Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Would You Rather Be Heard, or Be Right?

Unruly impulses toward aggression can be tamed by forcibly asserting yourself.

Pixabay Free Images
Source: Pixabay Free Images

When you’re really frustrated with someone (forget the reason), you need to say something. But what do you say? And how do you say it? Or, if you hold it all inside, how might your silence, too, affect the relationship?

There’s a plethora of literature on assertiveness—or, more precisely, assertion vs. aggression. So offering yet another piece on this subject may well seem redundant. Nonetheless, as regards communication most likely to help achieve the results you desire, the crucial importance of addressing issues assertively can hardly be overemphasized. There’s simply no more effective way to get through to another.

But what most needs to be kept in mind is your motive in making yourself heard. In what circumstances did you think the other person didn’t take your feelings or point of view sufficiently into account (if at all)? Has your frustration with them risen to such a seething degree that, damn the consequences, all you can think of is getting back at them? If so, you’re probably trading longer-term benefits for immediate gratification.

After all, there’s nothing quite like acting out your anger through verbally assaulting another to enable you (in the moment, at least) to feel more in command and fortify your possibly floundering sense of authority and righteousness. For once you give vent to your discontent, you experience the reassuring illusion that you’ve now reclaimed control over the situation.

As I’ve stressed in earlier posts (e.g., “What Your Anger May Be Hiding”), anger is an incredibly seductive emotion in that its expression immediately affords you the self-soothing sense of moral superiority. It’s your perspective—not the other’s—that’s more legitimate, humane, valid, logical, etc. And in the here-and-now, as soon as you experience yourself as regaining the moral high-ground, any underlying self-doubts or insecurities about yourself or your position effectively vanish.

Of course, the consequences of attacking another are rarely positive. Typically (or should I say, perversely?), you’ve just made an adversary of the person you needed to understand and validate you. And your goal really was hardly to alienate the other person, but to explain something to them, to try to get them on the same page as you.

That’s why it’s pivotal to identify the innermost source of what’s so disturbing you—and then communicate this disgruntlement in a way that the other person doesn’t experience as confrontational. For if they do, your aggressively perceived approach may be met with counter-aggression, or lead the other to become archly defensive, or simply walk away (which frequently can be seen as passive-aggressive).

And in all these instances, you’ll end up even more frustrated. Your listener, rather than “take in” what you so much needed them to hear, will likely feel compelled to focus not on your words but on the anger, resentment, and hostility behind them. In other words, they’ll intuit from your tone and decibel level that—at a primal level— you’re barely containing the impulse to pummel them. (And is it not suggestive that raging individuals frequently make a fist while they're yelling?)

Which, of course, will make the other person react accordingly. And the message you were so desperate to have them “take in” will be lost. It could hardly be more paradoxical: the more urgently you try to be heard, the more likely they'll pull away, looking for (based on their personality) the best way to defend themselves. And even attacking you in kind is just another defense (as in, “the best defense is a good offense”). If at a deeper level your expression of frustration led them to feel threatened, it will be virtually impossible for them to validate your viewpoint or emotionally identify with the hurt feelings likely underlying it.

This is pretty much a universal phenomenon: the difficulty of being receptive to an alternative viewpoint when it’s presented aggressively—when, in its fervor, it ends up guilting or shaming the other, or condescends to them as though they’re stupid, inferior, weak, or worthless. And such aggressive communication is almost always angry communication, the irony here being that such a response is all an elaborate “cover-up.”

The person who’s angry is angry because they’re feeling weak, disregarded, unappreciated, disrespected, or “less than.” Seemingly menacing or manipulative, their aggressive, knee-jerk reaction is actually a last-ditch effort to protect themselves from distressing feelings that, however passively or inadvertently, the other has triggered in them. That is, their anger isn’t pro-active; it's reactive.

So, what’s to be done?

For, obviously, such aggressive behavior on your part—unless it intimidates the other into complying with your demands, or compels them to forfeit their perspective and adopt your own—will prompt them toward some sort of push-back. And even if, superficially, they bend to your will, they’ll probably (consciously or unconsciously) be searching for ways to undermine your overbearing “victory” over them. No one likes to feel demeaned, dominated or oppressed. So if you’ve left them feeling disempowered, their compromised sense of pride and dignity will drive them to find some way of recapturing it.

Thoughtful, assertive expression is the only way out of this quagmire of self-righteous, one-sided communication. And it may be the only way to resolve what, otherwise, is probably “unfixable.” This ideal way of expressing frustration is most simply defined as:

Clearly expressing your wants and needs, your thoughts and feelings, without making the other person defensive.

Such “messaging” doesn’t criticize the other person. Nor does it negatively evaluate, or invalidate them. It simply portrays what isn’t working for you, what’s leading you to feel frustrated. And it ends in a request—not an ultimatum—whether it’s for greater empathy and understanding, or for some do-able change. And by “do-able” I mean you’re not asking them to stop being so allergic to cats or to alter their (constitutional) introversion or extroversion. In one area or another, you’re asking them respectfully to please better accommodate you.

Wesley Fryer/Flickr Free Illustration
Source: Wesley Fryer/Flickr Free Illustration

If the other person has violated a boundary you hold dear, you’re not castigating them for transgressing that boundary but trying to help them become more sensitive to it. And because, hopefully, you don’t want to come across as concerned solely with your own needs, it’s an excellent idea to ask them what behavior of yours might bother them, so that you might consider changing it as well.

Communicating this way can make your relationship feel a lot stronger and more secure to both of you. For you’re now working cooperatively, as allies. So, unless one of you is just too rigid or uncompromising to effect such an alteration, the relationship—possibly fraught with tension till now—can, over time, “relax” and begin to change in mutually satisfying ways.

And this will have occurred because, before speaking up, you learned how to calm yourself down. And then communicate your frustrations in a less offensive, kinder, and more assertive manner.

NOTE: Closely related posts I’ve written on this seminal topic include: “Afraid to Rage: The Origins of Passive-Aggressive Behavior,”How—And How Not—to Stand Up for Yourself,” “Are You Assertive Enough? Here’s 25 Ways to Tell,” and “Criticism vs. Feedback: Which One Wins, Hands-Down?”

© 2017 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

More from Leon F Seltzer PhD
More from Psychology Today