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Are you unintentionally aggressive?

|||  —  21/02/24

What do you think of when I say ‘aggressive communication’?

I’m guessing you jump straight to the stereotypical image of a person who yells, bullies, threatens, and intimidates others with the aim of getting their own way.

But while this is the version of aggressive communication most people picture, there’s a lot more to it than that.

Aggressive communication can take a much subtler form and you might be guilty of it without even realising.

You may be unintentionally aggressive.

You don’t have to be a nasty person to be an aggressive communicator. While you may be a ‘yeller’, you don’t have to be. Not at all.

You might be nice. You might speak with a smile and a level voice, and be totally unaware you’re perceived by others as crossing the line into aggressive communication.

You might consider yourself strong and direct, but others view you as blunt, pigheaded and harsh. You may lack the self-awareness to realise that.

What is aggressive communication?

So if it’s not just about yelling and bullying, what is aggressive communication?

At its heart, aggressive communication is about winning at the expense of others. You win and get your way and the other person loses.

The need to win may not be something you’re consciously aware of. The fact you didn’t take another person and their rights, opinions and beliefs into account may not have even registered.

Signs you may be communicating aggressively include if you:

  • disregard and disrespect the feelings and opinions of others (intentionally or unintentionally).

  • need to be right.

  • like to have the last word in an argument.

  • see things in black and white – you’re right, other people are wrong.

  • make it all about you.

  • frequently interrupt and talk over the top of others.

  • don’t listen to other people, or listen to respond rather than to hear.

  • act defensively and blame others for mistakes, problems, or failures, rather than taking personal responsibility.

  • seek out confrontation (even when it’s unnecessary).

  • are blunt (rather than direct), have no filter, and are inappropriately honest.

  • have unrealistic expectations of others.

  • are highly critical and often express this.

  • focus on negatives and problems, rather than solutions and opportunities.

  • don’t care what others think of your communication style and take a ‘bad luck, this is the way I am, like it or lump it’ approach.

  • yell, threaten, bully and/or intimidate.

We all do it.

If you do any or many of the above, don’t despair – we all do some of them at times and it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person. It’s just your communication style that needs work.

I’m guilty of it, just like everyone else. While I consider myself assertive, sometimes I yell at home when I’m stressed or frustrated with the kids (no-one can push your buttons like your kids can), and I have been known to interrupt or speak over the top of others when I’m excited or passionate about an issue. It’s not intentional and it’s certainly not malicious, but at times it happens.

And you know what? It’s not the end of the world. I’m aware of it and I work on it. The great thing is, communication is a skill we can always improve and develop.

So why do so many people fall into aggressive communication – either deliberately or accidentally? The answer is simple: It feels powerful, seems effective and often gets results.

The problem is, aggressive communication is a short-term solution that comes at a cost.

The problem with aggressive:

People act out of fear and obligation.

When you communicate aggressively, people may do what you want, but they do so out of fear and obligation. They do it because they have to, not because they want to. This may work for a while, but the minute you need help that’s a bit above and beyond, there will be no-one around. All you’ll hear are crickets chirping as you lose people’s discretionary effort.

People won’t respect you.

A common catch-cry from aggressive communicators, particularly in the workplace, is: “It doesn’t matter whether people like me, as long as I get results.”

To an extent this is true. But while it might not matter if people don’t like you, it certainly does if they don’t respect you.

If you make people feel worthless, or use power, position, privilege, or intimidation to get your way, they won’t respect you and they won’t want to help you. You won’t get the best out of people if you don’t have their respect – be that colleagues, family or friends. This not only impacts them, it impacts you and your success too.

You will make mistakes.

If the only opinion or point of view you listen to is your own, you will make mistakes. There will be something you haven’t considered, or a blind spot you’re not aware of. Eventually you’ll miss something. It may only be something minor, or it may be major; something that could have been avoided if only you’d listened and sought input and feedback.

Your behaviour distracts and detracts from your message.

We’ve all been there. Either on the giving or receiving end. When we (or someone else) have totally lost our cool and regardless of how legitimate our message is, the focus becomes on our behaviour instead. It becomes about the yelling and the anger, rather than what is being said.

Instead of listening, people tell you to calm down (like that ever works!) and what you’re saying becomes irrelevant compared to how you’re saying it. Your communication becomes totally ineffective.

Aggressive communication does have a place.

All that said, aggressive communication does have its place. There are times when it’s entirely appropriate.

If your rights or safety are threatened, you need someone to stop or take action immediately, or someone is about to get hurt, then aggressive is often the right response in the moment.

If your child is about to run out in front of a car, you’re not going to use that moment to discuss road safety, or calmly tell them to step back onto the kerb. No! You’re going to shout STOP, then reef them back by their arm or collar.

The same goes if you’re being physically attacked. Aggression – be it yelling, kicking or fighting – is absolutely allowed.

Awareness is key.

The key is self-awareness and communicating with intention. You need to be aware of the way you communicate, the choices you make, the impact it has on others, and the way it influences people’s perceptions of you.

You need to understand that communicating aggressively, while it does occasionally have its place, may be holding you back and limiting your personal and/or career success.

You need to acknowledge your weaknesses and the bad habits you fall into, in order to work on them and improve.

Communicating aggressively is not a strength, it’s a weakness. Assertiveness is a much more effective style to aim for.

Of course you won’t get it right all the time, but you can sure try.

Leah Mether is a communication and soft skills trainer obsessed with making the people part of leadership and work life easier.

With more than 15 years’ experience working with thousands of clients, and an acclaimed book to her name, Leah knows what it takes to communicate under pressure. Like you, she knows the challenge of conflict, personality clashes, and difficult conversations.

Leah is renowned for her practical, engaging, straight-shooting style. Utilising her Five Cs® model of communication, she helps leaders and teams shift from knowing to doing, and radically improve their effectiveness.

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