The Power of Assertiveness In Conflict

Do you contribute to a growing fire or help put it out in a conflict?

It’s taken me many years of practice to feel like I can properly assert myself when I feel people are trying to bully or steamroll me.  I was pretty passive in my younger years.  So passive that I would stuff everything and then when I hit a breaking point, I’d explode.  My instinct is to be aggressive.  To lash out with my fist.  Thankfully, the only person I ever hit with the intention to do harm was a boy on the playground in 2nd grade.  He was mouthing off about boys being stronger than girls.  I told him I bet I could give him a bloody nose.  I think he regretted taking that bet.  I ran back to my classroom as he was screaming covering up the blood that was flowing.  I feared getting in trouble.  Little did I understand at that point that no boy wants to admit that a girl gave him a bloody nose.

When it comes to aggression, visions of it stay in my head as I seek out another more healthy physical activity to push the adrenaline through.  I know there is no win in hitting anyone even if I desperately want to.

One of the biggest turning points in my assertiveness was years ago when I was supervising a unit of 8 kids and some staff.  One of the staff decided he didn’t want to work the extra shifts he signed up for and tried to get me to let him out of them.  I told him what he needed to do and he didn’t like it.  The next time he approached me, he tried bringing one of the kids into it.  I wound up sending the kid away and repeating what I already told him.  He tried the tactic of telling me he was going to tell my supervisor.  To which I told him it was okay to do that because the direction of how to handle filling extra shifts you signed up for and changed your mind on came from him.  The next and last confrontation happened in a very bullying manner in which he blocked the door to the staff office as I was trying to leave.  I should point out here that he was twice my size.  A clear attempt to intimidate me.  Then he tells me I have a power/control personality.  Say what?  I was pissed at this point since Chaz was in the car in the parking lot waiting for me.  I still remember exactly what I said.  “I do not have a power/control personality, but I will assert myself when I need to.  Now get out of my way.  My husband is waiting for me outside.”

The key for me in working through emotions that have me worked up is to take time.  I cannot talk to people about what I’m feeling when I’m in the moment.  If someone tries  to push, I shut down.  Completely.  Then we can add resentment to whatever emotions I’m already feeling.  I need time to work things through in my head.  To be able to form what I need to say in the right way that will express how I feel without trampling on anyone.  I am a writer and I express myself best when I can write what I feel.  The real world doesn’t always work that way and I have to express myself verbally with most people, so I choose my words very carefully.  I do not want to end up saying something I will regret or saying something that will get my emotions all worked up again.  I do not like reacting at all.  It is why even when I blog about sensitive topics of the day, I wait.  I chew on it and work it through so emotions don’t rule what I’m saying.

My ability to do this successfully is dependent on the other person (or people) allowing me that time I need.  Not everyone will do it.  It took Chaz a few years to really get it.  But, he knows now that if we’re disagreeing and I start to get emotional he has to leave me alone and check in with me later to see if I’m ready to talk.

So it was that someone pushed me yesterday to my breaking point.  I was already upset and he was one of the contributing factors to it.  Not only did he come at me like I was the problem and telling me I wasn’t being an adult (just because I mumbled “yeah” when he said thank you for something), he had the nerve to tell me I was jumping down his throat for that one small interaction.  Talk about blowing things out of proportion.  I told him I really wasn’t ready to hear what he had to say or to continue our conversation, especially after pointing out all of his contradictions rather calmly (despite the roiling boil going on inside me).  He just would not shut up and he wouldn’t stop lying.  If I wasn’t already emotional at that point, I would have pointed out the lies.  But I would have come off too snarky.  I was trying to just stay calm and not completely lose it.  As he kept yapping and not listening, I finally walked off in tears.

I had to talk to talk to two other people after that, but it was more about everything that contributed to my anger and frustration.  I couldn’t even address the confrontation. I was still too emotional about it.

I was able to process once I was away from the entire situation and completely calm.  I’m still mad at the guy, but I was proud of myself for asserting myself.  He started coming off to me like a bully when he first approached me and I didn’t let him.  I didn’t let him turn me into the bad guy.  I didn’t completely shut down even if that was what I wanted to.  And I didn’t punch him in the face even if it would have given me satisfaction for one second.

My tips for being assertive are:  1) Take time to get your emotions under control and your thoughts together.  It’s okay to tell the other person that you aren’t ready yet.  2) Remain calm while talking and if you start getting worked up, it’s okay to say you need to come back to it later.  3) Use “I” messages to communicate your feelings.  “I was upset when you weren’t listening.”  It puts the emphasis on your feelings while not attacking the other person and yet letting them know that what they did was not okay with you.  4) Don’t accept an apology that you aren’t ready to accept or that you feel is disingenuous.  It lets the other person off the hook for true accountability.  I have had no problem telling someone I don’t accept their apology if I feel they are insincere or I’m not ready to accept it.  A real apology comes from a person who is truly sorry for their actions and is willing to take total responsibility and is received from someone who is ready to forgive and move on.  And for goodness sakes, an apology that comes with excuses is NOT an apology.

If you are the person who has upset someone else: 1) Respect the other person’s wishes.  If they ask to be left alone, leave them alone.  If the tables were turned you’d want your boundaries to be respected, too.  2) When you do talk, listen.  Truly listen.  Don’t start talking about yourself and how you understand.  It all turns into Peanuts adults to the other person.  If you are talking about yourself, you aren’t acknowledging the other person’s feelings and the impact you had on them.   Keep the discussion focused on them and their feelings.  3) Stay solution focused as in asking what they think you might be able to do to help prevent the situation from happening in the future or how they would like you to respond should something similar happen in the future.  4) When you apologize, acknowledge what you did and how it affected the other person (I’m sorry I didn’t respect your boundaries and that it upset you when I did that) and make sure you are sincere.  If you aren’t going to be sincere, don’t waste your breath or the other person’s time.  5) Don’t expect everything to be all hunky dory once you apologize.  Feelings were hurt and like physical injuries, they need time to heal.

Conflicts don’t have to be big blow up or reality TV drama.  We can handle it like adults without screaming, yelling, punching.  All you have to do is choose to handle things the right way respectfully.