- by Ronnie Herrema
Passive, Aggressive and the Third Way
The two most prevalent forms of communication are passivity and aggression. Aggression is not always scary and loud. It can be very polite, quiet and self controlled. That’s why it can be confusing. The thing to notice about aggressors is: they have pre-decided outcomes, they tell you what to do, ought to do, or shouldn’t have done, why you do what you do and what you thought and felt.
An aggressor is one who steers toward a specific outcome, even if the outcome is good and seemingly healthy. They come to the table with their mind made up thinking they know what is best for themselves and the other. Aggression can be polite and kind and sweet, but it thinks it knows what is best for you. It will patiently and kindly and slowly edge the outcome toward their reality or expectation, basically cornering the other person into a fixed outcome. Now, sometimes, of course, an aggressor may not be so suave and will intimidate, threaten, yell, pout, belittle, shame, scold, and use other aggressive tactics to get their way. Still though, often, the aggressor is also wise and quiet and subtle in their moves, so the thing to look for is: the person who steers things toward a specific outcome. The passive, believe it or not, do the exact same thing—just differently. The passive is also aggressive. There is actually no such thing as 'passive aggressive'. The truth is, all passivity becomes aggressive at some point. Passivity is aggression on rain-check. It is only a matter of time before the one who withholds their true thoughts and feelings and desires reaches a tipping point—the straw that breaks the camels back—and they explode.
And it comes out of nowhere. It often makes no sense.
The blowup is entirely disconnected from the situation, confusing the receiver (and the giver) from knowing why, and where this is coming from. Passive people often blow fuses, feel moody, are easily irritated, temperamental and snappy over various unconnected moments in their day-to-day life, feeling confused and hopeless over their mysterious negativity and uncontrolled depression. The body stores stress, and our conscious mind (like a processor) can only handle so much data from moment to moment. Passive people carry moments, feelings, hurts and agitations day-to-day and week-to-week; building up their capacity to feel and think and process. So, when the littlest bits of our day are thrown off, we snap—because our consciousness is overloaded, unable to take in anymore. The passive person makes a choice, as does the aggressor. It is a learned habit and cognitive decision we make when we assess situations. It is the mathematical direction we have chosen to take to get what we want, which is primarily—safety. We analyze the environment, the people, the words, the details, the imagined outcomes, and we make a choice—an aggressive one or a passive one.
Both choices are controls. Both choices are in a sense aggressive, because they are an attempt to steer the outcome to a specific imagined determination. But here’s the thing… Why are both aggressive? Because they leave out the other party. The aggressor demands an outcome, so does the passive, they just use different modes of control. One is force, the other is silence. If I demand forcefully what I want, if I intimidate, threaten, guilt trip etc., I can create the outcome I picture…now. If I stay silent and avoid conflict, not stepping into the ring with my thoughts and ideas, the situation will steer toward my determined outcome…now. Both are immediate ways to create a fixed outcome. And this is very confusing for the passive, because the story they tell themselves is “I’m being the peacemaker. I’m forgiving. Taking the highroad. Turning the other cheek. I’m avoiding conflict and calming the situation down.”
Sort of true, but in the end it is not. Why? Because withholding information, keeping yourself a step back from true engagement, is to not give the other the information they need for you to mutually create an outcome. And we know this. When I withhold, I manipulate the other because I know they can’t judge me, respond to me, and don’t have the information they need to make an informed decision. So, whatever action the other takes, the passive feels power because the person didn’t know their thoughts. This act of withholding makes the passive feel safe and powerful.
Both create fixed outcomes.
The passive and the aggressor both need courage; to speak up and let speak.
It is scary to stand your ground and let someone know your thoughts, especially in a heated situation. It is frightening to expose yourself knowing you could be disagreed with, and worse—rejected. It is scary to step back and allow space for the other person to create an outcome with you. It takes great strength and courage to honor another persons point of view, giving it the same weight and importance as your own. Because that’s really the goal: two people moving toward an open outcome, creating a mutual reality that is truly win-win. It takes guts to stand in that middle space of vulnerability where you have the confidence on one hand to state your opinion, and the grace on the other to receive theirs. To know your idea might shape theirs and that their opinion may cut away at yours too. It is an offering. Setting your thoughts, feelings and ideas on the table for another to sift through and accept or reject. And that is what is at the heart of the passive and the aggressive—rejection. Their modes of control are attempts to avoid an outcome where they are rejected. The beautiful thing is, when you create an internal state that says, “I value other peoples thoughts and feelings and realities as equal to my own” you will find that you are free to state your own without fear of rejection. “As we measure, so shall it be measured in return.” It’s the law of reciprocation. When we internally agree to accept openly the other person, without judgement, we feel our own internal release to express ourselves free from judgment. Knowing that, someone disagreeing or rejecting you isn’t that big of a deal anyway. Another internal reality to create is, “I honor and cherish others opinions and realities and lives, regardless of how much I understand, agree with, or make sense with.”
When we can accept the fact that people are free and truly able to think entirely differently to us, we realize this is the only world we would want. A world where everyone leaned toward your liking and swayed toward your desires and outcomes would suck, because it would be boring... Do we really believe we have what it takes to determine someones life? To impose our values on them? That our ideals and preferences and way of behaving and living a life as a human should be adopted by them? Are we truly so confident, capable, able? When we can accept the reality that, “I truly do not have what it takes to determine others reality, and I do not know what is best for others,” we are free to accept them and meet them in that sacred middle ground where joined minds can meet and share and bend and flex and create mutually beneficial realities and outcomes.
This is the third place of communication—assertive. The assertive states their opinion, feeling, idea, and allows the other to ponder it, ignore it, reject it or accept it as they wish. Why? Because the assertive is free, because they’ve chosen a different route—an open outcome.
An open outcome invites the other into the middle. An open outcome says to both parties, “I don’t know fully what is best, let’s discover it together.” An open outcome frees the aggressor from his weapons, and invites the passive out of their silence. An open outcome says, “I don’t know what is best for you or even me here, so let’s talk and come up with something together.”
An open outcome unites people and creates bonds. An open outcome is creative in nature because it says, “Let’s see what we will find together.” An open outcome is an adventure and a journey, an exploration into an unknown reality that will be fundamentally better than the world either would have created alone. An open outcome says, “I could create the outcome, but I know deep down that my way, as beautiful as I see it, is missing a piece—yours.” An assertive person states freely and honestly, for they know they’ve committed in their heart and mind to accept the other freely and entirely. Assertion is the middle ground, the third option, the place where two people meet, creating outcomes, joining hearts, minds, ideas, passions, hurts, wounds and solutions. Assertion releases both parties from control because it knows it cannot sway, manipulate, or force the others hand. And, even if it could, it wouldn’t. For assertion truly wants what is in the highest and best interest of all parties.
Assertion is the joining of the healthy energies that the passive and the aggressive utilize—
silent patience and brutal honesty.
And so we are invited and reminded to know that there is a third way to communicate. A way that at times looks both passive and aggressive, because you’ll be honest with and also open to the other, but, standing on the ground work of a key difference—not predetermining a fixed outcome. No, the assertive stands in that middle ground with their bravery, and, by their grace invites the other to join them in that same space, being curious and open and flexible, creating the highest and best mutual outcome for everyone involved.
Ronnie is an artist who's ideas have launched businesses, apps, music albums, and as of late, cartoons. You can visit his website here. He thinks outside the box but don't tell him that, he doesn't believe in boxes, unless you're in a movie cinema. Ronnie lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan, U.S.A with his wife Anna and their three boys Jack, Griffin and Maverick. See previous articles by Ronnie Herrema