Professional Women – How To Be Assertive, Not Aggressive

There is a thin line between being aggressive and assertive, and as someone who has been considered both, I’m sure there are situations that could have been managed better. Getting caught in the dizziness of trying to avoid a label, being stressed out, having anxiety or fending off an immense amount of criticism for acting too passive, too aggressive, passive-aggressive and anything else, sometimes it was just easier to be aggressive, and get on with it.

I would like to offer awareness around the choice we have to react to any situation.

During my second week in a new position/office, we visited a company that was not up to par. This created risk to the environment and thousands of people in the area. When I spoke to the owner, he answered the two male leaders that accompanied me. As I sat in front of him and the men to his right, he turned his chair to directly face them so he didn’t have to look at me. Since they actually worked for me, and we all had mutual respect of our positions, I asked them not to answer his questions. He kept talking to them and they didn’t say a word. In a calm, yet assertive manner, I said, “Sir, these gentlemen work for me, they are not going to answer you. I am the decision maker, so if you turn around and look at me, we can get back to business.” He continued to talk them for a few minutes.

It was very uncomfortable for everyone, since this had clearly become a standoff of the wills. When he realized they were not going to talk, he finally conceded, turned around and looked at me with utter disgust. I explained what was expected of him and we left.

Had I acted in a defensive or offensive manner to his disrespect, that would have been considered aggressive. Aggressive is to be ready or likely to attack or confront.

The next day, while in a meeting with my bosses to discuss this company, two other high level leaders joined us. They didn’t have jurisdiction on the issue, but since it was my second week, I rolled with it. While giving recommendations that came from my personnel with expertise in this area, the two leaders without direct expertise kept interceding and driving the conversation in a different direction. Feeling my chest tighten and eye twitch (a clear indication of what’s to come), my personnel and I kept getting blindsided in our recommendations by people that didn’t have a clue. I realized they were well respected in the office and community, and tried to manage myself accordingly.

This was another test of wills and clearly a game of marking territory. I felt like I was in the third grade drawing a line on the sidewalk with chalk saying, “You can’t cross this line.”

When one of them said something I thought was absurd, I turned around and looked at him with my eyes wide open…I heard one of the gentlemen from the previous meeting say, “Uh oh!” Clearly disrespected for my experience and expertise, I asked, “Why are you even in this room?! You clearly don’t have the background, experience or qualifications to even have an opinion, so why are you talking?!” Absolute and unfiltered aggression spewed from my pores and mouth. This was a marking of the territory ceremony and I needed to ensure that my area was LARGE. Lol! (Yes…I openly admit to being ridiculous in an effort to teach.)

Sooo…could I have handled this situation better? Did I have to raise the levels of stress and anxiety in the meeting? Of course, hindsight it 20/20 and there is always a more rational way difficult conversations can be managed. The problem that occurs with some women in leadership positions is, we have been in battle for years to get to that position, and when we arrive, we have baggage with us. Years of comments, side swipes, harsh criticism, disrespect and a whole host of issues stuffed into enough luggage to fill a 757 airplane.

To me, being assertive is when we hold our ground and our energy is contained within. It’s a way to be heard, but not felt in a room and generally, the information is received by others. When we leave, we are confident in what we presented.

When we are aggressive, there is furniture moving energy in the room. We have lost the ability to think clearly, aren’t able to give good recommendations and the information is not received. We leave drained, stressed, and with an anxiety produced headache. We then beat ourselves up for days about not handling the situation better.

In “My Stroke of Insight,” Jill Bolte-Taylor said, when we get angry, there is a chemical release from the brain that surges through our body (old brain reaction – fight or flight). It takes 90 seconds for the chemicals to dissipate from our blood and if we are angry after that, we are choosing it. I repeat, WE ARE PHYSICALLY REACTING FOR 90 SECONDS, AFTER THAT, IT’S OUR CHOICE! (watch her TED Talk)

The physical reaction to our brains being hijacked is real. Having stress and anxiety related reactions is common. Knowing this, you can forgive yourself for letting someone else hijack your mind. However, since you are now aware that you can regain control after 90 seconds, what will you do in the 90 second period? Breathing is always a good option. Excusing yourself to go the bathroom is another.

Learning this information and applying it completely changed the way I reacted to situations. When something happened that hijacked my mind, I would pause and say, “I’ll be back in five minutes” (I needed longer to disengage). I would get on the Relax and Rest app on my phone (logo with purple/blue face), and select the five minute guided meditation. The voice would say “Come back into your body…feel your fingers and toes.” When our mind is hijacked, we are no longer in our bodies…we may be on top of the head of the person who made us mad. 🙂

After five minutes, with a clear and refreshed mind, I would re-engage the conversation and was able to make better decisions and maintain the respect of the people that worked for me. This also worked in instances outside of the office.

By no means am I claiming to have the patience of Mother Teresa, because it takes time to create new habits and retrain our minds and hearts so we are not living in chaos all the time. However, creating new habits dramatically changed my life and in some ways, how I was perceived by others. Couldn’t be offended because I was labeled a tyrant leader if I acted like one.

If you are someone who gets triggered regularly, will you at least give it a try?

Have you ever been in a situation where you were treated like you were invisible? Did you know that some high level women are treated like this regularly?

Christy Rutherford, an Executive Leadership Strategist, trains leaders on long-standing leadership principles to assist them with realizing their full potential and increase productivity. She also coaches Type A leaders who are suffering from burnout, which impacts their performance at work and home.

Download your free workbook: “Success Roadmap – 7 Powerful Ways To Get Clear On The Results You Desire” at www.christyrutherford.com 

Check out the programs designed for you to manage your stress, reduce anxiety and significantly improve your life while you work to make a living. www.christyrutherford.com/programs

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