How to Deal With Aggressive People: Key Strategies

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Laws Of Human Nature" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you want to learn how to deal with aggressive people? How can you cope when people around you are aggressive?

Figuring out how to deal with aggressive people can be challenging and scary. But you may have to face aggressive people, and it’s important that you know what to do.

Read more about how to deal with aggressive people.

How to Deal With Aggressive People

Because everyone has aggressive tendencies, you’ll occasionally encounter low-level aggression. Simply ignore it and move on. However, highly aggressive people can be dangerous because they’re willing to break rules and cross lines that you probably aren’t. For example, when you get frustrated with someone, run out of patience for their resistance, and snap at them, you feel uncomfortable and quickly stop. An aggressor, on the other hand, may have no problem yelling or swearing at someone.

Before you learn how to deal with aggressive people you should learn about the two types of aggressors:

Type #1: Chronic Aggressors

Chronic aggressors have such strong feelings of helplessness that they regularly act on their aggression and cross social lines. Chronic aggressors likely become that way because of the influence of:

  • Genetics. Psychoanalyst Melanie Klein found that some babies were more greedy than others—they had huge tantrums and demanded their mothers’ milk. 
  • Development. If a child’s parents don’t give her independence, she may dominate others as an adult, or if her parents beat her, she might do the same to others. This is a way of getting control she never had as a child.

There are two types of chronic aggressors:

  • Primitive. These aggressors don’t have any self-control and become aggressive whenever they’re provoked. They tend to be criminals or bullies.
  • Sophisticated. These aggressors hide their aggression because they know most people don’t like dealing with it. 

You can identify chronic aggressors by:

  • Their “enemies.” Chronic aggressors have a lot of enemies that they claim are evil. These enemies may not be objectively bad.
  • Their self-image. They present themselves as geniuses and victims. The more they push these presentations, the more likely they’re chronic.
  • Their social position. More aggressive people tend to be at the top of hierarchies.
  • Their obsessive tendencies. Aggressors want to control their circumstances, even small ones.
  • Their use of people. Aggressors tend to use rather than empathize with people. It takes time to influence people using social skills, and aggressors are usually impatient, so they force people to do what they want, and this deadens their empathy. If they ever do anything that seems empathetic, it’s probably false—they’re not really listening, they’re sizing us up.
  • Their addiction to aggression. Acts of aggression induce adrenaline rushes, and other ways of stimulating these rushes pale in comparison. (This addiction is less self-destructive than you might think—even though aggression creates enemies and ill will, the more aggressively someone acts, the more likely they are to scare off challengers. However, the more enemies an aggressor has, the more anxiety she has, so she becomes even more aggressive. She can never stop being aggressive because she’d appear weak.)
  • Their temporary followers. Interestingly, even though aggressors display social qualities that we’re all scared of displaying ourselves, they do find followers. Their followers are usually aggressive as well and enjoy living vicariously through the aggressor, or being given positions in which they can be aggressive themselves. However, being around aggressors is bad for self-esteem, so most followers don’t last long.

Avoid dealing or working with chronic aggressors. If you have to, don’t let them control your emotions. One of their strategies is to make you think about how evil they are and how angry they make you, which takes your focus off what they’re actually doing and makes you think irrationally. Try to disengage. This is one way to learn how to deal with aggressive people.

If you have to fight with them, don’t do it overtly—aggressors are good at fighting because they have resources and they’re relentless, and you’ll probably lose. Instead, find out what insecurity is motivating their aggression. Then, you can threaten to or actually expose them. Aggressors fear losing control, so if your actions appear to be leading in that direction, they might back off and go after someone easier. Ideally, connect with their other victims for safety in numbers. 

Type #2: Chronic Passive Aggressors

Passive aggressors avoid confrontation, force, or active manipulation, but they still use aggression to get what they want. Passive aggression is also a way to release tension between the socially acceptable mask, real feelings, and self-image (we can pretend we’re innocent of aggression even though we’re still using it).

Chronic passive aggressors often learned this tactic in childhood as a way to respond to domineering parents whom they couldn’t actively challenge.

It can be hard to identify passive aggressors because their actions are contradictory and confusing. To recognize these types, look for fake vulnerability, childlike helplessness, and oversensitivity. The earlier you can identify passive aggressors, the earlier you can put up your guard.

Passive aggressors use the following techniques:

Technique #1: Being Late or Absent, Always With a Logical Excuse

Chronic passive aggressors show up late or miss commitments, but always have a reasonable excuse. This behavior is designed to make you feel superior or controlled. If you call them out on their behavior, they’ll accuse you of being unsympathetic or adding to the troubles or stress that make them late in the first place. This may not be the best way to learn how to deal with aggressive people.

Recognize this strategy by the nonverbal cues passive aggressors give off while making their excuses. Their tone is pouty and insincere.

To defend against this technique:

1. Stay calm, especially if the person is your boss. If you get angry, you’ll just encourage them.

2. Do the same behaviors back at them. Be purposefully late or absent and make reasonable excuses. This will make them realize you know their game.

