When we think of aggression at work we picture someone shouting and throwing his weight around. This is an example of overt aggression: we can see it, hear it and feel it. But just as common is concealed aggression (also called passive aggressive behaviour), which is as manipulative, controlling and damaging to relationships as overt aggression. Here we look at both types of aggression and ways to handle these behaviours constructively.
Every time we communicate we make a choice, usually an unconscious one, about our behaviour. We choose to be:
- aggressive – to get our needs met, at the expense of others if necessary
- passive – to meet others’ needs, at the expense of our own if necessary
- assertive – to meet others’ needs and our own.
In the short term, aggression gets results; aggressive people make things happen. In the longer term, people avoid aggressive colleagues, keep their ideas to themselves, disengage and look for other jobs.
When a person slumps down in their chair, makes little eye contact, smiles sarcastically to themselves, rolls their eyes, tuts under their breath, drums their fingers on the table, sighs, shakes their head, uses sarcasm or is cynical about something, this is often concealed aggression.
It is a way of gaining attention and wielding power, and is a type of behaviour used widely in meetings. It can be difficult to tackle this type of aggression because when you ask, ‘What’s wrong?’ the response is likely to be, ‘Nothing’. By using this type of behaviour the person is showing their disapproval or disengagement, or using their power, subversively. Their behaviour can seriously undermine or sidetrack meetings and relationships, especially if the behaviour is allowed to continue.
The best way to tackle concealed aggression is to bring it out into the open or to ‘say what you see’, as Roy Walker used to say on Catchphrase. In other words, to say to the offender, ‘I get the feeling you don’t agree because you’re tutting’ or, ‘I get the sense that you’re unhappy with what I’ve said, because you rolled your eyes.’ Then add, ‘What do you think?’ or ‘What’s your opinion?’. By highlighting the negative behaviour and then asking an open question, you are forcing the person to respond. This will usually prompt them to sit up straight. It is much harder to use concealed aggression when you are sitting up straight!
A word of warning, however: you should always use tentative phrases such as, ‘I get the feeling that’ or, ‘I am sensing that’, rather than a definitive, ‘you clearly disagree’. You are more likely to get an overtly aggressive reaction if you confront the person directly. By being tentative you give them the opportunity to respond constructively and to rectify the situation. When they reply you can identify and deal with their concerns. You are now on a more level playing field.
So what about overt aggression? You can respond:
- aggressively – typically resulting in an escalation of aggression on both sides
- passively – in which case the other person is likely to be increasingly incensed by your low energy and inability to tackle the issue
- assertively – which will enable you to keep control of your emotions and let the other person see that you are actively looking to resolve the issue.
When dealing with aggression, think about your body language. The body and mind influence each other, so if your body is doing the right thing it is easier to stay assertive. If the other person is standing, then you stand too, and if they are sitting then sit down. You need to ensure that the interaction is on equal terms and that the other person does not feel advantaged or disadvantaged by how you stand or sit. If you are standing, ensure that your feet are hip width apart: if they are too close together you will look and feel vulnerable and defensive; if they are too far apart you may look and feel more aggressive. Make sure you maintain good eye contact but not so much that you stare and become confrontational.
When people are overtly aggressive there are two important things to remember:
- the feelings of the person – that something has upset them
- the facts of the issue – people want to be heard and understood.
You need to address both the feelings and facts if you want to deal effectively with aggression. It may be that you cannot resolve whatever the issue is, but if the person feels that they have been heard and understood you are more likely to get a positive outcome. By acknowledging emotions with ‘how frustrating for you’, ‘that must have been annoying’, ‘I can see how upset you are’, you are acknowledging that this is how the person feels.
You are not agreeing with them, you are just acknowledging that the issue has affected them. This helps to calm them down. When the feelings have been acknowledged you can move on to the facts. If you only deal with the facts and ignore the feelings, the person will take longer to calm down.
When dealing with the facts of the issue, ask lots of open questions (questions that require answers other than ‘yes’ or ‘no’) to ensure that you really understand. It is tempting to ask closed questions and then jump in with your response, which typically is a defensive one. Interrupt and the aggressive person feels unheard and ignored. So make sure that the person has the opportunity to state their case and that you listen to what they say. When you have ascertained the facts, summarise back to them so that they know you have really heard and understood their points. Then you can put things over from your side. You might start off by saying, for example, ‘From my understanding’ or, ‘How I see it’.
Protect yourself and your team
Some final advice:
- Never put yourself in a position that is physically dangerous. Make sure that your organisation has a policy that stipulates how and when to escalate issues.
- Take time out to relax if you have had a day filled with aggression – dealing with aggressive people can be exhausting, especially when they are your colleagues.
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