I’m 40 years old and am still terrible at handling conflict! Whether it’s with my husband, a friend or even a rude Paris cashier, I either get angry or shut down. If I know there’s an upcoming discussion, personal or professional, I won’t be able to eat or sleep due to stress and nerves. I feel like a shaky, powerless kid all over again. Do you have any tips for dealing with conflict in a mature, productive and constructive way?
– Seriously Conflicted
Dear Seriously Conflicted,
You are not alone.
For most people, the conflict is an internal one. A little voice says, “That’s not right, stick up for yourself!” while another one is saying, “Be cool, act like you don’t care.” The outcome, as you say, is usually something resembling a tantrum—which is regrettable and decidedly uncool—or a very frustrated, sad withdrawal with a lingering sense of injustice.
You say you feel like “a shaky, powerless kid all over again.” I’m sorry that you have ever felt that way. Often, we present a confident person on the outside while we feel weak and defenseless in our core. Now is the time to get to know yourself better. Remember that standing up for yourself is not about dominating or controlling the other, it is about defending your right to exist, to be individual, to be yourself. Once you know how to defend yourself, you can relax, confident in who you are, knowing that you can handle anything that comes at you.
Tip 1: Identify and write down what is important to you so you know what you are defending
We must stand up for who we are, for our values and beliefs. They have no value if they are not tested or defended. If we don’t respect who we are, then no one else will. Just as we would defend our physical being from harm, we should feel able to defend our behaviours, thoughts and feelings. The thing is to be assertive without being aggressive and sometimes the best way is to ask.
“This is something I feel very strongly about. Will you try to listen if I try to explain?” or “I can see that you feel very strongly about… I am concerned… how can we meet in the middle?”
Tip 2: See sparring as a part of healthy living and learn to do it well
I’m not suggesting you go out and seek conflict or that it’s necessarily something you will enjoy. But by avoiding conflict out of fear, it will inevitably escalate: You will come out of the fight a victim or a people-pleaser and neither of those outcomes supports your self-worth or being respected as an individual. Try to find the courage to face it and feel your way. Curiosity and description are your best friends here.
“You are getting mad, is this very important to you?”
“I don’t like arguing with you but it’s important to me to respect your view and to believe you are interested in mine.”
“I am feeling really uncomfortable and angry right now, but I’m not good at arguing.”
Tip 3: Know when to walk away
This is not the same as withdrawing but acknowledging that you or the other is not in a fit state to reach resolution or compromise—and that anyone who says, “Calm down” is asking to be punched in the face. Ask yourself if what has wound you up really matters, if it matters now, or if it can wait. Sometimes it can be good to say what you are going to do.
“I am going to go, we are not able to hear each other right now. Maybe we can try again another time.”
“I’m sorry we are fighting” is a way of offering an apology when you are not ready to step down on the matter!
Tip 4: Banish guilt and shame
It is not because you are immature or terrible at handling anything that you avoid conflict. It is more likely because you have had little practice and have been taught to believe that expressing your more negative thoughts and feelings is bad or dangerous.
Parents often intervene too quickly in sibling disputes instead of helping children find a resolution or letting them work it out for themselves. We all need opportunities to learn and develop the skills to cope with, manage and resolve conflicts. Clumsy, unskilled words and behaviors are an integral part of any learning process. See it like a sport: Just as physical exercise requires preparation and practice, so does arguing.
You will be sent sparring partners on your journey, to test your inner strength and resolve, and whether you really know who you are. Try to demonstrate your skills and to notice areas in need of practice or reflection. Remember that we are all fighting some kind of battle and probably wishing we weren’t!