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Oops, I Did it Again: Recovering After You Cross the Line from Assertive to Aggressive


Oops, I Did it Again: Recovering After You Cross the Line from Assertive to Aggressive
Oops, I Did it Again: Recovering After You Cross the Line from Assertive to Aggressive

We've all experienced moments when our behavior, actions, or tone of voice unintentionally hurt or offended others. Maybe you sent an email without editing your “inside voice commentary,” chose to exclude a coworker from a meeting invite, or just used a tone with your partner that was less than pleasant. Regardless of the specific behavior, knowing that you've made someone feel bad is never a great realization. It’s important to have the tools to navigate these types of situations when they arise so that you can learn how to recover quickly and “clean up” the issue so that it won’t haunt your future interactions with the person involved.


Own It

First, acknowledge that you have been disrespectful and created problems, with or without knowing it. Take some time to reflect on interactions with others and record the moments where your behavior wasn't as respectful as it could have been. Once you've identified situations where your behavior was not effective — or worse, was bad — take ownership. Catalog your commonly-used assertive behaviors, and then, without judgment, acknowledge what your more direct, aggressive behaviors look and sound like. Get clear about your triggers (people, situations, memories, issues, etc.) that make you insecure or push your “Hot” buttons. Also, note who you tend to be your best vs. your worst with. Ask a trusted friend or colleague for feedback, too. This might not be easy to hear, but it's better than continuing to “drive blind.” Don't beat yourself up. Knowing what you do and taking full responsibility is a sign of maturity and effectiveness.


Get to Know It

By examining and admitting how you come across to others, you can learn to avoid inadvertently causing harm. Assertiveness and aggressiveness are two distinct ways of expressing yourself and are often confused.

  • Assertiveness is the ability to communicate your needs and desires clearly and directly while respecting the needs and desires of others.

  • Aggressiveness involves forcing your own needs and desires onto others without regard for their feelings or opinions. It can include personal attacks, belittling language, or physical threats. When angry, it can be easy to slip into aggressiveness without realizing it. The signs that you have crossed into aggressive and potentially toxic behavior may include a hot feeling in your neck and face, a clenched jaw, raised voice, clenched fists, raised shoulders, shallow or rapid breathing, or leaning toward the other person.

If you are like other people I coach, you may believe that your behavior is justified or necessary, while others may perceive it as too aggressive or disrespectful. The goal is not to always please everyone, but to understand how your behavior is experienced and perceived by others and to adjust accordingly to ensure you get the outcomes you want. Do you want to feel like you have to muscle your way in, or would you rather be able to express yourself freely and have others be willing to hear you? Unwinding misunderstandings, style clashes, and unintended offenses cost you a lot of time and a lot of social capital, and you probably have a busy life with no time to waste.


Mind Your Tone

Another strategy for navigating unintentional disrespect or slipping into aggression is to monitor your tone of voice and how it comes across to others. If you grew up in a home where yelling was normal, you may raise your voice without being aware of it. It's easy to get frustrated or annoyed, but it's important to remember to keep your tone as neutral as possible. Take a deep breath before responding, and learn what it sounds like when you speak in a calm, measured tone. This can be especially important when dealing with sensitive topics or difficult conversations.


Say the Words: I’m Sorry

Don’t underestimate the power of a genuine apology. Many people minimize and skip the simple, yet critical, step of apologizing to the individual(s) affected by your bad choices. Ask how you can make things right. This can be done in the moment or you could follow up with the person later. By acknowledging your faulty approach and making amends, you show that you value the other person and their feelings.


To recover from difficult or strained interactions with others, it’s important to accept responsibility for our actions and be willing to take steps to remedy the hurt feelings. This is especially true if someone puts a lot of trust in you or has an emotional connection. Your focus on making amends will mean all the difference in how the recipient perceives you and the incident, creating more trust, influence, and connection.


The AVVI Collective Membership offers free resources, tools, and events for you to develop and heal yourself. Our signature "Deep Work Fast" means everything we do is designed to help you have the work, relationships, and life you will love.

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