You probably think of aggression in its most violent form i.e. shouting matches and fights. Aggression actually refers to anytime that you try to get your own way without any regard for others. There are varying levels of aggression. Sometimes, it may be easy to spot aggression but quite often it is more subtle, manipulative and exploitative. When dealing with somebody who is being aggressive, the first step is to be able to recognise the aggression. The ability to recognise aggression is also essential from your own standpoint. There will be times, during discussion, when you become overheated and start to display signs of aggression. If you recognize this behavior early, you can calm yourself down and adopt a more assertive approach before any real harm is done.
12 Signs of aggression
The following are common signs of aggresssion. Not all of these signs will be displayed by each aggressive individual but familiarizing yourself with these signs will allow you to recognize the aggression quickly, and adjust your behavior accordingly.
1. It’s all about what they want or need
Aggressive people focus on themselves. Their wants and needs are all that matter and others do not get a look in. You will hear phrases such as:
- ‘I want …’
- ‘I need …’
- ‘I must have …’
2. It’s all about how it affects them
When something goes wrong, or when considering potential consequences, aggressive people only consider how it impacts upon them. The impact on others is irrelevant to them. As if that’s not bad enough, if something has negative consequences for them, everybody else is expected to suffer the consequences too e.g. I once knew a girl who, every time she had a row with her boyfriend, used to wake her entire family up so she could tell them how she had been unjustly treated.
It may seem like an extreme example but aggressive people will often attempt to turn their problem into everybody’s problem.
3. Unwillingness to accept responsibility
Aggressive people rarely accept responsibility for the consequences they experience. There is usually someone else to be blamed. Assertive people look at a situation and attempt to identify areas where they can take responsibility and implement effective solutions. Aggressive people just look for ways to blame others so that they do not have to take any responsibility. Examples might include:
- ‘I insulted John because he made me angry.’
- ‘I was late because traffic was terrible’ (ignoring the fact that traffic is always terrible and he didn’t leave until the last minute)
- ‘I asked John to do that for me. He’s clearly not up to the job.’
Occasionally, it may be appropriate to highlight how mistakes made by others contributed to a problem but you will find that aggressive people turn blaming others into an art form. They see admission of responsibility as a weakness so they go on the defensive.
4. They believe their opinion is fact
For assertive communication to take place, it is important to be able to differentiate between opinion and facts. You may offer a suggestion or thoughts on something which has happened. In most circumstances, this should be fine. Aggressive people take it one step further. They assert their opinion as fact which is telling others that their opinions are irrelevant e.g.
- ‘This is what went wrong …’
- ‘This is what we have to do …’
- ‘That won’t work …’
- ‘That is/was stupid …’
5. Aggressive enquiries
When making inquiries or requests of others, it is best to approach them with an openness which invites them to offer their view. Aggressive people use their aggressive behavior to close off that avenue before the other person gets a chance to respond. Aggressive questions are usually short, to the point and asked with a strong tone of voice e.g.
- ‘What do you think you are doing?’
- ‘Why did you do that?’
Some of these aggressive questions can be difficult to recognise. If asked in the middle of a conversation, they may be useful questions. However, if asked at the beginning of the conversation, their purpose is to control the conversation and prevent the other person from offering their view.
Aggressive demands occur when every opportunity is made to prevent the other person from declining the request. This is often done via threats e.g.
- ‘If you do not do this …’
- ‘You need to do this or …’
You also need to beware of the people who are a little more subtle with their demands e.g. those who appear to ask a favor but walk away before you respond. These people are not giving you the opportunity to decline. This is a more subtle form of aggression.
Some aggressive people resort to undermining others to make them self look better by comparison. There are many ways to undermine but they usually involve either putting the other person into a difficult position in order to highlight a weakness or ridicule them; or, they often use subtle tactics to suggest that the person is not up to the job. Their aim is to erode other people’s confidence in the individual they are undermining. If they can erode that person’s confidence in themselves, they may see that as a bonus. Some examples of undermining behavior include:
- Pulling out of a presentation/meeting at the last minute and leaving the other person to deliver it unprepared.
- Rather than ask a subordinate if they have completed their work, the manager emails all of the people they carry out work for to ask if the work has been completed.
- Asking others to perform tasks for which they are not suitable and failing to provide the necessary support.
8. Manipulative advice giving
In reality, this is not advice giving. This is telling people what to do and attempting to disguise it as advice. The recipient is not expected to disagree or voice an opinion. They are expected to follow the “advice” and be grateful for it. Examples include:
- ‘If I were you …’
- ‘The best thing for you to do would be …’
9. Rapid speech
Aggressive people speak fast with little or no pauses. They are determined to get their point across and have no desire to let the other person offer their input. They want total control of the conversation and are determined that the other person will hear what they have to say.
10. Loud voice with emphasised blame
Aggressive people are determined to be heard. They wish to send a clear signal to others that they are speaking and they will not be talked over or talked down. Although already loud, they tend to place extra emphasis on the parts of their speech where they place the blame on others.
11. Aggressive talking; defensive listening
This refers to the body language that they adopt during their bout of aggression. When talking they will likely lean forward. They may point, remonstrate, gesticulate etc. However, when the other person is speaking they will adopt a more defensive posture e.g. crossing their arms.
12. Intense eye contact
If you cannot work out whether someone is staring at you, or staring through you, you are looking at someone who is full of aggression. At that moment in time, they believe that you are the source of all of their problems. They are in fight mode, and in fight mode you don’t take your eyes off of your opponent.
The best way to overcome aggression, whether it is you or somebody else who is the aggressor, is to learn to communicate effectively.
Communication and interpersonal relationships work best when both parties come together from a position of respect and attempt to find workable solutions which meet the needs of both parties. While it is not always possible to meet the needs of both parties, starting off seeking mutual benefit makes it easier to achieve an acceptable compromise. Aggression ignores this approach. Aggression occurs when one party has no regard for the other. They are only concerned with having their own needs met and have little concern for how that might affect others. Aggression is a source of unnecessary conflict and causes lasting damage to relationships. Being familiar with the signs of aggressive behavior will help you to recognize when you, or someone whom you are in discussion with, is being aggressive. You will then be able to adjust your behavior to manage the situation more appropriately and to prevent unnecessary conflict.