Managing a Critical Aggressor

Managing a Critical Aggressor: Case Example I
By Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, the “Stress Doc” ™
Let’s try a mind exercise. You’ve just given a presentation at an important meeting. As the meeting concludes you turn to a colleague (a casual acquaintance) and ask, “How did the presentation go?” And in a decidedly judgmental and unfriendly tone this colleague declares, “Frankly, you fumbled the data. Obviously, you didn’t prepare very well!”

Imagine being the presenter. How would you feel receiving such critical feedback? And what would you say or do in return? (And let’s assume that punching this guy in the nose is not a good intervention strategy.) Actually, this is the scenario I pose to attendees of my “Managing Anger and Difficult People” Program. (Also subtitled, “When Going Postal Is Not an Option.” And as a former stress and violence prevention consultant for the US Postal Service I feel entitled to my attitude.)

Let me begin this analysis by illustrating three common emotional and behavioral reactions to this “critical aggressor” exercise:

1. Feeling Rejected or Exposed. If this instance applies, you likely feel hurt and put down by the antagonist’s harsh words. Or you are surprised by the stinging critique; you believed your presentation had been at least satisfactory. Now you may feel exposed. Feelings of guilt (“I could have tried harder or done better”) or shame (“this criticism confirms my inadequacy or worthlessness”) may dominate. Now the only means available to counter the criticism is with hastily conceived self-justifying explanations or face-saving rationalizations.

2. Feeling Attacked and Becoming Aggressive. In this scenario you quickly feel defensive and reactive. You might think, “How dare this jerk be so hostile?” Or you might say, “How the hell do you know how I prepared? And what makes you such a hot shot expert (you bozo)!” And while immediately counterattacking and feeling entitled (“an eye for an eye, an ego for an ego”) your reactivity may well indicate wounded pride.

3. Feeling Fearful or Humiliated and Withdrawing. Whether lowering your eyes in defeat or turning pale in a state of shock, you now feel intimidated and helpless. Incredulous at the brazen verbal harassment, some sensitive individuals or folks with underdeveloped assertive muscles, become immobilized. A target’s suppressed rage may also add to a sense of impotence. Now you likely sit passively or withdraw ignominiously from the battlefield. (Of course, a tactical withdrawal may be a productive and purposeful step. But more on this shortly.)

Positive Limit-Setting Strategic Interventions
Having delineated three defensive reactions, it’s time to describe a constructive and strategic approach to setting limits on a harsh aggressor. Consider these basic assumptions, attitudes and actions:

1. Understanding the Difference Between Reaction and Response. The aforementioned feelings, thoughts and behaviors are defensive reactions. (And “defensive” in this sense does not mean healthfully self-protective.) A target quickly feels attacked and psychically wounded; he or she is being verbally mistreated or abused by the aggressor. And whether lashing out in anger or feeling humiliated and quickly retreating, the “victim” is in reactive mode: “You’ve hurt me” or “You made me upset” or “It’s your fault” or “You caused me to strike back.”

However, there’s a strategic alternative: you can experience and process your feelings and thoughts before behaving in a knee-“jerk” manner. You can acknowledge feelings of pain, shame and anger, and then get centered. You can begin to place this person’s behavior in context: is the critic’s assessment objective (even if his manner of delivery is woefully subjective) or does he have an agenda? Or, might she be jealous?

By processing your thoughts and feelings and by assessing or, at least, questioning the aggressor’s behavior patterns and situational constraints you are now ready to transform a reaction into an assertive and effective “response.”

2. Metacommunicate. Here’s my conflict management axiom in dealing with a critical aggressor: before justifying or explaining your behavior comment upon or confront – whether tactfully or directly – the aggressor’s harassing tone and/or content. Using our mind exercise as an example, you might say: “I’m open to feedback, but I don’t appreciate being attacked.” Or, such global and unspecific comments are not useful and, frankly, I find them hostile. Can you be more specific and be professional?

Along with staying centered and non-reactive, you are setting appropriate boundaries. You’ve returned the harsh critic’s verbal hand grenade (as opposed to freezing up or to hurling it back in an enraged or vengeful state).

