Aggression is a communication style characterized by high dominance and little regard for other people’s well-being.
It is one of the four communication styles, and this chart summarizes the aggressive style compared with the other 3 styles:
The Power Moves is a bit different though.
And before advising anyone not to do something, we like to stress why some people actually do that something that most people tell you not to do.
After all, if a behavior evolved in the first place, there probably is a reason why.
And there is no reason why aggression should be any different.
Such as, aggression probably evolved because it served the aggressor’s interest, at least some of the times.
So let’s review the use cases of aggression.
The Use Cases of Aggression
Aggression can be helpful to:
1. Deal with other people’s aggression
if you remain assertive in front of an onslaught of aggression, assertiveness is obviously not working.
Furthermore, you can seem powerless.
In that case, meeting aggression with aggression can help stop the aggression with the “pacing and leading technique”: first you meet at their level (pacing), showing you can play the same game, and then you bring them down (leading).
Imagine your girlfriend yells at you for 10 minutes straight at home in spite of you assertively telling her she’s being rude and out of line.
Well… Assertiveness is clearly not working, then.
And if you want to put a stop to it, matching aggression with aggression might prove a far better alternative.
The only moment when Robin Williams seems to have a shred of dignity in the Mrs. Doubtfire divorce scene is when he raises his level of aggression to match hers:
Notice that it’s not about showing aggression per se.
It’s that by matching your attacker’s level of aggression, you communicate that you are not a submissive punching bag who’s incapable of defending and drawing boundaries.
2. Instill fear
Assertiveness gives you respect, but not so much fear.
Aggression can make people fear you.
Attention though: fear is not necessarily high-power and, much less so, high-quality.
Crazy individuals and homeless people often stir up fears in others.
But that fear only serves to keep them isolated and… At the bottom of society.
As we will see, this is a technique that some people use in the workplace.
They are always rude and aggressive in order to acquire some scrap of independence and to be left alone.
But they are also often left alone at the bottom of the hierarchy. You don’t want to be one of them.
As Randy Paterson says:
(People) may make fewer demands, though they will also make fewer pleasant invitations, and if you were more assertive, you could deal with their unpleasant demands confidently
3. Weapon of last resort
If you tried everything and failed, and still want to give it a last shot, going from assertive to aggressive might help you reach your goal in some cases.
Even if you still fail, at least you can say “I tried them all”.
4. Win arguments by steamrolling (“argument ad potentiam”)
Dominance can be used strategically to push people into the submissive end of the spectrum, or in defense mode.
When people start defending and submitting, they can look guilty by behavior, rather than by logic and facts.
Trump likely won the presidency thanks to this technique.
The 2017 presidential debates present many examples in which Hillary should have been more aggressive in dealing with Trump:
Trump’s aggression allowed him to curtail Hillary’s speaking time. She didn’t even have enough air time to make her points. And from a political point of view, it looked like Trump was the embodiment of the angry citizen grilling an ineffective, crooked politician. Hillary’s justification confirmed that impression.
But also please note that over-aggression was, in the end, also one of Trump’s main reason for his downfall.
Had he been more socially astute, he would have mellowed once at the top.
5. In bursts, to show dominance, control the frame, without breaking rapport
I call this dominance technique “aggressive push-pull”.
It’s often used by the “self-amusing” dominance style, and it deploys the (more or less) covert-aggression technique of push-pull.
It consists of bursts of aggression followed by more assertive or even kinder behavior.
It serves to assert dominance without totally breaking rapport -or ven by increasing rapport, in some cases-.
Experienced or manipulative negotiators can use bursts of aggression to subtly dominate their opponents. when the opponents feel dominated, they will be less likely to negotiate hard and field their demands.
More on it later.
6. To more quickly regain power and respect with an aggressive display of force
If people long treated you like a low-value individual it might take quite some time of assertive behavior to regain their respect.
In those cases, a stronger display of power through aggression can rebalance the situation quicker.
See an example in this video:
7. As a shortcut for status
Somewhat similar to the above.
