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Ask The Expert : Am I being agressive?



I feel like I have a reputation as being an outspoken trouble maker at my work. When we are in meetings, I can’t help but speak up about things I don’t agree with and I am being told by my manager that I am aggressive and I need to ‘tone it down.’ I don’t mean to be aggressive, but I get frustrated when things are not being done properly and people won’t listen to my point of view. I feel they are now all switching off when I start to talk as they just consider me to be too vocal. How can I get my point across without being labelled as a trouble maker?



As usual in situations involving human beings, there are lots of different strands here and unravelling them is never straightforward!

Let’s try and unpick this situation as objectively as possible.

          1. To start with, I’d like to ask what evidence there is that you have a reputation as an outspoken trouble-maker.  Let’s split those two elements. Outspoken?  You have admitted this yourself.  Trouble maker? What sort of trouble do you make and for whom? Have these words actually been used or have you interpreted them from the feedback to “tone it down.”?  It’s easy to lose our sense of perspective when we feel under threat.
          2. It sounds as if you care very much about the way things should be done.  Could you perhaps be a perfectionist, who thinks that your way is the only way, when in fact there might be different ways of achieving the same objectives? Perhaps undertaking a psychometric profiling exercise, (such as Myers Briggs Type Indicator) might help you understand your behavioural preferences and, very importantly, other people’s.  We all have pet ways of doing things – making tea, boiling an egg, punctuality.  Work is no different.  One colleague might be very focused on detail and finishing tasks to deadlines, whereas others are much more flexible and spontaneous and don’t mind flying by the seat of their pants.  If you understand the needs and preferences of other people, you can adapt your approach to meet them half way.  As the old saying goes: “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”  This doesn’t mean that you have to sacrifice your values, it just means finding the best way to meet the business need.
          3. Your approach to conflict is another key tool for understanding where others are coming from and how to make your approach more effective.  Some people are unhappy with a robust approach to problem-solving and uncomfortable with a more outspoken approach. In the UK in particular, we don’t like to “make a fuss” or “rock the boat.” The Thomas Kilmann instrument is a useful self-assessment tool which can help you understand conflict and when is the best time to use different approaches. You should be aiming for collaboration. At the moment it sounds as if you are persisting with your usual approach and banging your head against a brick wall.  That’s got to hurt!
          4. Learning to communicate assertively is a skill that can be mastered with regular practice.
          5. What support are you getting? The advice to “tone it down” is not very constructive or detailed enough to let you know what you should be doing instead or how to do it. Perhaps your manager is not skilled or confident enough to give you specific advice themself.  Have you thought of engaging the support of HR?  They may be able to support both of you, either with guidance or working as a mediator.  It could be a development opportunity for your manager as well.
            It takes practice to change from our habitual behaviour to a new one and sometimes we need to be shown how to do it. Perhaps you could ask for some one-to-one coaching to help you practice new skills in a safe and neutral relationship with your coach. In the short term, perhaps it might be useful to have pre-meetings with your manager, and also some of your colleagues, so that you can prepare for any difficult issues that come up and prepare how you might deal with them. The key is to keep the business need in mind – what are you all trying to achieve? Preparing will also help you keep emotions under control and to plan your strategy as effectively as possible.

Finally, if this is a regular occurrence and you are frequently frustrated by things at work, you might need to do some soul-searching – are you in the right job?  On the other hand, you may find that you take the same behaviours to a new job and run in to similar problems. Painful though it might be, you have the opportunity to learn and grow from this situation.

This answer’s expert was Carol Taylor.

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