straight in the eyes, and make some assertive statements about what you want.
You may want to practice this exercise a few times a day for a few days until you’re comfortable with the facial expressions of assertiveness.