Confrontation is unavoidable. Inevitably, our wants and needs will conflict with others, and whether or not we mean to, we will spill over uncomfortably into each other's lives. When this happens, it’s important that we assert our boundaries while trying our best to respect those of others. This is not quite as easy as it sounds. For most of the history of life on this planet, conflict usually resulted in the destruction of one or more of the organisms involved. As such, we are understandably agitated when faced with a situation in which we might clash with another. That said, humans are uniquely dynamic animals, and over our 300,000 years of existence, we have occasionally figured out ways to solve disputes without anyone being much worse for the wear. Today, we continue to be faced with the challenge of learning to live with each other, and just as our ancestors did, we have the potential to do so in a manner that increases the likelihood of a positive outcome.
There’s not too much to say on this note, because the point is pretty simple–if it seems like there’s a legitimate risk of a confrontation escalating into a physical altercation, it’s not worth trying to handle it on our own. The potential consequences of getting into a fight include prison, serious injury, and death. With that in mind, when we feel that there’s a danger of us or someone else getting hurt, it’s important to explore other options
Attending to the Conflict Inside
When we are tasked with confronting another, we’re often also confronting ourselves. More specifically, we’re faced with parts of ourselves that have adopted messages from important others in our lives. Sometimes, these messages cause us more trouble than the actual external conflict.
As children, some people were taught that they should avoid conflict even at the cost of their own wellbeing. Parents or teachers may have told them they should keep their head down and mind their business. As adults, they may be uncomfortable with confrontation because they feel they have no right to assert themselves. They’ve been taught to grin and bear uncomfortable and unfair circumstances, and this message is echoed by internal self-talk that tells them to make themselves small so as to avoid the wrath of others. Conversely, some children are taught by their family and peers that the worst thing they could be is a “chump” or a “punk,” and any perceived slight should be responded to with a demonstration of strength and aggression. They may grow up to have a tendency to escalate conflict unnecessarily or, alternatively, find the shame of failing to adequately assert themselves so unbearable that they go to great lengths to avoid confrontation so as not to be tested.
Working with a therapist can be helpful in identifying patterns of behavior that don’t work for us and figuring out new approaches. Recognizing the internal pressures that cause us to act in rigid, unhelpful ways is an important first step in adopting new and adaptive strategies for engaging with those who frustrate us. With this awareness, we can extend patience and compassion to ourselves, acknowledging that we’ve been given a bad education on dealing with difficult situations and that the process of learning how to deal with conflict appropriately may be a long and somewhat awkward one.
Styles of Approach
For those of us who are especially averse to confrontation, it can feel like there are secret rules of conduct that we don’t have access to. There aren’t. There is, however, an important distinction between potential responses to conflict. We can view a given response to conflict as (usually) falling into one of three categories: (1) Passive, (2) Aggressive, and (3) Assertive.
Typically, assertiveness is the winning strategy. Well, not necessarily “winning” as in “coming out the victor,” but “winning” as in “behaving in a way I can feel good about.” We’ll get into what this approach might look like in a bit, but first, let’s explore the response that, unfortunately, we’re often more inclined toward in the heat of the moment.
Passivity is when we sacrifice our own boundaries and autonomy in an attempt to avoid exacerbating conflict. When we are being passive, we become pliant, quiet, and small. This is a way of being that many of us are culturally inclined to view as shameful. However, in some situations, passivity is necessary to ensure our safety. It is an unfortunate truth that some people are in situations where they must ignore their personal boundaries for the wellbeing of themselves or others. Often, people learn to be passive in early childhood, because it is the only way they can possibly respond to an aggressive adult world that they have no other protection from. Passivity is often a survival strategy, and there’s no shame in survival. We can think of this approach as “going limp,” in that it might be helpful when we’re about to fall from a great height, but it’s not practical to try to walk around like that all the time.
Aggression is when we disrespect the boundaries and autonomy of others in an attempt to safeguard our own. When we are being aggressive, we become rigid, loud, and large. In many cultures, aggressiveness can be viewed as clownish or silly, but it is not usually seen as shameful in the same way passivity is. Like passivity, aggressiveness is a trait often born of necessity. People in situations in which their wellbeing is routinely threatened may be offered no other choice than to make themselves scary and dangerous. Here in the Northeast, hikers are sometimes told to make themselves look large if they’re noticed by a bear*. This sends a message to the bear, “Don’t come near me. I can mess you up.” Once again, this is an approach that makes sense in a certain scenario, but we probably don’t want to walk around with our arms extended above our heads, trying to look big, all day everyday.
Finally, there is assertiveness. Assertiveness isn’t our most intuitive approach. If you’re an assertive person, you were probably taught to be, either directly by patient parents who respected your boundaries or indirectly by a larger social context in which you were treated with respect. When we’re being assertive, we are steady, even, and direct. We are willing to make compromises, but we will not compromise our self-respect, nor will we disrespect others. An assertive approach tells the person with whom we are in conflict that certain things will not be tolerated, and it does so without trying to intimidate or appease them. Assertiveness is saying, “these are my boundaries. This is what I’m willing/unwilling to do in order to solve this conflict, and if you are ready to respect that, I will respect you.” Obviously, this won’t result in peace and harmony 100% of the time, but it’s usually the approach that’s most likely to deliver a win-win solution and least likely to maintain or escalate conflict.
*This isn’t a bear safety blog. Refer to wildlife experts or the National Park Service for accurate information on handling bear encounters.
Doing it Your Way
Okay: attend to safety, reckon with the internalized messages in my psyche, and balance self-respect with respect for others. Easier said than done. There is, unfortunately, no algorithm for handling confrontation. It’s tricky. That said, an important variable in figuring out how to do it is us. Every conflict is a part of the process of us becoming who we’re going to be. So, a good question to ask is, “What is the approach to this situation that best facilitates moving my life in the direction I desire?” Another way to think about it is, “How can I handle this in a way that is consistent with my personal values and beliefs?” In addition to these efforts of deliberate self-cultivation, there’s also the question of personal style and strengths. Some people can lighten up a situation with a bit of humor. Others may find full out sincerity to be what works for them. As previously mentioned, there is no how-to on handling conflict and confrontation, but reflecting on what has and hasn’t worked for you in the past can be a helpful place to start.
Thomas Shooman is a mental health counselor practicing at Resolution Psychotherapy who provides teletherapy to clients across New York State. Thomas’ clients include individuals dealing with anxiety, grief, and obsessive thinking. He enjoys helping people navigate uncomfortable circumstances and find solutions that are in line with their personal style. To inquire about therapy with Thomas, send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.