Aggression can be helpful in acquiring status, and it can also be used as a shortcut if it’s used successfully against someone with very high status.
There is some evidence for this in unstructured environments like in high school (Faris, 2012).
But high school is not a typical environment, and I haven’t seen any experiment confirming these findings outside of it.
I consider aggression as a tool for status more in specific and limited environments, such as:
Even there though, aggression should be limited and targeted.
Constant aggression makes you a loose cannon with little support, and friends and allies matter a lot in those environments.
8. In sport, channeled aggression
In some sports, a lot of aggression can help make up for talent.
This guy is an example:
His surname is “Gattuso” and his nickname was “ringhio Gattuso”, meaning “roar Gattuso”.
He was not the most skilled to use a euphemism, and he wasn’t even big.
But he was very aggressive on the pitch, driven to win beyond what’s normal.
He was one of my favorite because he was able to make up for skills, talent, and even for physical size -he was small for the sport-, and still made it to the top (and won a world cup).
True legend of an underdog!
He would have never gotten there without the fire within him.
Even here though, we must add a caveat: the aggression that makes you great at sports is not violent aggression.
That gets you kicked out pretty soon and leaves your team one man down.
It’s more of a constant, controlled anger simmering beneath the surface, channeled into doing anything possible to win,
9. As provider of personal good feelings
Aggression can make you feel strong.
And it can make you feel good for exacting revenge on someone who slighted you in the past.
I personally see some value in revenge, as long as it’s proportionate and as long as it does not poison you.
See here a good real-life example.
But if you are being aggressive because it makes you feel strong, then you probably need to change mindsets because that type of aggression is likely making you feel powerful, but truly disempowering you in real life.
See “Ultimate Power” for better mindsets and values.
Does aggression prevent challenges to absolute power? Not so sure…
There is one last possible benefit.
Some authors say that keeping people in fear can prevent challenges and murder attempts on a powerful man -say, for example, a dictator-.
I am not convinced about it.
I think there are two forces at play: on the one hand, the fear of death or torture can stop some challengers.
But aggression and fear also create a more ripe environment for wanting to get rid of that fear, and wanting to get rid of the SOB.
The challengers will also want to make sure that their aggression will leave the dictator dead or totally powerless, and they will be very careful in covering their tracks before they’re ready to hit.
So the dictator gets no sign of impending danger until his premature death.
There is ultimately no proof that fear has ever prolonged -or shortened- anyone’s reign. And I am personally doubtful about whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.
Why Constant Aggression Ultimately Backfires
There can be times and places for aggression.
But don’t confuse aggression with power.
If there is one thing the vast majority of the authors agree on, is that aggression ultimately reduces power in the long run.
As a rule of thumb, and this is especially true for most people in our modern world, constant aggression erodes power.
Why is aggression ultimately counterproductive?
This is why:
1. Aggression Breeds Aggression, Leading to Lots of Wars
There is a tendency for our attitudes to shape and create our own realities.
Says psychologist Harriet Braiker:
People with hostile, aggressive personalities expect others to be hostile. Consequently, they treat other people aggressively. When people are treated aggressively, they tend to exhibit hostility in return. Thus, since hostility breeds hostility, an aggressive person often evokes hostility from others.
Living in a world of constant aggression is handicapping in a multitude of ways, including of course from a power-strategic point of view.
Constant aggression can also lead to poorer health and a general lower pleasure of life.
That my constantly aggressive former neighbor got a stroke early in life might have been pure coincidence.
But it was not a coincidence that his perennial scowl on short term made his life less pleasurable, including few friends and no good relationships -including with his wife-.
2. Aggression Makes Few (True) Friend & Allies
Nobody rules alone.
Not even dictators (de Mesquita, 2003).
So no matter where you are, you’re better of with a network of friends, allies, and supporters, than without.
One of the major issues with aggressive people is that they don’t make others feel good, so few people want to be around them and support them.
That often leads to a few good relationships, a small support network and, in extreme cases, to isolation.
3. Aggression Makes Lots of Enemies
Hyper-aggressive Scarface-types can get power quickly.
