For many, the thought of having to confront another person fills us with fear, anxiety and a whole lot of dread — whether it’s talking to a roommate about their less-than-hygienic cleaning standards, approaching a co-worker who keeps taking credit for your ideas or telling a relative their off-color “jokes” are actually offensive.
Rather than deal with these issues head-on, we’d much rather put off the conversations to some later date or — better yet — avoid them altogether.
“We often picture a confrontation to include many factors that are distasteful to a lot of us: anger or hostility, thinking on our feet, the possibility of getting railroaded, potential rejection, or the worry we won’t be able to control our emotions — that we’ll burst into tears or make a fool of ourselves,” said Boston University clinical psychologist Ellen Hendriksen, author of “How to Be Yourself: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety.”
“If we’re not good at advocating for ourselves, [or] we were taught not to be a bother or a burden, or we’re allergic to strong emotion, confrontation is bound to feel aversive.”
When we avoid tough conversations, we get some temporary relief from our anxiety. But in the long run, we’re only hurting ourselves. Our needs won’t be met, the problem won’t be solved and we erode our self-esteem in the process.
“You’re endorsing the idea that you don’t have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with another person,” said Ryan Howes, a clinical psychologist in Pasadena, California, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.”
“You’re saying their ideas are more important than yours and acting accordingly. Every time you continue this pattern, you are reinforcing this belief, confirming that you shouldn’t stand up for yourself.”
“Avoidance builds a wall between us and others — if we can’t speak with respectful honesty, we can’t build a close relationship.”
– Ellen Hendriksen, clinical psychologist
This avoidant approach can do damage to our relationships, too. By not speaking up, we think we’re keeping the peace. But eventually, our negative feelings are bound to seep out, no matter how hard we try to ignore them.
“If we avoid talking about something that’s upsetting us, we clamp a lid on the metaphorical boiling kettle,” Hendriksen said. “Eventually, steam will start to escape in the form of resentment, hostility, or passive-aggression. Second, avoidance builds a wall between us and others — if we can’t speak with respectful honesty, we can’t build a close relationship.”
Below is some helpful advice for anyone who struggles with confrontation.
Confrontation isn’t a bad thing — so stop treating it like it is.
“Whether you learned to walk on eggshells because you once had a difficult boss, or your fear of confrontation goes all the way back to childhood, check your assumptions,” psychotherapist Amy Morin wrote for Psychology Today.
What false narrative have you spun in your head that could use some reframing? You may associate confrontation with heated arguments and doomed relationships. But know that confrontation can actually be quite healthy when approached in a kind but assertive way.
“Confrontation doesn’t have to be a spittle-flecked screaming match that ends with estrangement,” Hendriksen said. “It can be a win-win negotiation, a radically honest conversation that brings you closer, or an expression of deep concern.”
Focus on what you have to say, rather than how it will be received.
When you’re so worried about how the other person might react, it’s easy to get stuck in your head and lose sight of the real purpose of the conversation.
“You have a need, want, or opinion, and you have every right to express it,” Howes said.
It may help to spend some time clarifying your feelings before you initiate the conversation. Make some bullet points about what’s bothering you — and be specific. Instead of writing something vague like, “I wish my roommate was more considerate,” you might say, “I wish my roommate would give me a heads-up before inviting people over to the apartment.”
“Just start listing everything you can think of when it comes to what’s upsetting you,” clinical psychologist Nick Wignall wrote in a blog post. “Could be people involved, different emotions you were feeling, fantasies that run through your mind, whatever. By forcing yourself to think on paper, you will get a lot more clarity on the real issue.”
Once you’ve narrowed down your main points, you can jot them down on a post-it or save them as a note in your phone. That way you have something to refer back to during the conversation if you’re worried you might lose your train of thought, Howes said.
“Confrontation doesn’t have to be a spittle-flecked screaming match that ends with estrangement. It can be a win-win negotiation, a radically honest conversation that brings you closer, or an expression of deep concern.”
Weigh the long-term payoff against the short-term discomfort.
