Are you a conflict aggressor? Not sure? Let me tell you about one. Once, for about six months, I worked for a very relational leader. She was smart and experienced and I was excited to learn from her. One day, a colleague and I went to lunch and when we returned to the office, she was standing there with her arms crossed. She angrily ushered us into the conference room and began shouting that we were being “written up.” Why? Because we were NOT allowed to go to lunch at the same time EVER again. Why? Because she didn’t want people talking behind her back.

We were both shocked since we hadn’t even been talking about her, this apparent rule had never been mentioned and we were honestly hurt that she was yelling at two women in their mid-twenties, especially when, just hours before, she had been completely friendly.

The more shocking part was that five minutes later, after we had both walked to our desks, heads down, feeling confused, she came around showing us photos of her dog. What I realized was that she really didn’t understand how that interaction affected us.

These behaviors continued. Within several months, everyone resigned, self included. I was fortunate to interview for a new job that was a big step up, kicking off the next several years where I worked for a deeply emotionally intelligent and consistent leader – a woman I still reach out to for advice.

But you know the one thing I regret? I was too afraid to talk to my previous supervisor about the impact she had on me. With 20 more years of experience under my belt now, I realize that sometimes a person who is experienced as a bully by others has no idea how they are impacting others.

After years of being mentored by smart, patient people, I am comfortable engaging in conflict. I can handle disagreement and pushback, and I don’t mind sparring a bit to get to the best solution. But what is a lively conversation to one person can be uncomfortable or even threatening to another. I can handle two situations exactly the same way, but one person can perceive me as reasonable and solutions-focused, yet with another person I can come across as aggressive or disrespectful. We cannot always control how others will experience us, but we can keep learning and growing, especially if we pay attention to the times where we fall short to figure out where we went off course.

Understanding Aggressive Conflict Resolution:

Many conflict aggressors don’t realize they are being perceived as aggressors. So, the first step really is identifying yourself as such. Do you tend to challenge others’ point of view? Do you feel compelled to voice disagreement? Have people described you as opinionated? If so, you might be a conflict aggressor.

Conflict aggressors may be (I would argue that they OFTEN are) coming from a good place, their aggression being in defense of others or due to a situation they see as morally wrong or simply because they feel passionately about the matter at hand. While they may not even feel aggressive, the important thing for them to understand is that they are perceived as aggressive because of forceful tone or words, body language, dominating the conversation, or seemingly disregarding others’ perspectives. While their intentions may be to address issues quickly and directly, their approach can create an intimidating and unproductive environment.

It’s a classic case of “intent versus impact.” Maybe your intent is to solve a problem, but your impact is that the person you are talking to feels shut down or disrespected. This can be confusing and frustrating. Perhaps you’ve heard yourself say “But I’m just being honest!” Fear not; it is possible to help channel that confidence in effective ways and mitigate the typical negative impacts. Read on.

Let’s consider how we affect others when they experience us as aggressive.

Potential Negative Impacts of Perceived Aggressive Behavior:

Damaged Relationships: Behavior that is perceived as aggressive erodes trust and creates a hostile environment, negatively affecting relationships.

Stifled Innovation: When people feel intimidated or silenced, they won’t share valuable ideas, hindering creativity and innovation.

Stalled Growth: People perceived as conflict aggressors may be passed over for promotions or even terminated due to causing others discomfort.

Polarization: Organizationally, over time, we sometimes see people gravitating toward or away from conflict aggressors especially if they are leaders. The people who trust them and appreciate their direct style have one camp and those who feel bullied by them have another. Gossip and manipulation can get out of hand in this kind of environment.

So what can we do to avoid these negative impacts while also engaging in healthy conflict to solve a problem or address an issue?

Conflict Aggressors Can Transform into Constructive Resolvers:

Self-Awareness: Recognize your comfort level with direct communication and that others may be different. It doesn’t make your comfort level wrong, or their comfort level wrong. Simply recognising the difference may help you tune in to how the other person is feeling.

Empathy and Perspective-shifting: Develop the ability to understand and appreciate others’ perspectives, emotions, and concerns. Empathy helps you approach conflicts with a more considerate and understanding attitude.

Body Language: Much of how someone perceives us is based on things like our posture, facial expression and stance. One tip is to be aware of what you are doing with your face; try to maintain a pleasant or neutral expression. Avoid things like sighing, crossing your arms, or rolling your eyes. Sit level or even a bit below the person you are talking to. Do not stand over them if they are sitting.

Believe the Best: Refrain from entertaining assumptions and making inferences about their motivations or their feelings. Choose to give the other person the benefit of the doubt instead of making negative assumptions and inferences like “I know she wants this initiative to fail” or “He just doesn’t want to do any extra work.” Rather than assuming, allow yourself to become curious and find out more.

Active Listening: Practice active listening by allowing others to express themselves without interruption. Listen, and then say “I want to make sure I am understanding…” and then briefly recap what they said, to have them confirm that you heard accurately. This one step can change everything. Ensuring that the other person feels heard can dramatically lower levels of stress, discomfort and frustration.

Emotional Regulation: Learn to manage your emotions during conflicts. Take a moment to pause before responding, if the conversation intensifies, allowing for a calmer and more measured approach. Pay attention to your volume and tone, speaking at a normal level and avoiding speaking too quickly or at too high of a pitch. If you identify that you are upset, consider taking a break or rescheduling the conversation.

Ask Questions: Shift criticism to curiosity whenever possible. (Ted Lasso would approve.) When you feel tempted to criticize, try to frame it as a question. Instead of “That’s too expensive so we can’t do it.” Try “How do you think this would impact the budget?”

Seek Common Ground: Instead of seeking victory or dominance, focus on finding common ground and viable solutions. Collaborative problem-solving can lead to more sustainable resolutions. Seeking and finding common ground can help strengthen a relationship and build trust.

Continuous Learning and Feedback: Seek feedback from colleagues and superiors about your conflict resolution style. Actively learn from their insights and refine your approach to become a better resolver. Walk them through a recent difficult conversation and ask them what you could have done better.

Perhaps most importantly, the goal is not to “win.” Rather, the goal is to create conditions under which you can have open and honest conversations to address issues and find effective solutions while keeping relationships healthy.

All of that being said, conflict aggressors do well to grow in self-awareness and willingness to adjust their conflict style – but there are some people and some environments that are just not ready for healthy conflict. In these cases where you have young, immature or highly sensitive individuals and no agreed-upon framework for how to resolve issues, it may be impossible to have effective, direct conversations. Some people are so inexperienced or so damaged from past unhealthy conflict that anything besides “You are perfect and everything is great” may be experienced as rude, unkind or even abusive.

These individuals can be dangerous, often presenting as victims, but what is really difficult is when you have an equally unhealthy, inexperienced leader who entertains the complaints of those who simply cannot handle direct conversations. If you don’t use a light touch in these environments, you’ll continually be dragged into meetings where your direct style is framed as “harsh” or even “toxic” (a vague word that I have found is used to describe non-specific behaviors that we simply don’t like).

Sometimes an environment is so conflict averse that a direct person will not be able to thrive because they will always be seen as the aggressor, even if they are employing healthy approaches. Sometimes even the most reasonable person can be experienced as a bully if the environment does not have a healthy conflict culture. If the leadership of an organization does not have the capability to engage in healthy conflict, demonstrate it and encourage it, anyone who does do that may be seen as a bully no matter how much they adapt. In cases such as this, as one wise leader once said to me while offering me a job, “Sounds like it’s time to leave the kids’ table and sit at the grown up table with us.” Put another way, it’s time to find an organization that is led by people who have learned the art of healthy conflict.