Whether you experience someone purposely or otherwise causing conflict or upsetting you, keep calm and carry on unfazed.
Handling an aggressive colleague can be both emotionally and physically exhausting which is ultimately counterproductive. When confronted with a potentially explosive situation it is useful to be reminded of a few simple tools which can empower you to deflect such scenarios. Learning to be assertive is a good first step towards managing aggressive behavior.
An aggressive colleague often fails to consider the views or feeling of other people and rarely shows praise or appreciation of others. So, is it time to assert yourself? Assertiveness is a quality worth cultivating as Professor of Human Behavior Melody Wilding explains, it is the “happy medium between the two extremes of aggressive and passive… this calm-yet-effective, agreeable- yet-firm temperament seems superhuman.” Tempting as it can be to fight back in retaliation, the best course of action is to take the emotion out of the situation and keep the conversation business related. “Aggression only moves in one direction – it creates more aggression” (Margaret J. Wheatley). You undoubtedly need thick skin to deflect an aggressive co-worker, but bear in mind that antagonistic behavior can be incredibly disruptive to the work environment. Maintaining composure and a positive attitude will keep you on the path to attaining your goals and career success. Assertiveness is a mode of communication that can be learned.
What strategies can you employ to deflect an aggressive colleague?
Take a Deep Breath
Try not to lose your cool or control of the situation. Maintain your composure. Don’t react by saying something you might later regret. If you become upset or angry take a moment to breath and work out a better way of communicating with the person. Staying calm elicits a powerful presence and is effective for diffusing unpleasant personal comments. Don’t engage in a game of tit for tat.
Showing the person you are listening objectively can be enough to deflect harsh feelings they may have toward you. Look them in the eyes. Often merely listening intently is enough to win over the confidence of the person venting their frustrations. Asking questions will show them you are listening, such as “I’m not sure I understand, are you saying…”, and will diffuse the atmosphere leading eventually to resolution.
Strive to be Assertive
Stand your ground and express yourself firmly, honestly and respectfully. Keep your voice low and choose your words carefully. Avoid using words such as “you” or “your” and use “I, we, our”, so they won’t feel under attack. Bring that person’s behavior out into the open, it will force them to address it and give you back control of the situation. If you are close with this person say something such as “wouldn’t this work much better if neither of us attacked each other?” or in a more formal situation “It seems there is quite a hostile atmosphere in the room, how do you feel?” Be assertive – respond in a way that respects the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people.
Put Yourself in Their Shoes
We all have our bad days; empathy goes a long way to diffuse a difficult situation. Try to understand the person behind the aggression, it might show you a way to handle them. For example if you know the person to be a pessimist, when working for them be sure to point out all the potential pitfalls of a project to avert a disagreeable response.
Laughter is Often the Best Medicine
Preston Ni, author of “How to communicate effectively and handle difficult people” noted that an appropriate dose of humor can “shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behavior, and show that you have superior composure.” A note of caution here – humor can also be used aggressively.
Remember you can’t change an aggressive colleague; you will not win or please them. If possible keep some distance from them unless it is critical for your work. Use the experience as an opportunity to better yourself specifically your interpersonal skills. Noticing someone who is unduly verbally aggressive gives you the opportunity to reflect on your own behavior. For example “Why do I try so hard to make them happy?” or “Do I act in an aggressive manner too?” Learning to respond assertively to belligerent behavior will serve you well in all your relationships.
If you find it distressing to be spoken to in an aggressive manner and it leaves you wondering what you did to deserve it, you are not alone. Think about sharing your concerns with an ally to work out a way you can constructively improve the relationship.
Start practicing using some of the tools above to deflect aggressive behavior – if you master smoother interpersonal exchanges with even the most challenging of individuals you will have more energy for attaining your goals.