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“Some people try to be tall by cutting off the heads of others.”

— Paramhansa Yogananda

Most of us encounter aggressive, intimidating, or controlling personalities at some points in our lives. These individuals may exist in our personal sphere or professional environment. On the surface, they may come across as domineering, confrontational, demanding, hostile, or even abusive. However, with astute approach and intelligent communication, you may turn aggression into cooperation, and condescension into respect.

Below are seven keys to dealing with aggressive individuals, excerpted from my book (click on title): “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, & Controlling People.” Not all of these ideas may apply to your particular situation. Simply utilize what works and leave the rest.

1.    Keep Your Cool and Maintain Composure

"Breathing...corresponds to taking charge of one's own life."

― Luce Irigaray, philosopher

One of the most common characteristics about aggressive, intimidating, and controlling individuals is that they like to deliberately upset you in order to push your buttons, pull your strings, and keep you off balance. By doing so, they create an advantage over you, from which they can exploit your weakness.

The first rule of thumb in the face of a difficult person is to keep your cool. The less reactive you are to provocations, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the challenge. When you feel upset with or challenged by someone, before you say or do something you might later regret, take a deep breath and count slowly to ten. In many instances, by the time you reach ten, you would have regained composure, and figured out a better response to the issue, so that you can reduce, instead of exacerbate the problem. If you're still upset after counting to ten, take a time out if possible, and revisit the issue after you calm down. If necessary, use phrases such as “I’ll get back to you…” or “Let me think about it…” to buy yourself time. By maintaining self-control, you leverage more power to manage the situation.

 

2.    Keep Your Distance and Keep Your Options Open

“You can’t fly like an eagle if you hang out with turkeys!”

— Anonymous

Not all aggressive, intimidating, or controlling individuals are worth tasseling with. Your time is valuable, and your happiness and well-being are important. Unless there’s something important at stake, don’t expend yourself by trying to grapple with a person who’s negatively entrenched. Whether you’re dealing with an angry driver, a pushy relative, or a domineering supervisor, keep a healthy distance, and avoid engagement unless you absolutely have to.

There are times when you may feel like you’re “stuck” with a very difficult person, and there’s “no way out.” In these situations, keep your options open. Consult with trusted friends and advisors about different courses of action, with your personal well-being as the number one priority. We’re never stuck unless we have blinders on. Keep your options open.

3.    Depersonalize and Shift from Reactive to Proactive

“Don't take anything personally…What others say and do is a projection of their own reality…When you are immune to the opinions and actions of others, you won't be the victim of needless suffering.”

Miguel Angel Ruiz

Being mindful about the nature of aggressive, intimidating, and controlling people can help us de-personalize the situation, and turn from being reactive to proactive.

One effective way to de-personalize is to put yourself in the other person’s shoes, even for just a moment. For example, consider the offender you’re dealing with, and complete the sentence: “It must not be easy…”

“My friend is so aggressive. It must not be easy to come from an environment where everyone was forced to compete…”

“My manager is really overbearing. It must not be easy to have such high expectations placed on her performance by senior executives…”

“My partner is so controlling. It must not be easy to have grown up in a family where he was told how to think and act in every way…”  

To be sure, empathetic statements do not excuse unacceptable behavior. The point is to remind yourself that people do what they do because of their own issues. As long as we’re being reasonable and considerate, difficult behaviors from others say a lot more about them than they do about us. By reducing personalization, we can be less reactive and concentrate our energy on problem-solving.

 

4.    Know Your Fundamental Human Rights*

A crucial idea to keep in mind when you’re dealing with a difficult person is to know your rights, and recognize when they’re being violated.

As long as you do not harm others, you have the right to stand-up for yourself and defend your rights. On the other hand, if you bring harm to others, you may forfeit these rights. Following are some of our fundamental human rights:

You have the right to be treated with respect.

You have the right to express your feelings, opinions and wants.

You have the right to set your own priorities.

You have the right to say “no” without feeling guilty.

You have the right to get what you pay for.

You have the right to have opinions different than others.

You have the right to take care of and protect yourself from being threatened physically, mentally or emotionally.

You have the right to create your own happy and healthy life.

These Fundamental Human Rights represent your boundaries.

Of course, our society is full of people who do not respect these rights. Aggressive, intimidating, and controlling individuals, in particular, want to deprive you of your rights so they can control and take advantage of you. But you have the power and moral authority to declare that it is you, not the offender, who’s in charge of your life. Focus on these rights, and allow them to keep your cause just and strong.

