You’ve been told that your communication style is ‘too aggressive‘ or that you need to brush up your communication skills. But the feedback ended there and you’re not sure why people are getting this impression. Here are three behaviours you might be using unconsciously, which can come across as aggressive. And some tips for preventing them creating the wrong impression.

1. Increasing the volume or speed of your voice when trying to influence others

This habit is usually driven by the desire to be heard. Without even thinking about it, you raise your voice in order to gain others’ attention. Or you speed up because you have so much to say. You don’t mean to sound aggressive. But that’s how others hear you.

Breaking this habit takes focus. Success will be easier when you track for early signs that your voice is changing. Cues to be aware of include:

  • Finger pointing (which often accompanies acceleration of speech)
  • Tension in your throat or vocal cords
  • Stuttering or stumbling over you words, because you are speaking too quickly
  • Gasping for breath between your sentences
  • Lack of contribution by others (which can indicate they feel you are speaking over them)

2. Using ‘Blamer’ gestures and postures

Virginia Satir was a therapist who described 5 styles of body language which people use in high stress situations. ‘Blamer’ is the style which looks and sounds most aggressive. If you’re using the following postures or gestures, other people will interpret your behaviour as aggressive behaviour.

  • Standing with your hands on your hips
  • Making abrupt, pointing gestures – either with your finger or an object such as a pen or glasses
  • Shaking your head repetitively
  • Leaning into others’ personal space (which generally starts at around arms length)
  • Tapping your foot while someone else is talking
  • Moving very quickly

To prevent your body language coming across as aggressive, aim to use ‘Leveller’ stance and gestures. This will help you look and sound assertive. To do this, try:

  • Keeping your arms uncrossed and by your sides if you’re standing. Or placing your hands on the table or on your thighs if you’re sitting. This is open, assertive body language.
  • Standing in a relaxed, upright assertive position. Check that your legs are uncrossed and that your weight is evenly distributed across both feet. Alternatively, if you’re sitting down, sit right back into the chair. Check that you can feel the chair back supporting you. Keep your legs uncrossed and your feet on the floor.
  • Hold your hands still. Avoid tapping or pointing gestures.

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3. Rebutting and dismissing

It’s okay to hold a different opinion to someone else. But if you repeatedly rebut and dismiss what others’ say, you will appear to be hostile and negative. Listen out for the following starter phrases. If you’ve used them more than three times in five minutes, you’re probably sounding aggressive.

  • You’re wrong
  • Yes, but
  • No
  • That’s ridiculous
  • I disagree
  • That’s stupid
  • We tried that before and it didn’t work

To break the rebuttal habit, make a point of enquiring about others’ perspectives before explaining your own. This will help you come across as a collaborative problem solver. A simple way to do this is to asking probing or clarifying questions. Another useful technique is to increase the number of reflective statements you send. Useful phrases include:

  • Tell me more about…
  • What makes you think…?
  • How do you see that working in practice?
  • What you’re saying is…
  • You think… Because