3. Use Assertive “I” Messages. Underlying this tactfully assertive approach to defusing hostility is the recognition that assertive “I” messages, unlike blaming “You” messages, don’t add static to communication channels. “You made me” or “It’s your fault” transfers all the power to the aggressor. In reality, one-sided blaming often rationalizes an immature reaction or counterattack. In contrast, a constructive “I” message acknowledges your experience as a target: “That hurts” or “I’m angry right now.” Such a message also states what you don’t like or what you do prefer: “I don’t appreciate being attacked and I don’t listen well. I can hear and consider more specific feedback.” “I” messages help reaffirm your integrity while establishing healthy boundaries. So abstain from those reactive “You”s or risk becoming a “blameaholic.”

4. Take a Time Out. Finally, if the aggressor’s initial barrage leaves you stunned or speechless, you don’t have to stay in the ring desperately trying to summon up a counterpunch. Basically you can state, “I won’t be a party to this kind of verbal barrage (or “harassment” if encounter is more hostile than just heated). Or, if feeling centered, you can declare: “I need a time out before responding.” You also can say, “I believe we need a time for us to have a professional discussion.”

Remember, it’s okay if you don’t have a perfect comeback to an aggressor’s spewing. Take time to think about and sleep on the problem and a response…Then you’ll nail the jerk tomorrow! Just kidding. ;-) Seriously, taking a time out is not a sign of weakness. Basically it is a strategic retreat to help you cleanse a wound, get centered and to formulate an “I” response. Hitting the pause button affirms your integrity while setting limits and boundaries on a charged exchange.

Disarming Power Struggles: Case Example II
Now for the second exercise. As a supervisor, imagine you are caught in a power struggle with a problematic individual, let’s say an employee. For this mind game the specific issue is not critical. Let’s say the general content involves issues of control, status or who has (or doesn’t have) the right or power to make a decision. Let’s call the employee Person A and the supervisor Person B. In this exercise, the battle begins with the employee declaring, “You can’t make!” and the supervisor countering, “Oh yes I can!” My workshop instructions specifically caution antagonists about getting out of their chairs. But the players can be as aggressive or as whiny as they wish. After a couple of verbal volleys, the participants are encouraged to say what they would really like to say to their antagonist.

Not surprisingly, at some point during this exchange, for many folks there is an eruption of laughter. Perhaps it’s the somewhat artificial and absurd nature of the interaction. (Also, some people cover up intense emotions, such as raw aggression, through nervous laughter.) However, for me, the number of people who get hooked by the battle, who “want to win” seems significant. Why are people so quick to get caught up in a power struggle? I’ve come up with “The Five “C”s of Power Struggles:

1. Control. Who will be in control? I believe this is connected to authority issues and, ultimately, the parent-child dynamic.

2. Competition. This also has family roots – sibling rivalry issues. Who is better? Who is the favorite?

3. Change. During periods of transition, there’s much uncertainty. Who is in charge? Do the rules and operational procedure still apply? Some people will try to fill the void, appropriately or inappropriately. Change often stirs uncertainty and anxiety and that may push some to become overly rigid, manipulating or controlling.

4. Cultural Diversity. Surely the variety of sociocultural and demographic dynamics shape how we give meaning to experience, including meaning to the motivations, beliefs and behaviors of self and of others. Personal maturity is often required if difference and disagreement are not reflexively equated with disapproval and disloyalty.

5. Communication Skills. Finally, effectively negotiating the aforementioned “C”s – Control, Competition and Cultural diversity – especially in the context of an actual or potential emotionally charged power struggle requires a communicator who can be both assertive and empathic; a communicator who can both affirm limits and respect boundaries.

Key Communication Principles
Now let me provide four communication tips and tools for preventing a conflict or misunderstanding from turning into a full-fledged struggle or an ongoing battle:

1. Drop the Rope. How do you not take the bait when someone is provocatively fishing for an argument or power struggle? The challenge becomes not instinctively pulling back when someone offers you a rope and then “yanks your chain.” You don’t have to prove you can give (or be) as big a jerk. In fact, you can just “drop the rope.” This is not a sign of weakness. Your message is, “I don’t want to play this self-defeating or dysfunctional game. Can we come up with a more productive way to address the grievance or solve the problem?”

