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Avoiding Confrontation - Part 2: Becoming Assertive

Copyright 2014 by Abigail Blackburn, PsyD

Image of 4 people in a business meeting in which a young woman applies assertiveness. Abigail Blackburn PsyD helps clients find assertiveness.

Assertiveness, confrontation, speaking up – whatever word you want to use to describe advocating for oneself – is important to do for oneself. Not because it will change the behavior of others. Hostility that goes unchallenged can result in the bottling up of painful feelings which in turn, sometimes morphs into depression or anxiety.

We can’t control other people. We can control how we feel about what other people do. We can decide how we will behave in response to the actions of others. We can choose what kind of people we become involved with and who we enter into relationships with.

I always remind folks one of the great things about being a grown-up is that we have more power than we did as children, including the power to leave. Sometimes it is important to consider this fact.

Keep It Simple

If I am at a party where a family member is being rude to me, I can walk away. If necessary, I can get in the car and drive away.

Or I can speak up. I always tell clients “Keep it simple. Just say how you feel. You don’t have to convince the offending person or stop them from being inappropriate.”

Comments like “Wow, that makes me really uncomfortable,” or “I can’t be around you when you are behaving this way” can make a big impact on others.

Reactions to Assertiveness Give You Valuable Information

Assertive responses are also a way of “diagnosing” a person or situation. If you tell your friend, for example, that you don’t want to discuss your infertility anymore and that her comments and questions feel invasive and she turns around and starts screaming at you, well that is taking the temperature of her stability. Better to know that going forward, don’t you think?

Sometimes folks avoid conflict with others because of things that have happened in the past.

I often pose the question “What is the worst thing that will happen if you tell…” (your boss you don’t like it that he touches your shoulder when he speaks to you / your husband you are bothered by the fact he constantly interrupts you /your mother you don’t want to know about the arguments she gets into with your father)?

Scenarios will come up where the person describes on the one hand “Nothing” and on the other “He / she will explode.” The response of “Nothing” is representative of the “rational” mind and the response of “He / she will explode may be the fears of “irrational.”

It is often the irrational which guides us in these instances, falling back upon memories of earlier experience, perhaps in childhood, where people did scare us and did behave in out of control ways.

Learning to Cope with Conflict

Coping with conflict can come in all shapes and sizes, ranging from simply telling ourselves someone is making us angry to screaming at that person.

Sometimes it helps to postpone a confrontation by saying “Hmm, let me think about that.”

Sometimes it is useful to ask the offending person questions, gradually drawing them out to trip over themselves, such as “Gee Sally, maybe you can say more about your feelings on homosexuality?”

The important thing to remember is that when we choose to address an offensive person or situation, we can use an approach that works best for us and that approach can be

flexible and can change.

In my experience, assertiveness alleviates depression and anxiety because it engenders self-empowerment and helps capture the reality of a person’s experience.

True, it can be scary learning new things. But the payoff is worth it.

Changing from being conflict avoidant to

being self-assertive is a process.

Therapy helps.

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