Having ‘authority’ is one of the many rewards of female leadership. Developing strategy, making decisions independently and expressing impactful opinions are all rooted in a sense that you know what you are doing, and you have the right to determine how things will be done.
However, having more authority means that you could become a target for anger, grievances, and frustrations of those who depend on you to lead them. Sentiments expressed through insults, bullying and threats are all forms of aggression. While aggression can range from unpleasant to outright toxic, cultivating a resilient leadership presence means not wallowing in thoughts about how badly you were treated. Instead, keep your eyes on the road that leads to the outcome you want, while protecting yourself from getting dragged into a gully by the bad behavior of others. An unflappable response to diverse forms of verbal and emotional aggression is a leadership skill that will help you to keep your balance when the terrain gets rocky.
Like many women, I was raised to avoid conflict. So, although it was rare, when confronted with anger or bullying, my usual cool would instantly vanish and I would wilt into a shaky, tongue-tied wimp, with no resources to push back on whatever insults or accusations were being hurled at me. In the aftermath I was often overcome with a feeling of shame about my total helplessness in standing up for myself.
Over time I discovered some strategies for pivoting away from this depowering response. There are some very effective techniques for de-escalating combative interactions such as ‘Crucial Conversations’ by Patterson, Grenny et al. and ‘Non-Violent Communication’ developed by Marshal Rosenberg. Psychologist Liane Davey advocates for productive conflict in her book, ‘The Good Fight’. I would recommend checking out these frameworks for moving from anger and frustration to constructive dialogue.
But to address the question ‘How can I empower myself when faced with aggression?’ I have discovered some mindset shifts which can be helpful before or during conversations, or anytime you are feeling stressed and insecure about your ability to manage a combative situation.
Put on your imaginary bulletproof vest. Drawing on the body-mind connection, this simple practice provides a sensation of stability when you are feeling exposed and vulnerable. Just as law enforcement or journalists don this extra protection before entering dangerous situations, imagining that I am wearing a bulletproof vest has helped me to create my own safety bubble whenever I feel stressed or overwhelmed by antagonistic or undermining behavior of others. Besides literally changing my posture and gait, this physical sense of protection, especially around my heart, gives me an ability to take a step back from the drama and think clearly about the facts of the situation. When needed, my imaginary bulletproof vest helps me to be confident that I can handle adversity and choose my response in line with my own moral compass.
Maintain control of your attention and energy. Besides face-to-face encounters, aggression also travels through digital channels such as email and text message, sometimes multiple times per day. While you cannot control the sender of the messages, it is you who is in charge of your attention and energy. This means you can decide when (and if) you will read messages, and when, how (and if) you will respond. While context, relationship and topic will influence how you handle cases of antagonistic behavior, here are some things to be mindful of when considering how to react:
Be in your best mood ever. When bracing yourself for a contentious conversation, it would seem counter intuitive to breeze in with your sunniest disposition. I was recently preparing for a meeting where high stakes outcomes were going to be decided. I knew from experience to expect personal attacks, undermining behavior, and an overall tense atmosphere. Up until 5 minutes before the meeting, my mood was somber, anxious, and insecure. And then suddenly I had a crazy thought: ‘I’m going to be in the best mood ever!’ And what happened? Those who were ready to attack seemed completely disarmed by my positive mood. And the atmosphere lightened up for everyone, as we swiftly addressed and resolved the issues of the day.I am not suggesting showing up at meetings with a ‘fake’ attitude of joy. This is about connecting with another part of yourself. In those last 5 minutes I shifted from my serious, worried and stressed side to the part of me that was proud that I had used my best thinking to prepare for the meeting, was happy to meet all of my colleagues again and was optimistic that we would reach a good outcome. Recognize that you have a choice. And see what happens when you show up in ‘your best mood ever.’
If any of these ideas for dealing with aggression resonate with you, I would love to hear about your experiences of trying them out!
Lisa Ross-Marcus, founder of In-Coaching, is an executive life coach and a intercultural trainer.