How to Effectively Deal With Confrontation

Confrontations can flare over the most trivial of issues, from putting your trash too near a neighbor’s driveway to parking too close to someone in a car park. And they often occur when you least expect them. No matter what form they take, however, sooner or later you will have to deal with one.

Calmly Assertive

When involved in a confrontation, you need to be calmly assertive. Perhaps the single biggest mistake people make is confusing such assertiveness with aggression. Aggression can sometimes help of course (it may even be necessary), but in general it makes things worse.

Assertiveness coaches usually divide the possible reactions into three. You can either be passive, assertive, or aggressive. Passive people drop their head, lower their voice, and put themselves in the wrong, doing all they can to soothe the other person. Oddly enough, it often has the opposite effect. For some reason, probably to do with our evolutionary conditioning, those who cry or shrink away can actually provoke the other person, and even those around them. This is especially common with groups of men, possibly because it reminds us of a time when males literally had to fight for dominance within the group. Those who showed weakness and fear were pushed to the margins. Indeed, many secretly despise the victim of a bully more than the bully himself.

But aggression can be just as futile. Leaning into the other person, teeth bared and fists clenched, will provoke them even more. Remember, when people lose their temper and rage about something trivial, like a parking space or their position in the queue, they are probably venting about much more. They may have had a row with their wife, for example, or be struggling to pay the mortgage. In some cases, the anger has been simmering for years and is rooted in childhood abuse or a chronic lack of self-esteem. Confrontations are an opportunity to release some of this anger and pain.

Aim instead to be calmly assertive. Pay attention to both your voice and your body language. Aggressive people shout, sometimes even scream, while passive or frightened people mumble incoherently, or find their voice wobbling and breaking. Keep your voice firm, level, and clear. Be sure that it is audible, but do not raise it. Body language is also very important. Few sights are quite so idiotic as two men, chests puffed out, pushing into one another and trying to force some kind of submission.

Aggressive people stare without blinking, clench their fists, bear their teeth and move into the other person’s space. Passive people lower their eyes, slump their shoulders, and step backwards. Instead, remain motionless. This alone will unnerve your opponent. Whether they realize it or not, most people are seeking to provoke or break the other person. When someone remains motionless, it surprises them. Keep your chin up and your shoulders back, but do not clench or raise your fists. Finally, maintain eye contact without staring.

Empathy and Politeness

It may sound a little odd, but the more sympathetic and polite you try to be, the better you will perform during a confrontation. Always make a point of being pleasant and gracious. The more polite you are in everyday life, the cleaner you conscience will be. Since you always make a point of treating everyone well, you can expect the same in return. And this knowledge will give you confidence and strength when someone treats you badly.

It is also very important never to humiliate or shame the other person. Most people cannot bear this. So always be careful never to put them in an impossible position. If you are a man, and you have something to discuss with another man, do so one to one. Men can be very sensitive about showing weakness in front of their partner. Your point may be a reasonable one, and the person you are arguing with may himself be a reasonable man. Approach him one to one and treat him with respect and you may be surprised by the response. But begin an argument in front of his wife, his children, or his friends, and he may feel humiliated or shamed. If he backs down or apologizes, he will lose face.

Be especially wary of confronting someone who has children with them. You may recall being told you never approach a wild animal that is protecting its young – well that instinct lurks in every human parent as well. Of course, you have no intention of harming their kids. But primitive instinct has nothing to do with reason.

The I-Statement

The I-statement is a useful psychological trick that, while it may not calm your opponent down, will prevent him from exploding. The idea is to focus on how the other person’s actions and words have affected, or are affecting, you. This can take practise, as most people’s instinct is to go on the offensive, calling the other person names, accusing them of this and that, and so on. Indeed, if the person you are confronting is well known to you, there may be years of pent-up hatred and rage. And there may be incidents you let slide, or horrible little acts they performed without knowing you were watching. But calling the other person “fat,” or “ugly,” or “stupid” will not only escalate the situation, it will also provoke them to say something personal and cutting in return. Plus, of course, if other people are present, your name calling is likely to make them sympathetic towards your opponent.

