Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Defining Aggression

In cooperative culture, being aggressive is pretty much a universal clear no-no. Unfortunately, it's not necessarily clear where demonstrative behavior crosses the line into aggressive behavior, and this ambiguity can be tough to navigate with sure footing.

Here's a representative dictionary definition of aggression:
hostile attitude or behavior: threatening behavior or actions

The challenge with adjectives such as "hostile" and "threatening" is interpreting intent. It is not at all unusual for someone to receive words or actions differently than they were intended, and nowhere is that more likely than when it comes to negativity.

Let's suppose you are part of a cooperative group that has explicitly said it wants to embrace diversity (supporting each member to be their authentic self) and has established that aggressive behavior is unacceptable.

Let's further suppose that you have two people in your group named Kim and Jesse, and that Kim is a passionate ball of energy with lots of ideas and spontaneity, while Jesse tends to be reserved, thoughtful, and soft-spoken. While both are valued members of the group their styles and personalities are quite different. Suppose Kim speaks frequently in meetings, and Jesse not so much.

It doesn't take a great imagination to see how Kim's normal form of engagement may swamp Jesse's boat. When Kim gets energized, it will be tempting for Jesse to observe, "If I acted that way it would mean I was very upset; if that's true for Kim I'm under attack."

At its worst, Jesse may project upset onto Kim that simply isn't there. But even if Jesse is aware of that trap and refrains from projecting, the playing field is left unsafe for Jesse because it's unnatural and awkward to have to raise one's voice and barge into a fast-paced dialog to be heard. What's comforting and exciting for Kim may be aggressive and chaotic for Jesse.

Given that the group has promised to be non-aggressive, you can appreciate that Jesse may feel betrayed when it allows Kim to set the tone of meetings. Going the other, if meetings typically proceed only at the more deliberate pace that Jesse favors, Kim may feel betrayed by the promise to support members being their authentic selves. Uh oh.

The range of preferences I've described above can arise from a number of differences (while it's not hard to find counterexamples to the stereotypical tendencies I'm describing below, the tendencies still have validity):

o  Family of origin: Northern European stock tends to produce Jesses; Southern European stock tends to produce Kims.

o  Class: Blue collar culture tends to manifest Kims; white collar tends to manifest Jesses.

o  Gender: Men tend to be Kim-like; women tend to be Jesse-like.

Added to this multicultural stew is the likelihood that some members of the group may not be in touch with their feelings—aggressive or otherwise—and thus may deny, when asked, if their statements or actions are aggressive when they actually are. It can be a real train wreck.

What Can You Do?
Here are some ideas about what might help your group navigate this challenging dynamic—without jettisoning agreements about aggression:

1. Normalize the expression of feelings 
Aggression tends to be linked with upset or distress, and many groups struggle with how to work with upset constructively when it enters the room. While it's admittedly a challenge to develop group capacity to work with feelings, I think it's essential that we do. Not dealing with emotions doesn't work well at all (leading to denial, suppression, distortion, and volcanic eruptions when they can no longer be contained).

The hope is that by welcoming the expression of anger, hurt, and fear, these primal human responses can be uncoupled from aggression, and not so scary.

2. Get in habit of asking if people are upset if you perceive them to be
This will work best if it's an explicit group norm—not to put someone in the penalty box, but to better understand what's going on and help them move through it. Emotional distress is both a source of information and energy. Learn how to tap into it—not banish it to the dog house.

3. Offer a range of formats for engaging on topics 
Once you digest that what works well for Jesse is not the same as what works well for Kim, it's only a small additional step to intentionally offering variety in the ways that the group engages on topics. The goal here is to accommodate the range you have in family of origin, class, and gender among the membership such that everyone gets something they're comfortable with some of the time. That should work much better than some segments of the group constantly feeling stifled or unsafe.

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