A few years ago, a vice president from a Fortune 100 company came to me for help with his speaking. He wanted to become CFO but was worried that his soft voice was holding him back. When I met him in person, I was quite surprised—he had an exceptionally dominant physical presence. What was the problem?
When I asked him about his background, he explained that he had been a state champion boxer with 125 knockouts. He did not want to project anger or aggression outside the ring, so he made sure his voice was never too loud—which was now the problem. As we worked together, he learned to speak with a strong voice without sounding angry and aggressive.
It may feel like a fine line between sounding authoritative and being perceived as too aggressive. But by understanding the three differences between communicating strength and communicating aggression, you can establish the balance that’s right for you and become a more dynamic leader.
One of the differences between people who communicate strength and people who communicate aggression is the driving force behind the communication. Are you being driven primarily by emotion, or are you being thoughtful and deliberate? Some people believe they are being strong leaders by demonstrating a lot of passion and willing their listeners into supporting them. While passion is great, you must not be overly emotional when you feel strongly about an issue. Instead, present compelling analysis with power and precision. For example, if you are in a meeting where someone is going off on a tangent that you think is unproductive, an aggressive response would be to drop your hands on the table and shout: “What are you talking about?!” This response is a gut reaction, driven by emotion.
A strong response would be lean forward smoothly and say: “How does your idea connect to our objective?” This strong response makes the same point as the aggressive response, but in a way that is much more deliberate and measured. This way, you communicate strong leadership without coming across as a bully.
Another one of the differences between people who communicate strength and people who communicate aggression is pacing. Aggressive leaders tend to be rapid-fire with their questioning, leaving their listeners riddled with self-doubt.
Aggressive leaders will fire short, punching questions—like a machine gun. Their frustration is clear; their focus is muddled. Strong leaders still ask pointed questions, but they ask them one at a time, allowing for their listeners to respond. This way, the key questions are still being asked, but the focus is on finding solutions instead of hammering points home.
Finally, you can avoid coming across as too aggressive if you are mindful of your tone. The same words said with two different tones can have completely different effects on your listeners.
The tone of aggressive leaders tends to be sharp and cutting—like a jackhammer breaking through concrete. The tone of strong leaders, on the other hand, tends to be smooth and even—like a plane soaring into the sunset. The content may be the same, but the delivery is incredibly important.
Your tone can win over your listeners, or you lose them.
While having a reputation for being too aggressive is bad, having a reputation for being weak is even worse. So, you must remember that you can still be strong without being too aggressive. By understanding the differences between strength and aggression, you will be able to strike the right balance and lead your team with confidence, influence, and unity.