One of the more difficult tasks of public speaking is finding the right balance between portraying competence and warmth. Sometimes in an effort to be strong and persuasive, we just come off looking and sounding like jerks. So we need to be aware of the communication habits that might make us appear aggressive.
Here are 6 habits that could be blocking your efforts to persuade and connect with your audience.
Eye contact is a powerful and intimate form of communication. If you engage in prolonged eye contact with someone, that can make him or her feel uncomfortable. Social worker Katherine Schreiber says that staring is an “apparent visual display of dominance [which] has long been attributed to how evolution has conditioned us to respond to threats and also to how accustomed we’ve become, as a species, to inferring our place in a perceived social hierarchy.” So when you stare at someone, it can be perceived as trying to assert dominance or power over them.
We can tell a lot about a person by his or her facial expression. In fact, research from Chris Firth shows that we make very quick and very accurate judgements about someone’s character and emotional state based on facial expressions. When you frown, it communicates negative emotions like displeasure or disappointment. Almost subconsciously, the person you are communicating with will feel like those negative emotions are aimed at him or her.
Pointing isn’t always bad. In fact, writer Nicholas Day says it’s one of the things that makes us human. In his article on the role of pointing, he cites research in child development which says we use pointing to learn to identify things. It’s a matter of joint attention and cooperation, so it’s a positive form of nonverbal communication. But when the pointers are older and the recipient is you, it feel uncomfortable, right? That’s because that joint attention, that spotlight, is now aimed at you. And when someone is pointing at you, if feels like they are trying to label you or single you out in an aggressive way.
Sometimes people in authority like to communicate their status by making others wait. Whether it’s a CEO coming late to a meeting or an artist starting a concert later than scheduled, the people who are waiting can start to feel dismissed, unimportant, or disrespected. Being on time for a presentation is a simple way to communicate to your audience that they matter.
In her recent article about nonverbal communication, Kendra Cherry says that “Researchers have found that high-status individuals tend to invade other people’s personal space with greater frequency and intensity than lower-status individuals.” This move reinforces the power hierarchy, so it can feel intrusive and aggressive. We all expect a relationship of trust to be in place before getting close, both literally and figuratively, to someone.
This type of aggressive communication can be seen in moves like changing topics, interrupting, or limiting opportunities for others to speak. Aggressive communicators can be a bit narcissistic. They tend to think their topics, opinion, and voice matter the most. So while they don’t think they are being aggressive, it can still come off as controlling.
One of my favorite communication theorists and authors, Julian Treasure says that conversation control methods like interrupting “most likely damage the rest of the conversation by changing the dynamics—no longer equal, as the interrupter has exercised dominance—as well as the emotional context; the interrupted person may well feel belittled and offended, giving rise to anger, resentment and unwillingness to be open from that point.” So recognize if you are using aggressive communication tactics to control the conversation.
Begin today to notice if you exhibit any of these 6 aggressive communication habits. They could come up in more formal settings like group projects, meetings, or presentations. Or they might start by creeping into your everyday conversations. Either way, remember that when you communicate aggressively, you are undermining your own efforts to persuade and connect.
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