Managing Confrontation - A Guide to Being Assertive

Emily Hemming

For some, voicing their opinions- no matter how provocative they may be- comes naturally, and the ensuing debate can be nothing more than fun rhetoric, like a game of tennis. If you’re like me however, you’ll dance around to avoid confrontation, choosing instead to placate people or steer conversation to a more mutually pleasing dialogue. Do we attribute this to our personalities? Our star signs? Or perhaps a lack of modelling to effectively teach us how to assert ourselves successfully? 

Regardless of why, navigating disagreement is empowering in personal and professional relationships, so let’s explore the best ways to deal with challenging situations in a non-aggressive yet transformative approach. 

The power of the pause 

Fight your instincts to reply quickly. Time is your friend here! Say “hmm I’d like to consider that a little more before I respond.” This is far better than chiming in with something that you realise later contradicts your values or interests! People generally find it endearing when this approach is taken, because it shows that you are a considerate, rational person who makes calculated contributions. Sometimes, your counterpart will continue to talk, and this is fine! It’s wonderful actually because they will either backtrack or enforce their views, both of which allow you some time to think before you reply. 

Oh, I see what’s going on here. 

Do you really know what this is about? Is there an unspoken issue at hand? A buildup of tension over time? Or dare I say it; simple stubbornness at play? Try to really consider the position of the other party. Understanding what they’re feeling and hoping to achieve from this interaction will help you form your response, and you’ll conserve precious energy by not fighting a lost (or irrelevant) cause. You can ask as many questions as you need to in order to better understand. Just remember to listen to the answers. 

Writer’s regret 

If you are asserting yourself in a written context, always remember that what you say in writing can be easily misinterpreted! It can also be a screenshot... don’t write when you’re worked up. Also, ask someone you trust to read your text before you hit ‘send.’ Finally, you can invite the recipient to sit with you and have a conversation over coffee instead of writing a long email which can never be un-sent. 

Repeat after me: avoid using emojis. Also, be careful not to over-use the exclamation mark (queue rant from Elaine Benes!) Following these two rules will make your emails feel more composed. 

Well, that was unexpected. 

If you cry, you cry. Don’t apologise for this, and don’t worry about how others in the room will feel. This is a natural emotional response to tension or anxiety, and one which should not make you feel disempowered. It can even work to your advantage! Ask to excuse yourself for a moment, go to the bathroom and take a few deep breaths. When you come back, take control of the conversation by asking for a little more information, time, or a change in topic until you can come back around to the main issue. 

I’m FINE 

Avoid passive-aggressiveness. Also, avoid outright aggression. Both are difficult to come back from. If you’re feeling really angry, it’s easy to use hyperbole and appear as though you’re responding irrationally. Also, speaking from a place of deep anger can mean you say horrible things, which may in time be forgiven, but most likely not forgotten. Passive-aggressiveness is often my fallback, but I’ve learnt that it allows me to stew over minute issues rather than dealing with the bigger picture. For example, I might be furious that my fiance hasn’t offered to help with the housework, but instead of simply asking for help, I think of as many irritable occurrences as I can and allow them to silently percolate in my mind. This response can leave the other person feeling confused, which will only escalate frustrations (even though I was definitely in the right here!) 

Instead of my approach, try mentally drafting a simple statement to summarize the issue, and when you’re ready, share it with the person or people involved. Try to consider your physical composition, for example: can you both be sitting on a couch or around a table rather than have one person standing and the other sitting. This may seem insignificant, but creates a stronger opportunity for positive non-verbal communication, including eye contact. 

You got this, girl! 

Remember to be kind to yourself! If you are reflective enough to set self-assertion as a personal goal, then you are more than capable of achieving it. The hardest part is often just recognising the opportunity to respond thoughtfully before responding instantaneously!

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