There’s a fair bit of attention being given this week to the management style of former chief of staff Peta Credlin, and the interview style of ABC’s 7.30 host Leigh Sales.
Credlin claimed her tough approach would have been unremarkable if she had been a man, noting:
“If I was a guy I wouldn’t be bossy, I’d be strong … If I was a guy I wouldn’t be a micromanager, I’d be across my brief, or across the detail … If I wasn’t strong, determined, controlling … then I would be weak and not up to it and should have to go … So, it’s very binary when it comes to women.”
Sales has been accused of being bossy too (or not bossy enough), with Malcolm Turnbull once going so far as to publicly label Sales’ style aggressive. Like Credlin, Sales makes no apology for her approach, explaining:
I do the best I can to be fair, impartial and to always ask what I think the average viewer would want asked … If people aren’t answering the question then I push them to answer it because that’s what I’m paid to do.
More recently Sale has implied perceptions of her aggression are usually due to the partisan lens through which her questioning is viewed.
Is it fair to describe these women as aggressive, or are they simply being assertive?
This is an important question because there is a world of difference between being the two behaviours. One is a negative approach; the other is positive. One incites fear and retaliation; the other encourages mutual respect.
Understanding this distinction is important for all women, not just the Credlins and Sales of this world.
Aggressive behaviour is at its core about dominance. Involving intimidating words and body language, aggression discourages dissent, demands obedience, and tries to belittle the other person by making them feel less powerful.
While aggression is about trying to take power from another, assertiveness is about sharing it. Assertive behaviour is still very goal-oriented and can be just as much about getting people to do what you want, but it is done in a way that treats people with respect.
In other words, aggression could be said to be about forcing people to do something, while assertiveness is about convincing them to want to do it.
So how can women practise this elusive quality? It’s not really all that difficult, once we understand the distinction.
The Centre of Clinical Interventions in Western Australia describes assertiveness as a communication style that allows you “to express your feelings, thoughts, beliefs and opinions in an open manner that doesn’t violate the rights of others.”
CCI has produced a handy online toolkit on assertiveness to help people avoid being aggressive, identify what is stopping them from being assertive, and increase their assertive thinking and behaviour. The toolkit includes online training modules including information, worksheets, and suggested exercises or activities.
According to CCI, being assertive involves realising you have the right to judge your own behaviour, thoughts, and emotions, and that you have the right to a range of behaviours including saying no, changing your mind, making mistakes, and disagreeing with others.
But an important part of these rights is recognition that they come with responsibilities, and that we must take responsibility for the consequences of our thoughts and behaviours.
“Often people think they are behaving assertively, but they are ignoring the consequences of their actions and the rights of others. This would be more typical of an aggressive style of communication,” the toolkit explains.
Other examples of aggression include using a sarcastic or condescending voice; using threats, put-downs or prejudiced language; being boastful; or expressing opinions as fact. Physical manifestations include invading other people’s personal space, staring, pointing or fist clenching, and sneering or scowling.
When painted in these terms, the destructive nature of aggression to our relationships – at work and in the community, as well as at home – is clear. It is a behaviour that we are all better off banishing from our lives.
The work being done by CCI to increase the assertiveness skills of people with anxiety and eating disorders is commendable.
However it is a great shame that similar education isn’t being done proactively in our primary and secondary schools to ensure the upcoming generations of Australian women not only know how to read and write, but also how to be assertive, and feel comfortable with doing so in all aspects of their life.
Granted, even with greater awareness and adoption of assertiveness, there will still be people destructively mislabelling strong women as aggressive.
On the upside though, women more skilled at being assertive will better able to deflect that criticism, and confidently call it out as the hollow aggression it actually is.