Does your fear of confrontation leave you feeling unheard, misunderstood, taken advantage of, or worse? If so, it’s time we take a look at this.
How many times have you screened your calls, ignored text messages, or gone along with something you didn’t really want or agree with just because the thought of confrontation made you nauseous? A fear of confrontation is more common than you think. Confrontation is something we often avoid like the plague. This isn’t because of some innate defect, mind you, but usually because that’s how we were raised– to believe that confrontation is scary. We feel our heart rate spike, our hands get sweaty, and our stomachs start to knot up at just the thought of an uncomfortable conversation. We tell ourselves it’s easier to avoid, it’s safer, and what’s the big deal anyway?
Fear of Confrontation = Less problems now, more problems later
Unfortunately, this often leads to all kinds of problems down the road both in our relationships and within ourselves.
Distance in relationships with your spouse, children, parents, or friends
Hostile or uncomfortable work environments
Small problems fester turning into bigger, even less manageable problems
Depression and low self-esteem likely increase as we become more passive observers of our own lives rather than active doer’s
We may start drinking more or using other substances to avoid that nagging feeling that we are avoiding something
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. You can learn to deal with confrontation like a pro. Maybe your family prefers to keep things light (a.k.a sweep things under the rug) or maybe raised voices are a trigger for your anxiety because of experiences with domestic violence or some other type of frightening confrontation. Either way, it’s perfectly understandable that you ended up with expert avoidance skills when it comes to confrontation. And perhaps, at that time, back in that place, the safest choice was to keep quiet, but not always and maybe not anymore.
People give lots of reasons for avoiding conflicts, but one of the most common is fear. Fear of the relationship being damaged, fear of embarrassing yourself, fear of making the problem worse. If fear is driving you to avoid confrontation, consider the following the next time you find yourself doing the avoidance dance.
Avoiding confrontation is a lot more likely to cause problems down the road, than dealing with the issue now, calmly, in a healthy way. Avoidance of confrontation is a lot like avoiding a credit card bill. Some conflicts seem to have interest attached (and an alarming rate at that). While some small issues will blow over without even a mention, often times the larger ones only get more troublesome. This often happens because while you’re busy avoiding, you (or the other person) may also be busy building a strong case of resentment, because when it comes to people and relationships, resentment is the snarky cousin of avoidance. Remind yourself that dealing with the problem sooner rather than later will help avoid bigger, even more stressful issues later on.
You can practice dealing with confrontation like anything else you’ve learned over the years, start small! Meaning, if you’re avoiding your coworker like the plague ever since he made that inappropriate comment to you last week at lunch, maybe start honing your skills elsewhere first. Practice with little things like when someone cuts in front of you at the deli line in the grocery store. You may laugh because you might often let something this small go and never think of actually bringing it up to the person, but that means this is an excellent chance to start small, when the stakes are tiny (like a few extra minutes at the grocery store or a half pound of ham).
Breathe Through It
Practice relaxation techniques such as deep breathing or guided imagery to decrease your anxiety and boost your confidence in your ability to say what you mean and mean what you say. Relaxation techniques can be really helpful if anxiety gets you tongue tied and flustered. If you really want to take baby steps, just notice the next time you are in a situation where you feel a confrontation may be coming, even a small one. Then just sit with it, notice the sensations in your body–these sensations are what’s telling you you’re anxious! Then try taking a few slow deep breaths, inhaling to the bottom of your lungs (see diaphrematic breathing for a lengthy explanation). As you slow your breathing, your heart rate and blood pressure will also begin to slow, thereby sending new messages to your brain that you are calmer. Over time this gets easier and has the added benefit of being able to think more clearly and articulate your side of a confrontation much more easily.
Consider the Payoffs and Consequences
Download a worksheet here to help you reflect on the Pros and Cons of Avoiding Confrontation. It is important to look at the payoffs and the costs for any behavior if you want to change it. Consider what you are getting out of avoiding confrontation. Maybe it is short term relief from the discomfort of expressing yourself. Consider the advantages of changing specifically if you want to boost your motivation to do something about this unwanted behavior.
Track Your Practice
If you were trying to lose weight you would probably keep track of how many pounds you’d lost, so why should working on your communication skills shouldn’t be any different? That’s why I drafted a handy dandy Daily Avoidance Journal to help you keep track of your efforts. It’ll help you get a bigger picture of what types of situations or conversations you’re avoiding AND keep track of your progress. Double win!
Reframe Conflict as an Opportunity
Try to look at every potential confrontation as another opportunity to practice. Think of these uncomfortable little moments as opportunities to grow. Chances are, there is a little voice in your head that chatters on and on about how terrible it will be to have that uncomfortable conversation. The mind has the amazing ability to psyche you out in a matter of seconds. Try turning this around by practicing talking yourself INTO confronting the problem rather than OUT of it.
For more information on tips and tricks for dealing with conflict, I recommend Lee Raffel’s “I Hate Conflict!” The book offers a breakdown of the skills needed to deal with conflict more confidently and emphasizes conflict as an opportunity for personal growth and change!
It should be noted, however, that there are times when confrontation SHOULD be avoided, such as when there is a potential for violence. In these instances, it may be best to let things cool down first or to seek outside help before addressing the issue at hand. If necessary, information and assistance is available from Harbor House in Orlando (contact information at the bottom of the page) or through 2-1-1 in your local area.
If you are looking for counseling in Orlando or the surrounding area to help you stop avoiding confrontation and become more assertive, feel free to contact me for a free consultation, to make an appointment, or just to gather information on where to look for some helpful resources. I’d be happy to help get you started on your path to wellness.