How to handle conflict (for those of us who would rather avoid it)

One of the absolute worst things about being a grown up human person is fighting my own battles. Gone are the days when I would come home from school crying and my mom would give me a hug, a pep talk, and then fix all my problems with a couple of mom phone calls. These days, if I come home crying (from work, from a friend-fight, from a romantical spat) I’m the one that has to make the phone calls, or send the emails, or (gasp) have face-to-face conversations with the people who may have made me feel that way.

I truly hate conflict. I would almost always rather pretend that nothing is wrong and everything is totally fine than tell someone that I’m upset. That’s not healthy! And as I get older I’m starting to realize that standing up for myself is way better then getting so silently and privately full-body stressed that my hair falls out (this actually happened to me and it was really not fun at all). As I get older I’m getting better at demanding respect and calling out meanness and I hope that these tips can help you do the same. I know standing up for yourself is hard, but it’s also 10,000% worth it and entirely important. Here are a few little tricks that have helped me to get comfortable with confrontation and I hope they’ll help you too. I’ve got your back.

“Stand up or shut up”

The wording is a wee bit harsh, but this little mantra is one my dad taught me and it’s come in very handy. The theory is simple: stop complaining and do something about it. I will say that it’s easier said than done. Sometimes ranting to your BFF is a lot easier than approaching someone with your problem (and by someone, I mean the someone who could actually fix it). But at the end of the day, all the complaining in the world can’t get you what you want. Only you can do that.

Examine your motives

Sometimes you get really, really angry with someone and even the most conflict averse among us has that gut-punch feeling that you want nothing more than to scream the other person into the ground. I’m not going to lie, that could be pretty liberating— but probably not super effective (and probably will end badly, which will lead to you avoiding future confrontation). Before you initiate any conflict-like situation step back and ask yourself what you’re hoping to gain. Will a conflict solve the problem? Or will it just make things unnecessarily awkward? If your main motivation is anger and payback, go outside and yell at some trees instead. Then have a snack, and get down to rationally problem solving.

Turn off your phone and take some time to calm down

With today’s technology, you don’t even need to be in the same room with a person to be offended and or slighted. With emails, texts, and all the different Internet outlets, you can pretty much get your feelings hurt any time, any place. Please, please, please, do not respond via technologically until you’ve calmed down. Whatever you say will ultimately be saved, screenshotted, and passed around, so any nasty thing you said in anger will live on forever. You don’t want that. That’s not to say that you have to let mean Internet behavior slide. Just put your phone on airplane mode and take a walk before you respond. A calm, reasonable text will do a lot more for your case than a bunch of angry emoticons.

Tailor your approach to the person you’ll be confronting

There are many different ways to handle confrontation, and most of the time taking an angle on the situation will settle your nerves and go pretty far in finding a resolution. Take a little time to read the person and figure out what they’ll respond well to. This sounds difficult but is actually remarkably simple. All you have to do is watch how they interact with other people. Watch for mediations and negotiations and take notes on what works. Having a strategy is always better than winging it, so do your research and edit your approach before you make any moves.

It’s OK if you can’t handle a face-to-face confrontation, and it’s OK to bring in a mediator

While an in-person chat is probably the best way to handle an awkward conversation, it isn’t the only way. If face-to-face confrontation is too intimidating, there’s no harm in sending an email or writing a letter. As long as you’re respectful and honest, a written explanation can be really helpful in getting your feelings across without the intensity an IRL meeting can bring. It can also give you a chance to collect your thoughts and edit your words so you come across clearly. Additionally, if you’re feeling intimidated a mediator is a great option. If the conflict is work oriented, remember that a lot of offices have an HR rep that specializes in conflict resolution and can fill in the cracks you’re too embarrassed to bring up. Having your meeting documented recognizes that you were brave enough to bring the issue forward, and can be evidence of continued abuse if the problem continues or escalates.

Own up to your mistakes

Try not to go into a confrontation thinking that you’re blameless. Obviously there are huge exceptions to this rule (and I am in no way victim shaming), but in many cases of casual everyday conflict, there is a little blame on both sides. Acknowledge all that before you begin so that they don’t feel like you’re attacking them. A mini-apology like “I want to start by saying that I’m sorry I’ve been avoiding you” can seriously help ease the tension and open up a calm dialogue.

List facts, not flaws

Make sure that you keep the conversation focused on the problem at hand. It’s easy to inflict opinion and venom when someone has hurt you, but calling them names or bringing up past mistakes will just make you look petty and turn any hope of reconciliation into a big block of resentment. State what has happened, and explain clearly how you want it fixed, but do so without being a jerk.

Dress like you mean business

One of my favorite quotes in the world comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The world makes way for the man who knows where he is going.” How you feel about yourself has a huge impact on how others perceive you, so go into your meeting with your head held high and your outfit on point. You’re much more likely to be taken seriously if you come across as confident.

Don’t make an invisible posse

The problem with problems is that they very seldom affect only one person. If someone is acting rudely, you can be sure that you’re not the only one who’s noticed it. At some point you’ve probably had a conversation along the lines of “Can you believe how crabby Tim is been lately?” Talking behind someone’s back isn’t nice, and you know that, but it still feels good to know that someone is feeling the same things that you are. Keep the gossip out of your conversation with Tim. Telling Tim that everyone is annoyed with him will only hurt his feelings, especially if he didn’t realize how he was behaving. Keep your conversation about you and him, and leave everyone else out of it.

Be kind, be respectful, but be firm

It’s important to remember that you deserve respect. What you’re feeling is valid and you should never feel guilty about bringing your feelings forward. At some point we’ve all been used, harassed, trivialized, or bullied, or just plain mad, and you have every right to challenge someone else’s behavior. However, at some point you’ve likely also hurt someone’s feelings too. Try to keep that memory in mind whenever you confront someone. Nobody’s perfect and being aware of your own mistakes is essential in establishing empathy. Try to separate the problem from the person, and proceed with respect and kindness no matter what. Every time you decide to take a stand you’ll grow more comfortable and less anxious. Do no harm, but stand up for yourself too. You’ve gotta look out for #1 (aka you).

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