Being uneasy about the confrontation for the next few hours or days is a small price to pay for the peace of mind you’ll enjoy afterward. It’s much better than having this thing hanging over your head for weeks, months or even years.
Howes offered the example of a neighbor who borrowed your lawnmower but has yet to return it. Now you want to cut the grass in your yard — but you really don’t want to ask for it back. As your lawn grows, so, too, does your resentment.
“Five months from now, and countless hours of rumination and resentment and bitterness, you blow up at [this person] and get your lawnmower back while destroying your friendship,” he said.
“Sure, you could experience months of internal strife and the eventual blow-up, or you could face 30 seconds of discomfort now and say, ‘Hey, do you think you’ll be done with the lawnmower soon?’ and allow a polite confrontation [to keep you] from ruining your summer.”
Use “I” statements to keep defensiveness at bay.
Instead of telling a friend, “You’re so self-absorbed — you always talk about yourself and don’t care how I’m doing,” you might say, “I feel hurt when our conversations are one-sided. It would mean a lot if you’d check in with me more and ask how I’m doing.”
You want to keep the focus on your feelings. Attacking the other person’s character will only make them defensive. Once their guard is up, it’ll be harder to get through to them.
“Avoid being overly accusatory; express what you think and how you feel,” Morin wrote. “Most important, take a few deep breaths and don’t let your anger get the best of you — even if the other person lashes out. The goal is to be assertive, not aggressive.”
Another way to reduce defensiveness: Take responsibility for anything you may have done wrong or could have done better in the situation — even if it’s something small.
“Of course, you don’t want to take this too far and start apologizing for things you haven’t done or simply making things up just to make the other person feel better,” Wignall wrote.
But assuming responsibility is a “powerful way of signaling that this isn’t personal and you’re not attacking or criticizing the other person. It’s just about making things better for everyone going forward,” he added.
Approach confrontations like a collaboration rather than a competition.
Instead of adopting a you-against-them mentality, think about it as the two of you united against the problem, Hendriksen said.
“For example, in approaching a potential confrontation with your partner on overspending, open not with, ‘You need to get your Amazon spending under control,’ but with, ‘I know we’re trying to save for a down payment on a house; how can we keep our eye on the prize?’” she said.
If the conversation gets derailed, steer it back to your common goal.
“You’ll feel less like adversaries and more like a team,” she added.
Howes agreed: It’s better to work together toward a mutually beneficial solution when you can. Plus, collaboration is less intimidating — and often more productive — than pure confrontation.
“Say your boss needs extra work on a project but you can’t give any more time,” he said. “You can approach this as a problem to be solved rather than a battle to win: ‘Let’s put our heads together to figure out a way for you to get this problem done. I don’t have extra time, so I’m not an option, but how about hiring a temp, borrowing someone from another department, or postponing the delivery date? What other ideas do you have?’”
Regardless of the outcome, reward yourself for facing your fears.
When it’s over, take a moment to acknowledge what you did well. Maybe you were able to maintain a respectful tone of voice, even when you wanted to yell. Maybe you tackled the conversation early in the week instead of putting it off for months.
“Even if the overall outcome didn’t go the way you wanted, you can still give yourself credit for doing certain aspects of it well,” Wignall wrote.
Then treat yourself to a little something: your favorite take-out meal, a scenic bike ride, a manicure or any other indulgence that makes you feel good.
“You have a need, want, or opinion, and you have every right to express it.”
– Ryan Howes, clinical psychologist
Howes also encourages his clients to reevaluate how they measure success and failure when it comes to confrontation. It’s not about whether you were able to change the other person’s mind or behavior, as we have no control over those things. We can, however, get more comfortable confronting our fears and get better at advocating for ourselves.
“Did you start a conversation? Job well done,” Howes said. “Did you ask for what you wanted — even if the other person disagreed? Good work standing up for yourself.”
We’ve all been there: Somehow, you’ve found yourself in a conversation with a person you have nothing in common with, someone who intimidates you or someone who won’t stop complaining. These kinds of interactions can be uncomfortable, to say the least. Our HuffPost series How to Talk to Just About Anyone will help you navigate these conversations and others. Go here for all the latest.