“The minute I express my opinion clearly, I get labeled as aggressive.”  This may be the most recurrent refrain I hear from the women leaders I coach.  They report that if they hold back or are soft-spoken, they get run over in conversations.  Yet if they come forward with strength, they get tattooed with what I call the “Scarlet B:” the reputation as a bitch (excuse the French).

There’s no doubt that organizations tolerate more forcefulness from men than from women, so women often have to operate in a much narrower stylistic swath.  At the same time, something has nagged at me about these clients’  stories.  In each of their organizations, I can name other women leaders who are successful and influential who have escaped the “aggressive” label.  And many of the women that I’ve coached do, indeed, have quite a sharp edge.  So while I fully acknowledge that organizations are often intolerant of strength in women, I don’t believe that it’s impossible for a woman to be both strong and avoid the Scarlet B tattoo.

The issue is not whether you’re coming across with strength – it’s rather the kind of strength you’re coming across with. There is an important distinction between assertiveness and aggression.  The word “assertive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to join,”  while “aggressive” has its roots in the Latin word for “to attack.”  Assertion stands its ground, like a mountain or tree.  It has a full and present quality that is based on your intention to make real contact with yourself and others.  Aggressiveness, on the other hand, has a forward-leaning, ‘coming at’ quality, and often reflects a loss of interrelatedness.  In women, there can be a sharpness or shrillness to the voice that often belies an underlying energy of anger, frustration, powerlessness or fear.  If left unmanaged or ungrounded, those emotions can give our communication a spear-like quality.

Unfortunately, because organizations tolerate more spears from men than from women, women need to take extra care that their communications are balanced and effective.  The bad news is that women carry an extra burden to be skillful in their communication.  But the good news is that that forces us into a style that research has proven to be most effective for leaders in general, regardless of gender.

What about you?

Recall an interaction in which someone told you that you came across as aggressive or “too strong.”   What were the circumstances surrounding that interaction?

What message were you trying to get across?  What qualities did your communication have?  (If you were watching yourself on videotape in that interaction, what do you think you would have observed about yourself?)

Now recall the emotions you were feeling in that interaction.  What were they?  Defensive, scared, angry…?  Were you aware of them at the time?  How did those emotions shape what you said and how you said it? Were there spear-like qualities to it?

Where was your attention when you were speaking?  Was it more on connecting to yourself and the other person?  Or was it more on getting your point across or being heard?

Now imagine yourself as a mountain, or as some other image that is both solid in itself and open to its surroundings.   How would that mountain (or other image that works for you) communicate that same message you were trying to convey?

What’s different about how the mountain would express itself from how you actually communicated in the situation?

What’s your sense of how others would perceive the two messages with respect to assertiveness vs. aggression?

What new awareness or understanding do you have as a result of this exercise?  What actions might you take as a result of these insights?