It’s a familiar scene: a friend asks you to pick up her children from yet another party, although she never reciprocates, or your boss dumps a piece of work on you last thing on a Friday, expecting it by Monday morning. You know you should assert yourself, but you hold back on confronting the problem for fear of unleashing an ugly scene, with potentially lasting damage.
The desire to preserve friendships tends to override other desires, such as being respected or being acknowledged as right – and it’s an issue women tend to struggle with more than men. But why do we find it so difficult? What makes us think that confronting an unreasonable boss, demanding family member or pushy friend will somehow rupture the relationship for good?
Understanding what’s happening in our brain when we’re faced with a potentially thorny confrontation can be the first step to tackling the issue. ‘When we’re “confronted”, or even just imagine that we are, we feel under attack and the classic fight, flight or freeze response kicks in,’ says Gin Lalli, a psychotherapist. ‘Imagine you were being attacked by a polar bear: you would either fight by retaliating in anger, flee – run away, or freeze – do nothing and try to disappear. When we think we are under threat, our brain responds by going into this survival mode, trying to keep us safe.’
Even before getting into a challenging situation, the mere anticipation of the event can set us off to fight, flight or freeze. ‘The mind is being super cautious,’ says Lalli. ‘It’s busy working out plans A and B before you have even begun. This makes you feel more stressed, so often you take the easy route and avoid the confrontation altogether because it just seems easier.’
But simply avoiding things isn’t a positive experience either, rendering us feeling weakened, undervalued and resentful that our opinion doesn’t matter. It can even affect us physically. ‘Your adrenalin begins to flow, your blood pressure will rise and you may have trouble breathing,’ explains Lalli. ‘Over time, you will become exhausted, you may develop nervous twitches, experience hot sweats and rashes or grind your teeth.’
The issue we have is that some level of confrontation is simply unavoidable. We experience it at work and home, with friends and family. We can even feel confronted by the news. There’s nothing we can do about that except switching off for a while, but we can do something about how it makes us feel.
‘In a peaceful moment, when you are not being confronted, you need to take the time to think over your actions for the future,’ says Lalli. ‘If it were to happen again, how would you like to react? Try and visualise that, and create a new template to refer to when confrontation arises again.’ A good starting point is to recognise that you have a problem with confrontation and remember that no one likes confrontation, so you are not alone.
Learn about your triggers. How would you like to deal with them better? Do you lack self-confidence, have low self-esteem or struggle with anger? ‘It’s a good idea to address these issues first,’ says Lalli.
‘Then, try to focus more on what you want, not what you don’t want. Imagine how you would handle the situation if you were feeling confident and assertive. Then embrace that possibility: you can be assertive without being aggressive.’
It is perhaps this area that proves difficult for many women. Feeling comfortable challenging someone and saying no is not hardwired in most of us. ‘Fear of confrontation can be a learned behaviour from childhood,’ says Lalli.
‘Maybe you learned as a child not to provoke someone’s anger – and this is the template that you created for yourself going into adulthood. Women also tend to be people pleasers, and are usually seen as being more nurturing and caring, and confrontation simply does not fit into that narrative.’
Perhaps nowhere is this more apparent than in the workplace. According to Hira Ali, the author of Her Way To The Top (Panoma Press, £14.99) and CEO of Advancing Your Potential. It’s the fear of backlash and disapproval that means women often avoid challenging issues in the workplace. ‘There is a stereotypical expectation for women to be “nice” – communal and likeable,’ she says. That doesn’t mean, however, that you should be fearful of speaking up for yourself and taking a stand – the alternative is feeling undermined, confused and trivialised. ‘Anxiety can chip away at your confi dence, affect your performance and the emotional turmoil wears down self-esteem,’ says Ali. ‘It can also quash creativity and innovation at work.’
Instead, Ali recommends trying to reframe the issue, and visualise a scenario working differently so you feel more confi dent in dealing with it. She advises reassessing negative viewpoints, such as ‘I didn’t get agreement at the meeting’ with a positive stance, such as ‘I will have another opportunity to work on our differences and persuade everyone individually’.
It’s important to stay calm and be polite and respectful,’ she adds. ‘Be aware of your body language – stand tall. And use direct “I” messages, such as “I want to let you know how I am feeling because I believe that it will clear the air between us”.’
Unfortunately, the pandemic has thrown up many opportunities for differing opinions between couples, families and friends. As well as raising our stress levels, confrontation seems even more difficult and upsetting for many of us as a result. ‘Tensions have been high for some time,’ says Lalli. ‘This has fuelled already-strained relationships and even damaged harmonious ones.
‘But now things are changing and options are opening up, it’s time to look calmly and rationally to the future. We need to do that with the intelligent, rational and objective part of our brain – not with negative emotion. And, above all, without constantly worrying about what may go wrong.’
Ways to manage confrontation with confidence
- Visualise a positive outcome.
- Calm yourself before confronting someone and take charge of your emotions by using empowering language. Use ‘I’ speech: ‘I am feeling…’ and specify the degree of your emotion: ‘I am very upset…’
- Be polite. Try using phrases such as: ‘It’s interesting that you see it that way. I’ve noticed something different, actually.’
- Don’t invite criticism or retaliation. Avoid phrases such as, ‘You’ll probably scream at me/want to kill me but…’
- Name how you are feeling if someone is negative. Use phrases such as ‘that made me feel uncomfortable’ or ‘disrespectful words are not tolerated here’.
- After you handle a situation, analyse it, learn from it and put it aside.
“It worked for me”
Claire Middlebrook, 42, runs an accountancy practice in Edinburgh. The office environment was chaotic, and often saw stand-up arguments, she explains.
‘I struggled with anxiety around conflict,’ says Claire. ‘I sought to please the team because I worried that they would leave if they weren’t happy. But I realised I was not being clear about my expectations simply because I was trying to avoid conflict. In fact, lack of clarity itself was causing the conflict.
‘So I created a strategic, defined plan with precise tasks, timescales and expectations. Now everyone knows where they stand and our interactions are better.’
Claire realised that she also avoided conflict with her husband. ‘Neither of us had set boundaries or knew how to behave with the small stuff, such as unloading the dishwasher. I didn’t express that I needed help and got annoyed at my husband. Now I state: “Please unload the dishwasher before 7pm as my parents are coming over and I would like it to be tidy.”
‘Small things used to build resentment, which I don’t feel any more,’ says Claire. ‘I’ve learned to keep my message simple and not shy away from crucial conversations.
Read: Big Talk, Small Talk (And Everything In Between): Effective Communication Skills For All Parts Of Your Life by Shola Kaye (Rockridge Press, £6.54).
Browse: Nick Wignall, a clinical psychologist, offers 15 ways to handle confrontation with self-assurance. Read his advice here.
Listen: Terry Real, a couples therapist, advises couples how to stand up to each other with love in this podcast episode.
Photograph: Getty Images