Friday, April 12, 2013

Aggression and collaborators

I'm working pretty intensively with a colleague currently on a project, an Skype has decided to not allow us to have a video connection the last few times we've met. So we have to depend on tone of voice only to convey information.

At some point, I realized that I was getting very excited about a point where I knew I was right, and since he couldn't see the smile on my face while I was talking, it was possible that I just came across as overly aggressive. So after I was done explaining, I preemptively apologized in case he felt bullied into understanding my point.

He hadn't. We moved on.

But I have felt bullied into accepting other people's points of views, and I have felt threatened when discussing science with others. I have also felt tension rising in me when talking to very emphatic excitable people (mostly, and stereotypically, Italians) until I've realized that that is "just how they talk" an recalibrated.

In fact, after a recent visit with a colleague, where we just had a bad dynamic (every scientific disagreement seemed to escalate into an argument), I've tried to be very cognizant of my tone an possible aggression level.

Which now makes me wonder at what set of indicators pushes one over the line between excitable and emphatic to aggressive, especially in the context of defending one's position over that of someone else.

Certainly, having a history of being willing to back down gracefully when proven wrong helps. Being consistent about what one said in the past helps. As does being clear about one's assumptions under which and domains in which one's argument is valid. All of this required developing a history with the person one is arguing with, and to a certain extent, I'm willing to only care about the large n interaction limit of my relationships. But is that all?

What think you?


  1. My first thought/question is: would men (this is a generalization) have the same concern?

    I've just started reading Sheryl Sandberg's book "Lean In" and read about the gender differences in confidence and how that translates to self-assessment (that women tend to be more overly critical of themselves than men do).
    She discusses some specific strategies women should consider during negotiations which may apply to your situation.

    I've heard she isn't for everyone but I was a big fan of her TED talk and am so far enjoying her book. I think much of her advice in the business world applies to the academic/science field and the challenges women face.

  2. You may have about women begin more introspective about things like this than men, as generalizations. Unless that means that I also have lower bar for what is an acceptable level of aggression in my interactions, it's a tangential point to this post... (though my partner may disagree with me.)

    I've read lots of reviews of Lean In, but not the book itself. I'll think about picking up a copy.

  3. I think "recalibrating" is the most important point here. If something is received as excitement or aggression depends so much on the two people involved in the discussion. And some people will take care that they are not coming across in a negative way, others just don't care.
    I'm usually very sensitive to any kind of undertone and I interpret them much earlier as aggressive than others. On the other hand, I love to have a good discussion where I know my arguments are strong - and then I can come across as aggressive. Sometimes it's received positive, sometimes not. But even if you talk to somebody the first time it's possible to sort of "recalibrate" on the go if you are good in "active listening" and the communication styles are not totally at the two ends of the scale.

  4. Oh man. I totally relate.

    I have an Italian coworker (a newer grad student) who I'm training in the lab. I find even person-to-person communication with him to be challenging. Perhaps I interpret his demanding and questioning manner -- for example, interrupting me mid-sentence to clarify something -- to be very aggressive. This puts me in a defensive and aggressive mood. It's mentally exhausting.

    I don't really care what he thinks of me so much, but I wish I was better at keeping my calm for my own emotional well-being. I always walk away wondering how it escalated and what I could have done differently to make it go smoother next time.

  5. "for example, interrupting me mid-sentence to clarify something -- to be very aggressive"

    Guilty as charged. Its things like this that I do, that I know could set people off. I can't speak for the intentions of your grad student, but I certainly don't intend aggression when I do something like that. I am unfortunately an impatient person, even more so when I am excited about something.