I always start by getting an understanding of what is going on, so I ask my clients to describe typical situations where they experience this aggression. There are some common themes:
- It almost always happens when there is an audience – so there are at least 3 people in the conversation and it could be in the context of a formal meeting;
- The audience includes men of varying ranks;
- Sometimes the aggression comes from the man who outranks the rest, but it is usually from men who are slightly lower in the pecking order;
- It often comes in the form of aggressive questions, or aggressive assertions that suggest that the woman being addressed doesn’t know what she is doing or talking about;
- It also comes in the form of interruptions.
Granted, women sometimes have to deal with aggressive men one-on-one, but this seems to happen less often. In any event, the tactics for dealing with it are similar.
Let’s start by understanding what happens in the brain when anyone’s competence is questioned. We respond to such a threat as if our lives are in danger. As soon as this happens, our pituitary gland gives us a jolt of adrenalin, our brain is bathed in cortisol, our pre-frontal cortex shuts down, and we go into survival mode – fight, flee, freeze or appease. This is a classic threat – anxiety – defense response. When this happens, it is virtually impossible to construct a cogent non-defensive response. We cannot change how this response works once we have gone into anxiety – which is the physiological consequence of the cortisol that bathes our brain. We have to prevent ourselves from going into anxiety.
What are the most useful tactics in dealing with this?
- The first thing to learn is that you are not in danger – this is not about you! No matter how personal this may feel, whatever is coming your way is a function of something that is going on for your male colleague. You may not know what it is, but something is certainly going on – and it probably has something to do with his own status or sense of being secure in his place in the pecking order. Rather be curious about what might be going on – it keeps you open.
- Assume that your male colleague is only interested in a good outcome. It doesn’t even need to be true! You just need to assume that he is reasonable and that his intentions are for a good outcome. If you assume this, you are more likely to respond non-defensively.
- Respond to his question or assertion with a question of your own that draws him out – drawing him out is not only flattering to him, it enables you to get a better understanding of exactly what you need to respond to. Examples might be:
- What are you concerned about?
- Tell me more about your concern?
- What would make you more confident about this approach?
- How do you think we might mitigate that?
All the while, make sure that your breathing is slow and steady and that your voice is measured and calm (no matter how you feel). This is a critical tactic for preventing yourself from feeling or appearing anxious.
Understand that you need to prepare yourself – if you are going into a meeting, think about who is in your audience and how they typically engage. If there are men in that audience who tend to be aggressive, imagine what they might say, and practice a measured response. This gives you a memory to draw on when you are in a stressful situation – much like the memories that pilots lay down in the flight simulator in preparation for unexpected emergencies.
You also need to be prepared for what you will do when men talk over you – another form of aggression. Know what you will say in order to be able to finish what you were saying. It could be that you wait for them to finish speaking and then say “I’d like to finish what I was saying.” (Notice that you’re not asking permission). Alternatively, make a stop signal with your hand and say “If I may finish.” This preparation is important, because being spoken over can derail you.I cannot over-emphasize how important rehearsal is.
- Decide if there are any meeting participants with whom you should “bounce some ideas” beforehand. This can be a very useful tactic to get men you typically experience as aggressive in your corner before the meeting (if you are presenting something). That way they can ask their questions without an audience, and you can incorporate your responses into your presentation.
- At the end of the meeting remember that it is not about you. Even if there has been conflict as a result of your colleague’s aggressive challenges, that is over! If the participants are going to have refreshments together, make sure you go and that you engage in pleasant conversation even with your aggressive colleague. He is unlikely to have any lingering hard feelings and neither should you.
Part of what causes women to struggle with aggressive men is to do with how we grow up. Boys’ games tend to be competitive and aggressive – they are all about winning and defeating an enemy. They can get into a huge competition and even a massive fight and then go and have juice and cookies. Girls’ games tend to be relational, and can result in an ending to the relationship or the threat of loss of love. Much of what goes on in the workplace is men engaging in competitive and aggressive “games”. The workplace is competitive and you have to win – which is where the aggression can come from. Women need to learn that this doesn’t represent a threat to the relationship – it usually has nothing to do with the relationship at all.