From the Huffington Post today:

“President Barack Obama may have a problem with confrontation, but First Lady Michelle Obama certainly does not. Ellen Sturtz, 56, a lesbian activist protesting President Obama’s delay in signing an anti-discrimination executive order, paid $500…at a private Democratic Party fundraiser in Washington, D.C. Ellen Sturtz claims in an interview with The Huffington Post, that she didn’t plan on interrupting First Lady Michelle Obama, but her fundraiser speech triggered her emotions and she couldn’t hold it in:

“I want to talk about the children,” Sturtz said. “I want to talk about the LGBT young people who are … being told, directly and indirectly, that they’re second-class citizens. I’m tired of it. They’re suffering. … We’ve been asking the president to sign that ENDA executive order for five years. How much longer do we need to wait?”

Refusing to be intimidated, the First Lady let her know how they do it on the Southside of Chicago and shut her down. The Washington Post reports:

“One of the things that I don’t do well is this,” Mrs. Obama said to applause from most of the guests, according to a White House transcript. “Do you understand?” A pool report from a reporter in the room said Mrs. Obama “left the lectern and moved over to the protester.” The pool report quoted Mrs. Obama as saying: “Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.” The audience responded by asking Obama to remain, according to the pool report, which quoted a woman nearby telling Sturtz, “You need to go.”

Sturtz was escorted out of the room. She said in an interview later she was stunned by Mrs. Obama’s response. “She came right down in my face,” Sturtz said. “I was taken aback.”

This presents an interesting question. Will people say that Michelle Obama was assertive or aggressive in her handling of the situation? Because for a woman as powerful and strong as Michelle Obama, that question is bound to arise. And as all women in leadership roles know, this is complex, tricky and loaded territory. Here is how I’ve been making sense of that, spurred by this recent Huff Post story.

1. Context. The first question is, “Did Mrs. Obama do the right thing?” There is a time and place to challenge authority, but this was not it. By explicit agreement, this was Michelle Obama’s stage. Her role at the fundraiser was to deliver a speech, not to engage in dialogue. I believe it was also implicitly her stage. As First Lady, she is due the highest possible level of civility and deference. Both formally and informally, this context granted Michelle Obama the right to speak without interruption. Thus, I believe that Ms. Sturtz was out of order and that Mrs. Obama was justified in asserting her right to the floor.

The second question becomes, “Did Mrs. Obama act skillfully?” And that’s where the second aspect of context comes in: filters. Like it or not, we see each other through a multitude of lenses, be they gender, age, race, sexual orientation, economics, education, you name it. These filters sharply shape our interpretation of each other’s behavior. Look at how The Washington Post described Mrs. Obama’s actions: “Refusing to be intimidated, the First Lady let her [Ms. Sturtz] know how they do it on the South Side of Chicago, and shut her down.” Wow – really? I find this a thuggish way to characterize the behavior of a First Lady who is known for her graciousness, class, elite education and impressive accomplishments.

Put a different filter on the situation. Let’s say it was First Lady Barbara Bush, whom I imagine would have also handled that situation directly. Dollars to donuts, I’ll bet that the language used to describe the same behavior coming from Mrs. Bush would be something like “forthright” or “charmingly feisty.” Now put a white male president’s face on the scenario, and you’d likely have a man who was ‘firmly in command of the situation.”

This happens every day in every work place. I’ve already gotten comments to this blog like “Welcome to my world, Michelle,” and “This happens to me every day and I’m so frustrated.” If you don’t believe that this is still true, ask any woman leader who has gotten feedback for being aggressive. She’ll tell you that her actions were mild compared to her male colleagues, but that it was she, not they, called out for inappropriate behavior.

2. Definitions. Whether we label behavior as ‘assertive’ or ‘aggressive’ also depends on how we define those very words. Joe Weston, author of Respectful Confrontation, offers useful guidance. He defines ‘assertiveness’ as “any behavior, action, remark, gesture, or facial expression that impacts another with the goal to empower, and/or is received by the other in a positive way.” On the other hand, he defines ‘aggression’ as “any behavior, action, remark, gesture or facial expression that impacts another with the goal to disempower, and/or is received by the other in a harmful, threatening way.”

In other words, whether an act is assertive or aggressive depends on three very different ingredients: the sender’s objective behavior, the sender’s (invisible) goal or intent, and the receiver’s subjective experience. I imagine each of us has our own opinion about whether Mrs. Obama’s actions were assertive or aggressive. But based on the definitions offered by Joe Weston, the only valid perspectives on this are Mrs. Obama’s and Ms. Sturtz’. And I would not be surprised if their perspectives differed from each other.

3. Words and music. There are two components of any interaction: the tangible, behavioral aspects of the communication (which I call the ‘words’) and the spirit in and from which that behavior arises (which I call the ‘music’). There’s often a miscue when the two are out of sync. For example, if you’re coming from a spirit of judgment or hurt, even the most innocent words can come across as an attack. Conversely, when coming with an open heart and mind, it is possible to deliver even the most confrontative message in a skillful, supportive and productive way. Those of us reading the account of last night’s fundraiser have no window into the music behind either Ms. Sturtz’ or Mrs. Obama’s words. So we can’t judge the full impact of that exchange. But there will be ample opportunity for both women to reflect and decide if their words and music lined up with their intent.

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When I look at Mrs. Obama’s actions, I see someone who handled a very dicey situation in a strong and assertive way. I don’t know how this particular incident will play out in the media; I hope that the ‘aggressiveness’ label avoids Mrs. Obama altogether. But I share these reflections because the incident reminds me that the line between “assertiveness” and “aggressiveness” continues to hound and confound so many of the women leaders that I know and work with. We are often so quick to levy the “aggressive” label (almost always negatively) against powerful women, and behave as if that characterization were objectively true. But the distinction between self-respecting assertiveness and attacking ‘bitchiness’ is anything but clear and face-valid. The way we view a woman’s strength is still driven as much by our inner and outer contexts as by her own behavior.

What about you?

Think of a communication that was questionable in terms of where the actors fell on the assertiveness – aggression continuum.

When you look at that interaction through these three criteria (context, definitions and words/music), what do you see?
How does it shift your original assessment of the exchange and of the various actors’ behavior in it?
What was the role of context in defining how you and others interpreted and/or dealt with the behavior?
What filters were likely at play in how people (including you) viewed it?
If you could rewrite the script, what would you change to make the interaction more effective?
Have you ever engaged in behavior where your words were skillful, but your music had an aggressive undertone? Can you see how this affected the communication?