As a therapist, it’s clear to me that a fear of confrontation is at the root of many people's distress. Workplace issues, relationship troubles, and interpersonal problems could likely be resolved if only people were able to address their concerns in an open and direct manner.
People who avoid confrontation often make excuses for their behavior, such as “I’m a peacemaker,” or “I don’t want to ruffle any feathers.” Whether it’s an annoying co-worker who leaves coffee cups all over the office or a mother-in-law who makes inappropriate jokes, fear of confrontation often outweighs an individual’s desire to address an issue head-on. Consequently, the problem never gets resolved and the distressed individual continues to suffer (and stew).
Confronting someone in an assertive but kind matter doesn’t have to be scary. In fact, you might find that others welcome your input and agree to create positive change.
If you’re leery of expressing your opinion in a direct manner, here are six ways to get over your fear of confrontation:
1. Identify the problems with being a pushover.
You won’t change your behavior unless you believe that your current behavior isn’t working. And when you’re nervous or afraid to speak up, it’s easy to convince yourself that staying quiet is the best option.
Write down the problems you experience when you avoid confrontation. Perhaps you go home from work feeling stressed out. Or maybe your relationship with someone close to you becomes more damaged every time you allow that person to hurt your feelings.
2. List what you might gain by speaking up.
On the back of the same piece of paper, write down what you could achieve by speaking up: Your relationships might improve, your problems might get solved, or you might become happier. Be specific about the things you stand to gain.
Every time you’re tempted to stay quiet, read over both lists. Identifying the logical, rational reasons you should confront someone—even when it feels scary—can boost your courage and help you do it.
3. Reconsider your assumptions about confrontation.
Fear of confrontation is often based on false assumptions. Thoughts like “Confrontation is bad” or “Telling someone I disagree with them will ruin our relationship” only fuel your fear. Whether you learned to walk on eggshells because you once had a difficult boss, or your fear of confrontation goes all the way back to childhood, check your assumptions.
In reality, confrontation is healthy. There are many kind—and assertive—ways to speak up and express your opinion, and doing so might improve the situation more than you ever imagined.
4. Address one issue at a time.
If there’s just one person you tend to avoid confronting—like a particularly challenging colleague—choose one minor issue to address. Don’t pick the biggest problem and don’t bring up a lengthy list of items you don’t like. Start small and see what happens.
If you avoid speaking up to everyone around you, pick a safe person to confront first. Maybe you want to start with a trusted friend or family member whom you know isn’t going to blow up at you. Address something minor and you’ll increase your confidence in your ability to be assertive in other situations.
5. Stick to “I" statements and work on staying calm.
At the heart of all good communication is the ability to stick to “I" statements. Rather than saying, “You’re so arrogant in meetings and you never even bother showing up on time,” say, “I am concerned about the way you address the group and I feel disrespected when you arrive late.”
Avoid being overly accusatory; express what you think and how you feel. Most important, take a few deep breaths and don’t let your anger get the best of you—even if the other person lashes out. The goal is to be assertive, not aggressive.
6. Keep practicing one small step at a time.
Confronting someone is more of an art than a science. What works well in one circumstance might not fly in another. But with practice, you’ll be able to recognize when to speak up, how to do it, and the best ways to express yourself effectively.
Consider your efforts a work in progress and take small steps. Just like any fear, facing a fear of confrontation gets easier with practice. The more you speak up for yourself, the less frightening it becomes.