But the risk is very high that it will be a localized, limited, “flash in the pan” type of power.
The reality is that lots of enemies mean little power and, in some lines of business, a short life span as well.
4. Overly Aggressive Folks Can’t Establish a Coalition
Much power rests in coalitions.
In politics and workplaces, coalitions help you carry to the top.
and in your everyday life, your coalition is your support network.
People in your sare those who are there to prop you up in power or to break your fall when you’re crashing down.
The support network in your everyday life comes from your friends, your neighbors, your family, your colleagues, etc.
But constantly aggressive people have mostly nominal friends. Those are the people who are there exclusively because there is something in it for them.
But they feel no obligation to help when you’re in need.
More socially skilled people instead tend to develop deeper relationships that also go above and beyond the most calculative side of “WIIFM“.
This aspect impacts your life at all levels.
Your support network is the people who listen to you when you’re heart-broken, who lend you some money when you’re broke, who come to the hospital with a bunch a flower, or who make an intro when you need a job.
Aggressive people have little support network, if any.
5. Aggression at the top signals insecurity
There is evidence that insecurity causes aggression.
In controlled experiments, subjects were more likely to act aggressively when their competence was challenged, and when they felt insecure (Fast and Chen 2009).
It’s a cliche’ in pop-psychology that aggression stems from insecurity, and it’s not always true.
But these experiments show that, at least under certain conditions, it is true: aggression can stem from insecurity when the insecure man is at the top.
The title of the paper is also very telling: “When the Boss Feels Inadequate: Power, Incompetence, and Aggression”.
So, whenever you’re in a leadership position, watch out for aggressive behavior it communicates to others -and as importantly to yourself- that you’re either under threat, or incompetent.
Troubleshooting the causes of over-aggression
These are the reasons why people tend to behave overly aggressive.
You can use them to troubleshoot yourself and see if you fit in any of these categories:
1. Family / Background
Some grew up in aggressive families and never learned a different approach.
This is especially dangerous for lower-class individuals, since those who are overly aggressive with little qualities to offset that aggression tend to remain stuck in the lower rungs of society.
2. Addiction / Enjoyment of Confrontation
Some people are addicted -or slave to- the dopamine rushes of confrontations, as well as the brain chemical feeling of dominating others.
3. Sense of Control
Some enjoy -or need- a sense of control, and aggression gives a feeling of control.
Some authors have observed that it’s this sense of control, coupled with immense drive and OCD tendencies, that made Steve Job such a notoriously irascible man.
4. Power Craving
Some people crave power, and they use aggression to always be the one-up in their interactions.
5. It Can Work in Some Situations
And, last but not least, let’s be honest:
In the short run aggression often works.
Most people are not aggressive and not even assertive.
Many people end up being too passive and too compliant in the face of aggression. That makes the life of the aggressor feel easier when they boss people around.
Aggression can also work in the workplace, especially in some types of industries.
Aggressive individuals who can avoid the ugliest flares up often enjoy quicker ascension of dominance hierarchies.
Aggression VS Power
Constant aggression is more closely associated with dominance, than with power.
We could define power as:
Power is the degree to which an individual can get what he wants.
It overlaps with dominance, but it’s not the same.
It’s an important distinction.
Dominance is measured by strength, and strength or the capability for aggression are only but one element of power.
You can be powerful without necessarily being aggressive.
And you can be aggressive, without being powerful (and without getting what you want).
Dominance is the degree to which someone can impose his will with sheer strength, display of sheer strength, threats, or aggression.
Dominance becomes coercive when propped by aggression or threats, and can as easily backfire as it can work. As a rule of thumb, leaders and individuals who rely on dominance and aggression make for poor leaders.
Power can achieve the same goals without relying (solely) on strength and aggression.
Power can use cunning, charm, charisma, resources, leadership skills, or even fake strength.
An Example From Our Ape Cousins
Think of it this way:
The alpha ape at the top of the hierarchy is strong and socially dominant.
The beta ape who makes the alpha his friend and also builds a web of supporters with which it might overthrow the alpha is putting power on his side.
