One of the memorable clients I’ve had in my career as a speaking coach was an ex-NFL football player who became an executive at a major food company.
As you might expect, he had quite a large stature.
As I watched him speak, I observed that he stayed completely still. He didn’t gesture. He didn’t move around. He was completely static. So I asked him, “Why don’t you move?”
“Look at me,” he said. “If I start moving around, I’m only going to intimidate people.”
While he was right to be concerned about coming across as aggressive — he was a big guy — he was wrong about the solution. He lost his power altogether. Speaking with a flat pancake style is not the way to go. But you don’t need to be an ex-football player to be concerned about the line between communicating strength and communicating aggression.
As a leader, you want to be strong. But what are the warning signs you’ve gone too far and have become aggressive?
1. Too much passion
Being a passionate leader can be a great way to galvanize your people. But too much passion can come across as aggressive. If you get fired up too often, you’re team may not take you seriously — or worse, they’ll find you intimidating.
Passion is like using jalapeno peppers in cooking: Just the right amount can add tremendous flavor, but overdo it and you won’t even be able to taste the food. Be thoughtful about how and how often you show passion.
2. Jumping to conclusions without taking the audience along for the ride
Another warning sign of aggressive speaking is stating conclusions without explaining how you reached them. Strong leaders gain support for their ideas by explaining their rationale, not by dogmatically declaring that they have all the answers. You also run the risk of making people feel dumb — as if your conclusion was so obvious that it didn’t even warrant an explanation.
If you jump to conclusions, your audience will feel like they’re on a hike with a guide that just sprinted far ahead of them. They won’t know where to go, they’ll feel stupid, and they’ll see the guide’s behavior as too aggressive. If you’re going somewhere, make sure you take the audience along with you.
3. Challenging the wrong people
Depending on the company culture, challenging other leaders can be seen as aggressive at one company but completely appropriate at the next. Intel is infamous for its “constructive confrontation” philosophy, where disagreement is a virtue. But for most companies, there are some people you can challenge, and some people you just can’t.
I recently coached a leader from a major aerospace company who was sent to me for coming across as too aggressive. He had challenged the CEO in a major leadership meeting. At his company, that behavior crossed the line. To be viewed as strong but not aggressive, you need to know where that line is in your organization.
4. Staccato rhythm
The quality of your rhythm can also determine whether or not you come across as aggressive. Staccato rhythm is when your sounds are short and sharply separated from each other, rather than smooth and flowing. Staccato rhythm can especially be seen as aggressive when you’re hitting someone with rapid-fire, “machine-gun” questions.
A light rain of questions is okay; a hailstorm is overwhelming. Slow down and smooth out your sound patterns to avoid the perception of aggression.
By recognizing these warning signs of aggressive speaking, you will have power and credibility while maintaining the trust and respect of your people.