A strong personality is not the same as strength

People often mistake domineering personalities as strong. They can be, but sometimes it’s the opposite. Sometimes frighteningly opposite if doggedness masks an inability to cope with differences.

When someone disagrees with them – it’s a war.

Domineering personalities are not afraid to express a view – that is refreshing. What is less refreshing is to watch them unyieldingly hammer their point till others cave in or shut down.

They are not interesting in listening, nuance or having a discussion. They have a single goal – emerging triumphant at the other end.

It doesn’t matter if they take an opposite view the next day. It’s about winning, not logic.

These personalities play the wo/man and not the ball. Someone who disagrees with them is not just wrong they’re ‘an idiot’ (put in their preferred insult). There’s no give, no concession that someone might have an insight they don’t or even just a different way into the problem.

Understanding them is quite simple – they believe:

  • There is a right answer.
  • They have it.

Children go through a similar phase around two years old when their understanding outweighs their ability to express it and when they don’t get what they want they throw tantrums. It’s a testing time.

I can think of some world leaders who act like this but we see mini-dictators in every area of life from the Boardroom to the home.

Their self-identity is so bound in being right that they are prepared to do anything, including harm, to maintain it.

We can’t do anything about their behaviour, they have to identify it as problematic and actively manage it.

But what we can do is to strip ourselves of the misconception that this is strength.

Because many people prefer to make the peace rather than tackle conflict (even when they need to) these strong personalities can stand out in bright relief when we first meet them.

But over time, a different reality emerges.

They don’t know how to sit down and nut out a really difficult issue. To put something on the table and say – “this is what you think – this is what I think – they are in conflict – let’s look each other in the eyes and talk about it”.

They either explode, or refuse to deal with it.

Let me say this – it is easy to slam doors, or shout, or fling insults at people. It’s easy. But it’s not strength.

It’s easy to create conflict, it’s easy to avoid conflict, but it’s hard to deal with it. But since it’s an inevitable part of life, we need to learn.

Sometimes a strong personality leverages off the back of a position of power – for example in the corporate world – where position is the vehicle through which attacks are packaged as ‘legitimate’. A lot has been written about corporate psychopaths who operate in this way.

But any situation can be turned into a power struggle if you create a pecking order. It’s classic ‘kick the dog’. If you need to put someone else down to feel good you will create hierarchy.

Strong personalities appear direct but rarely are.

  • They talk at people, not to them.
  • They talk through others, rather than to the person in question.

They don’t ask you what you think, they tell you why you are wrong. “Only an idiot would believe that.”

Instead of dealing with a conflict directly they will package it up as if it comes from the outside. This creates distrust and alliances.  “Your team seem to be unhappy…” or “so and so says (and I don’t agree) but you should know…” they say, distancing themselves from the bad news so that can stick it to you and stay mates at the same time.

Is this strength?

Strength is complex and sometimes difficult to practice.

  • A strong person will challenge unacceptable behaviour even though it’s uncomfortable and they would rather not and they know there will be no reward for doing so.
  • A strong person also knows when to lie flat like grass to weather the storm. They know it’s better to bend than to break. We call this ’knowing which hill to fight on’.
  • A strong person finds the internal discipline not to erupt. They understand the trade off between short-term release and long-term relationship.
  • A strong person knows life is not the high notes or the low notes but the accumulated interactions of daily life. Like everyone they get angry – but not all the time and when they do – they try express it directly. This takes ongoing work.
  • A strong person can say –
    -You have a point
    -I didn’t know that
    -You know I was wrong when I said
    -I am not sure I agree with you
    -I agree with you there

These are behaviours not attributes, which means we can choose them.

Strength is not about personality it’s about practice. And it is also A Practice.


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