Lesson 2 of 7 - learn to communicate effectively

Response Options to an Aggressive Person

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Expert's Council

The Web address of this article is https://sfhelp.org/cx/apps/aggression.htm

Updated  01-09-2015

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      This is one of a series of brief articles on how to respond effectively to annoying social behaviors. An "effective response" occurs when you get your primary needs met well enough, and both people feel respected enough.

To get the most from this article, read these first:

      Overly-aggressive people are usually unaware of - or care little about - other people's needs and boundaries. They may or may not be egotistical, rude, controlling, and/or manipulative. They often unconsciously maintain a one-person awareness bubble and send implied ''I'm 1-up.'' R(espect messages in social conversations. These traits suggest they're unaware of being ruled by a false self. 

      Are you ever aggressive with certain people?

      Reflect - how did the adults who raised you react to over-aggression? Have you adopted their way? If so, is it effective?

Response Options

       How can you respond effectively to an overly-aggressive adult or child? For perspective, let's first look at...

Lose-lose Responses

  • repressing your feelings and needs (self-neglect)

  • judging and labeling - "You're really rude, pushy, and disrespectful."

  • gossiping and complaining about the person to others,

  • ordering or demanding - "Stop being so aggressive!" (This is fruitless)

  • getting aggressive yourself - arguing, fighting, threatening, and/or attacking,

  • blowing up, swearing, or threatening;

  • tuning out, hanging up, leaving, and/or avoiding face-to-face contact without problem-solving.

Responses like these lower your self respect, damage  your relationship, provoke conflict, and suggest that your Self is disabled. There are...

Better Choices

      This YouTube video provides perspective on how to confront people respectfully. Doing this is usually required in annoying social situations and relationships. The video mentions eight self-study lessons in this Web site - I've reduced that to seven.:


  • Make sure your true Self is guiding you. If not, make attaining that a high priority, or lower your expectations.

  • Check your attitude about the aggressor. If you feel 1-up (superior), you'll broadcast that nonverbally, which invites combat and ineffective communication.

  • Be aware of the other person's behavior and your reactions, and decide if s/he is aggressive or assertive. Can you describe the difference?

  • Mentally review these effective-response basics until they become automatic. Stay aware of your personal rights.


  • Ask "(Name), are you open to some constructive feedback now?

Giving unrequested feedback can feel disrespectful and aggressive (!) Most people will be curious, and say "OK." If so, you can ask calmly...

"(Name), who's needs are more important to you now - yours or mine?"

      This question often startles people, and may cause them to be more aware of your and their needs and your communication process. The best answer is "Our needs are equally important to me." Depending on their response, you may then use an assertive ' 'I-message'' like this...

"(Name), when you focus mainly on your needs, I feel disrespected, frustrated, and resentful..."  Optionally, add: "...and I need you to want to respect my needs and opinions equally with yours.."

      Then keep steady eye contact, be silent, and expect defensive reactions like...

"Well why are you so oversensitive?" or

"I'm not discounting you - you're imagining it,"  or

"You sure are self-centered.!" etc.

      Then use a respectful hearing check like...

"So you feel I'm too sensitive." or

"You feel you're
not ignoring me."

      Hearing checks are statements, not questions, and they are not agreements. If your partner nods, grunts, or says "Yeah," then calmly repeat your I-message (above) with good eye contact - and expect more resistance.

      Repeat this sequence until you feel heard. The more you develop and practice a response strategy like this, the easier it will become.

      Can you think of an overly-aggressive person you might use these options with? How do you think s/he would react? How would you feel? Would your true Self stay in charge? If there are some aggressors you're  reluctant to use this strategy with (like a volatile parent), do you know why you're reluctant? Usually such hesitance comes from a distrustful or scared subself - not your true Self


      If you have inherited psychological wounds from early-childhood trauma, you may be over-sensitive to - and/or imagine - aggression in some other people. You may avoid asserting your needs and boundaries for various reasons, and unconsciously assume a victim role. Suspect this is true if you experience many people as "aggressive," "manipulative," and/or "controlling," rather than normally assertive.

      For more perspective, see also the response-options to manipulative and insensitive people, and these ideas about communicating with "problem" kids..


      This is one of a series of brief articles in online Lesson 2 suggesting effective ways to respond to common irritating social behaviors. This article offers ways to respond to an overly-aggressive adult or child. The ways designed to preserve your integrity and boundaries, not to change the other person's personality. These response-options are based on...

  • keeping your true Self in charge,

  • maintaining a mutual-respect attitude,

  • awareness of what you feel and need,

  • clarity on your mutual personal rights, and...

  • fluency in the relationship skills of awareness, assertion, and empathic listening.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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