Dealing With Difficult People Part 4: Conquering Aggressive Behaviour
When we talk about aggressive behaviours, there are two types. The first is direct aggression. You are usually on the receiving end of curt, angry or blunt communication. The second type is passive aggression. Although you might be the target of somebody’s aggression, it’s never aimed at you.
Here are some common aggressive behavioural patterns:
- Forceful, angry, hostile communication addressed to you.
- You feel attacked by this person, intimidated or scared by their manner.
- They may be insulting, violent or threatening.
- They may attempt to dominate you by talking over you, interrupting you, telling you off, taking action without your consent.
- Often, they interrogate you, especially when something has gone wrong.
- You feel unable to make a decision for fear that it will be criticised.
In the workplace, your manager or a co-worker my tell you what to do, demand that you act in a certain way, not allow you to speak your mind or bully you into submission. It could just be a loud, forceful way of speaking or it could be calmly communicated. The effect of this is that you subordinate your needs so that theirs are satisfied. Usually, this affects your self-esteem and confidence and you may feel disrespected or humiliated.
This is not to be confused with assertive communication. That may entail expressing feelings of anger, disappointment or other similar emotions. However, it is done with respect for your needs and does not seek to undermine you.
What to do about it
Firstly, ask yourself the questions in my first post.
If you have decided that you can’t just walk away from the relationship, then you need to do something about the behaviour.
As a first step, get some distance from the aggressive behaviour. If you want to resolve conflict successfully, use distance to understand and exhaust the emotions that aggression can make you feel. I was recently sent an angry email which made me feel inferior, belittled and professionally inept. I already felt disappointed in myself for a minor error that caused somebody inconvenience and I felt that the sender of the email was being far too heavy handed in their criticism. However, taking a few days to think things through without being in the presence of the sender of that email, helped me to rationalise what I felt and to think clearly about what action I would and would not take.
If you are not in physical danger, then all this type of behaviour does is affect your emotions. That can feel utterly devastating but it does pass. Emotions change, morph, decrease, intensify and neutralise, just like every other type of energy. If you accept how you feel and have faith that all things change, this is where emotional resilience starts. Remember, you are not constrained by the reactions you have cultivated over a lifetime. You do have emotional options.
Changing your reaction to the behaviour
This is quite hard to do if the person is toxic. However, if the person’s behaviour is unskilled or infantile, you could decide that it’s you that needs to change the way you respond to it.
It’s always tempting to meet angry confrontation with an angry reaction. All this does is escalate the conflict. Since we are only human, don’t judge yourself if you do lose your temper. You might want to acknowledge how angry you feel, and which of your needs the other person has neglected. Do you feel disrespected? Have you been humiliated? What do you need from the other person and how would you prefer to respond to them if they act aggressively towards you?
Similarly, if you reacted in a passive aggressive way to their aggressive outburst, ask yourself the same questions.
Reacting differently may take the form of taking a deep breath and remaining silent until they have finished a tirade. That may be the best action to take if you feel scared or intimidated.
If you are being interrogated aggressively by a manager, tell them that you feel attacked. It could be appropriate to leave the room and get some distance for the parties to calm down.
What you are likely to observe during a mediation after an angry outburst, is a sense of shame. People often know when they have over-stepped the line or they feel ashamed or embarassed of their anger, especially if they realise that it was unjustified. At this point, they are more cooperative, repentant or willing to discuss a problem calmly. If you observe this in somebody, this is a good time to approach them and to attempt to resolve conflict.
Changing their behaviour
You could also confront the person about their difficult behaviour. Giving feedback should always be supported with evidence. For example, you could say something like, “when we were talking last week, I noticed that you were getting angry which made me feel attacked. You did this last week when you were unhappy about [whatever it was] and the previous week too. I would like instead, to have a constructive discussion with you the next time you feel unhappy so that I can understand exactly what you require from me.”
It’s easy to understand why it might be difficult to confront your manager. It’s even harder when you feel intimidated so consider whether it’s the right action to take.
Your reaction to their behaviour will influence it to change. If somebody has learnt that they can get their way by throwing a tantrum, do not reward them with what they want. They need to understand that this will not work. Ignore sulkiness and the silent treatment. In so doing, you indicate that this will not be effective in influencing your own behaviour. I have seen too many managers, colleagues, partners and friends give into tears, silence and shouting. It’s manipulative and immature.
What do you think about this? Do you have any ideas about this? Leave your comments and suggestions, I would love to read them!