2. Use the “Four ‘P’ Process of Empathic Engagement.” One or both parties in a power struggle are usually angry or anxious about something. Your antagonist may be upset about your actions (as a supervisor) or about a common problematic situation. For example, in an employee’s mind, are you playing favorites in the department? In order to quickly connect to a belligerent or injured party (after setting limits on any harassing behavior, of course) attempt to engage the other person around his “Pain” and “Passion” or her “Purpose” and sense of “Power” (or feelings of powerlessness or helplessness). These “P”s are definitely a pathway to empathy and possibly more peaceful coexistence.

3. Reduce the Status or Power Differential. As a manager (or parent of a teenager) unless absolutely necessary, don’t lead with your authority trump card. As much as possible, try to level the playing field; strive for adult-to-adult communication. (Somehow this issue of use of status and power reminds me of a politically incorrect, somewhat tongue-in-cheek observation by a bank vice-president regarding his biggest source of stress: “I can’t beat my employees and I can’t fire my children.”)

Actually, if used consistently this step will likely free the other person to be more forthright in their communication. And if you are fortunate, your antagonist will even provide critical feedback. Why do I say fortunate? In the long run, I believe nothing builds trust more than when a person expresses clean and clear anger and finds the recipient doesn’t fall apart, run away or abandon them, doesn’t viciously blast back or seek revenge. You may not agree with the other person’s argument but you have demonstrated acknowledgment and respect.

4. Avoid Black or White Thinking. An argument that must result in one person being ‘right” the other party “wrong” clearly tightens the tension in the tug or words if not war. Dividing antagonists into “winners” and “losers” doesn’t foster lasting conciliation and working partners. Oftentimes, a sign of real strength is the capacity for some comfort with uncertainty or even being tentative in the heat of battle: “I’m not sure about that” or “Right now, I don’t agree. Still, you make a good point. Let me think more about this.” (We’ve already discussed the strategic value of taking a time out.”)

Again, allowing for uncertainty or delayed decision-making creates subjective space for opinions and strategic options. You are inviting the other to be a genuine problem-solving participant. Setting aside “black or white” thinking encourages power sharing over power struggle. Both managers and employees can generate an array of leading and colorful ideas.

Disarming Words of Wisdom
With the “Four ‘C’s” (of power struggles) and the above communication principles in mind, as a manager what might you say to a provocative employee who declares (or in so many words avers), “You can’t make me”? Consider this response: “I don’t know if I can make you or I can’t make you. That’s not where I’m coming from. [Resisting the provocative bait. Not quickly playing the authority trump card; you are tentative without giving up your power potential.] If we have a problem – if I’m bugging you or our situation is problematic – I’d like to hear about it. [Can we assume that if there is a serious power struggle someone is pained or upset about something? I think so. And inviting criticism often elicits real feedback and can help build trust.]  I need your contribution to meet our goals. I believe I’m in a position to support you. For us to succeed we have to be pulling together not pulling apart. [Affirming the process – from dropping the rope to forging a partnership in power and performing.]

Closing Summary
Two mind game exercises have been delineated. The first exercise, interaction with a critical aggressor, highlighted defensive reactions to a verbal barrage:
1) feeling rejected, surprised or exposed
2) feeling attacked and becoming aggressive
3) feeling fearful or humiliated and withdrawing.

Positive strategic interventions were also outlined:
1) differentiating reaction and response
2) metacommunication
3) using assertive “I” messages
4) taking a time out.

The disarming power struggle exercise noted the “Four ‘C’s that spur on self-defeating or ego-driven battles – Control, Competition, cultural diversity and Communication Skills.

Next, four communicational tips and tools for disarming dysfunctional power games were detailed:
1) ”drop the rope”
2) use the “Four ‘P’s” for engagement
3) reduce the status or power differential
4) avoid ‘black or white’ thinking.

And finally, a power sharing to power struggle response in the face of employee provocation is provided. Surely these are all concepts and tools to disarm aggressors and power struggles, to forge more productive working relationships, and to help us all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is a psychotherapist, a “Motivational Humorist,” an acclaimed Keynote and Kickoff Speaker (including with Celebrity Cruise Lines), and an OD/Team Building Consultant. Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior. Also, the Doc is AOL’s “Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat." See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- (recently cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs and products, email or call 301-946-0865.
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