This example is actually based on real events in a chimp colony.
The alpha was more dominant and aggressive than all others. But less strong and aggressive chimps banded together to overthrow the stronger alpha via a web of alliances and one single act of focused aggression (Ridley, 1997).
In ape colonies, strength is most useful when climbing the social hierarchies, showing you’re not afraid and “making a name” for yourself. Once on top, leadership skills and social skills become more important.
Strength helps, but cunning is equally important.
That holds even truer in humans, since we are less (openly) violent and developed bigger brainpower for networking and relationships.
Do Develop the Capability For Aggression…
Of course, dominance, aggression, and softer versions of power are not pitted against each other.
As a matter of fact, you’re much better off with both soft power and dominance.
This course will help you increase both dominance, and the social intelligence to wield soft power.
But Be As Un-Aggressive As You Can
Alain Prost, an F-1 racer once said that his goal was to win races going “as slow as possible”.
You want the same approach for aggression -and, to a lesser degree, dominance in general-.
Big shows of aggression, either physical, verbal, or intellectual (“smart-alec), are the equivalent of going “as fast as possible”.
As much going as fast as possible in car racing increases the risks of crashing, being as aggressive as possible also increases the social risks of crashing.
And that leads to an important principle: for maximum power, use as little aggression as possible, and always prefer buy-in (see forum Q&A for more details).
That’s how you develop repeated win-win exchanges and how you set up collaborative relationships. And that’s how you make people want to follow you.
Some exceptions apply, and we will see them along the course.
But you don’t make the rules with the exceptions. And the general rule is that minimizing coercion and seeking buy-in leads to longer-lasting power, as well as to better relationships.
Moving Past Aggression
Values and beliefs are some of the most important drivers of behavior
Once they can change their beliefs though, behavior will follow.
So now we review common beliefs of aggressive people:
- I’m entitled to be angry = yeah, but anger doesn’t equal aggression, and aggression is not that effective
Of course you are entitled to be angry.
The question is: does that give you the right to treat others rudely? Are you also entitled to treat people like crap?
Finally, it all comes down to effectiveness.
Most people telling themselves they’re entitled to be angry are actually saying “I’m entitled to get what I want through anger and aggression”.
However, as we’ve seen, over the long run expressing anger through aggression will most likely decrease your ability of getting what you want.
- If I’m not aggressive nothing will happen = great excuse for not having control over yourself
Pushing people and intimidating others can often help you get things done in the short run.
Of course, again, it comes at a heavy cost for you in the long run.
Top performers who build successful organizations and hold onto power rarely are overly aggressive.
Steve Jobs was probably an exception, and one might even argue if he was successful because of his aggression, or in spite of it.
There is maybe a parallel universe where Job learned to convey his anger with fewer explosions, and he remained at the helm of Apple for 30 years straight, never having been sacked in the first place, and produced 50 more revolutionary hits than he did when he came back later.
- Nice guys finish last = stop comparing yourself to extreme pushovers, it’s a weak cop-out
It’s not about where nice guys finish, because nobody says you must become a “nice guy”, whatever that means.
The question for aggressive people is where aggressive people finish.
And it’s rarely at the top, while enjoying an overall good life with successful relationships around them.
- Honesty is the best policy = yes, but not as an excuse to yell and offend
Honesty is great policy indeed.
But honesty is often used by aggressive people as an excuse to be rude, to offend, to yell, and to demean.
I remember many years ago the mother of an ex-girlfriend of mine told me that “I was a pussy” because I was removing excessive chili pepper from my dish.
She often used that style of communication, and her usual defense was that “she was honest”.
That’s quite weak actually. Honesty is good, aggression and offenses are rude.
Don’t even try to mix up the two, it’s weak-sauce (self-) manipulation.
Aggression is a communication style high in dominance and directness, with little regard for others’ well-being, and little respect for their personal power and freedom.
Albeit it can be useful to get things done and to push people, it also comes with some important limitations.
In this article, we learned when aggression is useful, and how to move past aggression to move to a more empowering communication style: assertiveness.