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Practical Tips for Dealing with Aggressive and Passive People

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You are assertive and the people around you are aggressive or passive. Yes, you can deal with them while remaining stress free, and keeping your cool.

TIP: People experience different levels of assertiveness, passivity, and even aggression during different circumstances and times in their lives. 

6 Tips on Dealing with Aggressive People

You can call upon your own personal resources and upon organizational resources in dealing the aggressive people. Staying calm is essential; if you need to, step back and take a few deep breaths to regain your self-control. Responses include:

  • Stressing respect for and between team members, including by and for yourself, and setting clear guidelines. Setting the rules beforehand lets you refer to them when an explosion is happening: “We all agreed we would talk to each other respectfully.”
  • Listening, giving the person time to vent, without responding with either fear or hostility. You can say, “I understand that you are very upset and I’m sorry you feel like this.” Recognize that aggressive behavior may have an immediate cause-and-effect that can best be handled if you take the time to listen before responding. Indeed, as they talk, the aggressive person may themselves recognize the inappropriateness of their response.
  • Providing space and time for the person to calm down. You can say, “We’ll pick this up when you are calmer.” If you point to a specific behavior—“you are talking loudly” or “you  are standing very close to me”—you may be able to prompt the person to examine their behavior. Sometimes aggressive people do not realize that others experience their behavior as aggressive.
  • Meeting privately with the aggressive person to discuss the impact of aggressive behavior, possible causes, and ways to mitigate it. Your goal is to promote self-awareness and also offer support, including SMaRT tactics you have learned for anger management.
  • Checking regularlyto make sure the aggressive behavior is decreasing and to support the aggressor in efforts to control the behavior. Coach the individual and recommend that they seek help if needed.
  • Involving Human Resources, which is particularly important with physical aggression and sexual aggression. In addition, some aggressive people do not want to change and may have personal issues that prevent them from changing; you can control your reaction to their choice but not the choice itself. At that point, aggressive behavior becomes an HR issue.

TIP: Depending on the makeup of a team, a person can be seen as aggressive merely because the person speaks up often, is confident, and is willing to defend a point of view. 

5 Tips for Dealing with Passive People

Passive people may need more support than aggressive people and may be even less likely to change if they define passivity as being polite and caring. Passivity becomes a problem when it is marked by a lack of boundaries and self-esteem, an assumption of responsibility for everything and everyone, and a refusal to express any opinion ever. It prevents other people from growing into their roles, causes conflicts over responsibilities and priorities, and frustrates those who are trying to get clear direction. Responses to passive people should include:

  • Refraining from assuming “passive” means “passive aggressive.” Some people are just quieter and more withdrawn. Passive people who are not harboring hidden resentments are merely happier to follow than to lead and willing to go along with the group.
  • Communicating one-on-one rather than in a group. While passive people should certainly not be excluded from meetings, they may be more likely to offer their opinion privately. Passive people may talk too softly and need a reminder to speak up, even in one-on-one situations. They also may qualify their preferences with “if you don’t mind” or “I’m not sure but….” Those expressions make the passive person appear much less certain than they are. If you need the passive person to speak up more, be direct and specific: “I would like to hear what you think about making this our highest priority. What is your experience with this issue?”
  • Paying attention to body language. Individuals who are passive in speech may be quite revealing in body language. Encourage communication. You might say, “You look unhappy with this decision. Do you want to explain why it might be the wrong decision?”
  • Offering opportunities for leadership, which may help to develop assertiveness and may also provide a learning experience for the team when a person they consider passive thrives in a new role. However, for passive people, leadership may be too stressful. First, it might be wise to give the passive person opportunities to learn to say “no” and express their preferences and thoughts without self-deprecating qualifications that may be confusing to others. Delegation is one way to build up the passive person’s confidence and assertiveness.
  • Checking regularly to make sure the passive person is coping and to support efforts to speak up or to demonstrate leadership.

TIP: A passive person may keep a highly competitive group calmer and more focused. Passive people can become the ideal followers that every leader hopes for.

Maintaining Your Assertiveness

Among the benefits of assertiveness at work are; better communication, better decisions (since more options are offered), and more job satisfaction (as few people actually enjoy being ignored or shouted at). To foster assertiveness in yourself and your team:

  • Keep in mind that any outside assessment can be deceiving. Aggressive people may consider themselves assertive; passive people may consider themselves merely polite.
  • Encourage “I” statements rather than demands. Consider the difference between “you need to focus” and “I would appreciate your full attention on this.”
  • Support the positive “no,” which is essential for prioritization. Every team member has the right to say, “I cannot do that now but will get to it later.”
  • Support the definite “no” when you can. Learn to distinguish between boundary setting and stonewalling.
  • De-escalate emotional discussion, especially during crisis management or conflict.
  • Gather and provide information about roles, goals, and mission. Unclear goals and roles stoke aggressive and passive behaviors as people argue about their responsibilities or withdraw entirely.

Key Takeaways

An assertive leader encourages team members to practice being assertive, rather than aggressive or passive. The assertive leader demonstrates to aggressive members that points can be “won” without raising voices and to passive people that speaking up is safe and encouraged.

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