 

5.    Put the Spotlight on Them & Reclaim Your Power

A common pattern with aggressive, intimidating, and controlling people is that they like to place attention on you to make you feel uncomfortable or inadequate. Typically, they’re quick to point out there’s something not right with you or the way you do things. The focus is consistently on “what’s wrong,” instead of “how to solve the problem.”

This type of communication is often intended to dominate and manipulate, rather than to sincerely take care of issues. If you react by being on the defensive, you simply fall into the trap of being scrutinized, thereby giving the aggressor more power while she or he picks on you with impunity. A simple and powerful way to change this dynamic is to put the spotlight back on the difficult person, and the easiest way to do so is to ask questions. For example:

Aggressor: “Your proposal is not even close to what I need from you.”

Response: “Have you given clear thought to the implications of what you want to do?”

Aggressor: “You’re so stupid.”

Response: “If you treat me with disrespect I’m not going to talk with you anymore. Is this what you want?”

Keep your questions constructive and probing. By putting the difficult person in the spotlight, you can help neutralize her or his undue influence over you.    

A second technique you can use to interrupt negative communication is to change the topic. Simply say “By the way…” and initiate a new subject. When you do so, you’re taking charge of the flow of communication, and setting a more constructive tone.

 

6.    In Relatively Mild Situations, Display Superior Composure Through Appropriate Humor

"Keep smiling, it makes people wonder what you're up to."

— Anonymous

Humor is a powerful communication tool. Years ago I knew a co-worker who was quite stuck-up and intimidating. One day a colleague of mine said “Hello, how are you?” to him. When the egotistical co-worker ignored her greeting completely, my colleague didn’t feel offended. Instead, she smiled good-naturedly and quipped: “That good, huh?” This broke the ice and the two of them started a friendly conversation. Brilliant.

When appropriately used, humor can shine light on the truth, disarm difficult behavior, and show that you have superior composure. In “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, & Controlling People,” I explain the psychology of humor in conflict resolution, and offer a variety of ways one can use humor to reduce or eliminate difficult behavior.

 

7.    In Serious Situations, Set Consequences to Compel Cooperation

When an aggressive, intimidating, or controlling individual insists on violating your boundaries, and won’t take “no” for an answer, deploy consequence.

The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is one of the most important skills you can use to "stand down" a difficult person. Effectively articulated, consequence gives pause to the offending individual, and compels her or him to shift from violation to respect. In my book (click on title) “How to Successfully Handle Aggressive, Intimidating, & Controlling People,” consequence is presented as seven different types of power you can utilize to affect positive change.

In conclusion, to know how to handle aggressive, intimidating, and controlling people is to truly master the art of communication. As you utilize these skills, you may experience less grief, greater confidence, better relationships, and higher communication prowess. You are on your way to leadership success!

Also available (click on title):

How to Let Go of Negative Thoughts and Emotions

Follow me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn!

Preston Ni, M.S.B.A. is available as a presenter, workshop facilitator, and private coach. For more information, write to commsuccess@nipreston.com, or visit www.nipreston.com.

© 2014 by Preston C. Ni. All rights reserved worldwide. Copyright violation may subject the violator to legal prosecution. 

* The Fundamental Human Rights are grounded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, laws in many democratic nations protecting against abuse, exploitation, and fraud, and, if you’re in the United States, the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Select Bibliography

Aglietta, M.; Reberioux, A.; Babiak, P. Psychopathic Manipulation at Work, in Gacono, C.B. (Ed), The Clinical and Forensic Assessment of Psychopathy: A Practitioner's Guide, Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ. (2000)

Akert, R.M., Aronson, E., & Wilson, T.D. Social Psychology; 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall. (2010)

Albert, D.J.; Walsh, M.L.; Jonik, R.H. Aggression in Humans: What is Its Biological Foundation?. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 17. (1993)

Anderson, C. A., & Bushman, B. J. Human aggression. Annual Review of Psychology. (2002)

Berkowitz, L. Aggression: Its Causes, Consequences, and Control. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. (1993)

Bloom, Sandra L. M.D. When Victims Turn Into Bullies. The Psychotherapy Review. (2000)

Buss DM, Gomes M, Higgins DS, Lauterback K. Tactics of Manipulation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 52 No 6 (1987)

Carr-Ruffino, Norma. The Promotable Woman. Career Pr Inc; 4th ed. (2004)

French, J. R. and Raven, B. The Basics of Social Power. 1n D. Cartwright (ed) Studies in Social Power. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. (1959)

Ni, Preston. How to Communicate Effectively and Handle Difficult People. (2006)

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). United Nations General Assembly. (1948)

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