  • For example, professor Milton Erickson used a version of this defense on a student who was notoriously late for class. The first day he taught her, when she was late, he and the rest of the class insincerely bowed to her superiority to call her on her lateness. She was embarrassed and was never late again.
Technique #2: Making Themselves Out to Be the Victim

Passive aggressors spin situations (even situations they’ve gotten themselves into) to cast themselves as a victim. The goal of this behavior is to get attention and control you. 

It can be hard to recognize this strategy because bad things happen to everyone. However, there’s an obvious difference between passive aggressors and other victims—passive aggressors like the drama of victimization, but real victims find it shameful and don’t like to talk about what happened to them. (There’s an old superstition that if something bad happens to you, it’s because there’s something wrong with you.) Additionally, passive aggressors may have created the ugly situations themselves—for example, their projects fail because they didn’t pay attention to details. 

Some additional clues indicate someone is using this strategy for how to deal with aggressive people:

  • They look bored when other people are talking.
  • Their suffering stimulates physical ailments, such as headaches or depression, but only when they feel most insecure or need a favor.
  • They target sensitive people who struggle with guilt.

To defend against this strategy, get some mental distance by getting angry about how one-sided the relationship is—you give them energy and attention, and they give you nothing in return. 

Technique #3: Making You Dependent on Them 

When you first encounter a passive aggressor, they might be very attentive to you—they’ll offer you help with your work or listen deeply. When you start to depend on them, they show confusing flashes of coldness. You can’t think of what you did to upset them, and you’re not even sure they are upset, but you want them to like you, so you start giving them attention, helping them with their work, and listening to them until you’re catering to them the same way they catered to you when you first met. The goal of this behavior is to get power over you.

  • For example, some parents use a version of this strategy on their children. A mother might be very attentive to her children, but when they do anything she doesn’t like, she acts cold. The children stop whatever they were doing and direct their attention toward soothing the mother’s emotion.

Another version of this strategy is for the passive aggressor to make promises and then not keep them, or only partially keep them. 

It can be hard to recognize this strategy because when you first encounter the passive aggressor, they seem so kind and solicitous that it’s hard to imagine them as manipulators. To avoid falling for this trap, be suspicious of anyone who’s too helpful too early and don’t let them get too close. Once they start showing coldness, they’ll be easier to identify—if the coldness seems unfounded, or they get upset with you for trying to create space, you know they’re using this strategy.

To defend against this strategy, end the relationship.

Technique #4: Making You Live in Fear

This strategy is usually employed by people you work for but it can also show up in relationships. The passive aggressor never tells you exactly what they need, and you have to guess. They sometimes praise you and sometimes criticize you for not doing a good job. (If they had told you what they needed, you could have done it, been immune to criticism, and they would have been dependent on you.)

It’s hard to defend against these passive aggressors because they usually have power over you and if they catch you trying to distance yourself, they’ll just try harder. All you can do is leave the relationship. Remember that leaving and protecting yourself is one important and valid strategy for dealing with aggressive people.

Technique #5: Make You Doubt Your Own Decency

Some chronic passive aggressors delegitimize your self-image. The goal of this strategy is to lower your self-esteem.

To recognize this strategy, look for nonverbal joy cues when you break bad news. Also, be on the lookout for backhanded compliments, purposeful negative misinterpretations of you, or harsh criticism. They’ll often claim to be joking if you get upset.

To defend against the strategy, stay calm so the aggressors know that they’re not riling you. You can also hint that you know what they’re up to.

For example, the French revolutionary Robespierre used this strategy against George Danton. Robespierre “defended” Danton by giving a speech that focused on a detailed list of the charges against him and finishing the speech saying despite all this, Danton was praiseworthy. 

Technique #6: Gaslighting

If a passive aggressor is gaslighting you, they’ll do something irritating, but when you confront them, they’ll respond by making it seem like they haven’t actually done anything wrong and you’re the one being unreasonable. The goal of this strategy is to make you doubt your behavior and the legitimacy or your feelings so that you don’t challenge the passive aggressor again. This is one way of dealing with aggressive people.

To recognize this behavior, look for nonverbal insincerity cues when the passive aggressor is apologizing. They might also bring up some past wrong you did to them. Additionally, they might be nice to everyone else, so that if you ever try to talk to others about their behavior, other people think you’ve lost it.

To defend against this strategy and work on dealing with aggressive people whenever the passive aggressor behaves negatively, write it down. Then, when they claim you’re the one being unreasonable, you can look back at your notes and objectively evaluate whether you were overreacting or whether they’re trying to make you doubt yourself. If they are attacking you, don’t make them angry—they’re probably better at manipulating emotions than you are. Instead, stay calm and try to look at everything objectively. When their criticisms are valid, accept them. When they’re not, don’t. The passive aggressor might stop using this strategy when they realize it’s not working. If they don’t, avoid them.

How to Deal With Aggressive People: Key Strategies

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  • Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
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  • Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life

Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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