Instead, focus on how their actions or words are affecting you. This is why the technique is known as the I-statement. For example, let’s imagine that your neighbor leaves early for work. When they do, they let their dog out, which then barks and wakes you up. That evening, you notice them in their back garden and decide to raise the matter. Some people are aggressive from the very start, others begin calmly but then, when they do not get the reply they are hoping for, start with the accusations and name calling, telling their neighbor he is “ignorant,” “selfish,” and so on.

Instead, focus on how their action is affecting you: calmly but firmly explain that the sound of his car door slamming and his dogs yapping wake you up and that you then find it difficult to get back to sleep. Remind him that you also work, or have a young child, or whatever it may be, and that you need your rest.

Holding, Repeating, and Consequences

Three particularly effective techniques are known as the “holding statement, “the consequence statement,” and the “broken record.” The holding statement is a useful way of stalling the conversation and cutting the other person off in full flow. For example, imagine that your work colleague suddenly and abruptly accuses you of talking too loudly on the phone. You know that this is not true and that she is just looking for someone to vent her anger on. You reply that that’s nonsense, she comes back at you, and so on. After a few minutes, say loudly and clearly “Right, I’m going to fix myself a coffee. We’ll have to talk about this some other time or else I’m going to lose my temper.” Do not then wait for a reply; just walk away.

The consequence statement, as the title suggests, means that you focus on the consequences of what has been said or done. So, let’s imagine that the next morning your unpleasant work colleague accuses you of keeping an untidy desk and allowing your papers and coffee cups to spill over into her work space. Say, calmly, “I can’t put up with this. Quite frankly, I’m beginning to feel victimized. I’m not prepared to spend each morning bickering with you. If this goes on, we’ll just have to go and see the manager.” The problem with a consequence statement is that if you get your tone or words wrong, it can sound like a threat. So be careful to make it sound like a simple statement of fact.

Finally, there is the broken record. This is especially good when someone is being needlessly aggressive or will not accept your apologies and explanations. Let’s say your neighbor has come to complain that he cannot back his car out because your car is parked slightly too far over. He begins reasonably enough and you reply “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m usually very careful. I must have misjudged it. I’ll come and move it for you.” But that isn’t enough. Instead of calming him down, your polite response seems to provoke him. Once the two of you get outside, you notice that his wife and son are standing there. He seems eager to impress them, so he raises his voice and accuses you of being thoughtless and selfish. Just repeat yourself, over and over, more firmly and perhaps fractionally louder each time, “As I have already told you, I’m usually very careful, but I misjudged it.” After the third of fourth time, say it once more and then just get in the car and move it without waiting for a reply.

The broken record technique prevents you from digging yourself a hole. A big mistake people make is adding unnecessary information. The more you try to justify, apologize, or please the other person, the weaker you will seem, the more they will despise you, and the more confident they will grow. Indeed, some people use silence to their advantage, beginning an argument and then staring at the other person, waiting for them to grow so uncomfortable that they backtrack and even apologize – though they’ve done nothing wrong. Plenty of bullies play this trick on weak or nervous people and find it highly amusing.

Use silence to your advantage instead. If the person who lives in the apartment below complains that you make too much noise, first ask them to be specific. If they then say that you always slam your door when you go out or that your music is too loud, reply “OK, well I’ll be more conscious in future.” If they go on and on, use the broken record technique and keep repeating “Like I just said, I’ll be more conscious in future,” following this with a calm smile and total silence.

If you are not by nature an aggressive or argumentative person, confrontations can be quite a challenge. Even those prepared to face anyone down often find confrontations distasteful and unpleasant. Useful as such tips can be, ultimately you must rely upon sheer, raw courage.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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