Aggressive Behavior: How to Graciously Navigate Relationships With Difficult People

Aggressive Behavior: How to Graciously Navigate Relationships With Difficult People

When my boys were younger I had taken them to a nearby pond to go fishing. In most local fishing holes you will find a pair of territorial angry birds, also known as swans, who have taken up residence. Not long after our excursion got started, a large male (standing eye to eye with me large) made his way over to us to express his displeasure. As a result he began intimidating us to exit his territory. It was working!

Then, along came a petite teenage girl in her park ranger uniform. Shrewdly trained to rescue helpless men from territorial water fowl, she grabbed a branch and started waving it overhead. Gently shooing the beast, it sheepishly dipped back into the lake whence it floated away. Another day saved.

Differentiating Healthy Boundaries

What impressed me was how she gently asserted her boundaries thus dissolving the situation. In contrast I was feeling a bit threatened, which made me fear for my kids and could have lead to one of us getting hurt. A calm presence can calm the aggressive personality and diffuse anxious situations. This allowed for neither person nor bird to get hurt.

Intimidation typically tries to make one bird bigger than another, to drive the other into an under-functioning posture. When we feel insecure or emotionally threatened, we often naturally try to make ourselves bigger. 


Many relational conflicts stem from an attempt to manage or direct the behavior of the other rather than self. More extreme forms of overfunctioning, namely intimidation, are common for a person who is losing control or not getting his or her way. Over years they learn habits to become big and loud to get their way. Since most people will often just back down and adapt to keep the peace, this reinforces the behavior.

There are two typical reactions to aggressiveness: (1) counter aggressive behavior or  (2) emotional distance and cutoff. In the long run, both of these lead to more conflict and alienation. Conflict and alienation are twin sisters leading to broken relationships.

So how should we respond? Here are three disciplines that can help navigate these waters toward productive mutual relationship.

1. Respect the dignity of the other — Don’t allow yourself to slide down into the ravine of minimizing or berating the difficult person. This is still true if it is only in your own mind. How we think is who we become. The Apostle Paul said “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8) This applies especially to people.

It is all to easy to slip into inwardly diminishing the dignity of the other person with labels like “jerk,” “immature,” or more colorful terms. They are still a human being—worthy of being respected. If you are sharply critical in your internal conversation, it will bleed through in your external conversation. This is a bad habit to get into. Our thought life makes us the people we are. An intentional posture of understanding toward the other will help you become a better and holistically healthier self.

2. Maintain a calm non-reactive presence — This is the hard part. Again, our typical impulse reactions in conflict are: (1) intimidate back (counter aggressive), or (2) emotional distancing (passive aggressive). The first usually leads to a fight or escalation of some sort.

The second (distance/cut off) usually leads to a short term lowering of anxiety, but a general increase of tension in the global relationship. What is unresolved festers and grows. In a work place, marriage, or larger family, this will have a longterm erosive affect. Smaller issues will escalate faster and more severely in the bitter soup of unresolved conflict.

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Maintaining a calm presence can be aided by discovering the disarming power of questions. Our tendency in tension or conflict is to start making counter “You” statements” Well YOU do this,” and “At least I don’t do blank like YOU.” That will take you nowhere good. Questions are less threatening and disarming. They also imply, “Hey I care about how you feel; what is going on with your heart?”

Fred Kofman has a great little article and video on the Huffington Post about this. As Kofman says, “you don’t have to escalate the conflict.” Imagine yourself absorbing the emotion with a sponge and then wringing it out afterward. 

Maintaining a calm and non-reactive presence requires a choice for thinking—an intentional endeavor to not wade into the mire of unrestrained emotionality. This discipline is important. Resisting reactivity creates the necessary space for thinking and differentiation; thinking is necessary for discovering mutually nurturing solutions.

3. Differentiation of Self — Differentiation is developing the ability to make principled and non-reactive decisions. Again one must start practicing a calm presence in order to make room for this.

There are two primary human forces always at work in all relationships, namely togetherness and individuality. When these are not kept in proper balance, problems and even symptoms can occur.

Too much togetherness will lead to group think. It occurs when individuals have lost self to the forces of group emotional processes. According to group think theory, individuals can no longer think for themselves, but are neck deep in the currents of group consensus. There is no company, family, or social group that is not susceptible. Fred Lunenburg has a great article for those who want more on this topic.

In contrast to togetherness, too much individuality leads to isolation, emotional distance, and cutoff. This always lowers stress in the short term, but it will not produce a healthy marriage or work relationship. It is just the other ditch.

Toward Healthier Relationships

These three things: 1. respecting the dignity of the other; 2. maintaining a calm non-reactive presence, and 3. the differentiation of self are critical to establishing healthy relationships. Differentiation of self is the key to nurturing healthy interaction with an aggressive or passive aggressive spouse, family member, coworker, or social group member.

Differentiation of self does not give the other person the proverbial “smack-down.” Rather it respects and regards even the abusive person as human, as the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28). It is calm and loves enough to establish healthy and nurturing boundaries within the relationship. 

This is empowering because it helps foster healthy relationships even with those who are either not committed to the same, or perhaps lack the emotional awareness (Emotional Intelligence) to realize it.


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