Avoiding Confrontation? 4 Ways to Stand Up for Yourself More Effectively
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
Most people dislike confrontation because we fear it could damage our relationship with others. So how do we stand up for ourselves without coming across as confrontational? The key is to confront the problem, not the people behind the problem.
Many years ago, I was invited to collaborate with a senior consultant on an important client project. As the less experienced team member, I assumed she would take the lead on the project, and it would be an excellent opportunity for me to learn and be mentored by someone of her high reputation and standing.
The reality, as it turned out, was I ended up doing most of the work myself. And then, when it came time to be recognized for our respective roles in the project's success, she without hesitation, took undue credit as the primary contributor. Although I was shocked and angered by her blatant disregard of my actual role and efforts, I didn’t say a word.
Why We Avoid Confrontation
Why was it so hard to stand up for myself on something so obviously unfair? As I look back at that experience, I realize my reluctance to advocate for myself was rooted in my fear of confrontation. I was afraid asserting myself would damage our relationship and jeopardize our future collaboration opportunities. So, instead of confronting her, I stayed quiet, all the while fuming with anger and resentment.
Most people dislike confrontation. Let’s face it. It’s uncomfortable, to say the least. However, this can be especially tricky for women leaders who face the “double bind dilemma” in their attempt to walk the tightrope between being assertive, but also likeable. We fear that being viewed as confrontational will negatively impact our relationships, our reputations, and, therefore, our careers. In an effort to “keep the peace,” we often avoid speaking up, saying no, or asserting what’s rightfully or deservedly ours. However, by remaining silent, we also give up our power.
How to Stand Up for Yourself More Effectively
So, how do we stand up for ourselves without coming across as confrontational? The key is to confront the problem, not the people behind the problem. Here are four ways to stand up for yourself and others, without damaging the relationship:
1. Standing Up to Offensive Behavior
Teresa complained how one of her colleagues routinely interrupts her during team meetings and brushes aside her ideas. Instead of standing up for herself, she “plays nice” to avoid conflict, but then criticizes him behind his back.
Teresa’s unwillingness to stand up for herself serves to undermine her leadership standing within her team and diminishes her personal power. Rather than addressing her colleague’s offensive behavior directly and assertively, the unresolved conflict manifests itself in Teresa resorting to her own passive-aggressive behaviors such as gossiping about and disparaging her colleague behind his back.
How to Stand Up for Yourself: When you experience problematic behavior of a person that serves to undermine you, it is best to focus on the behavior or actions of the individual requiring change, rather than the person’s character or motivation. This may seem overly nuanced, but it’s an important distinction. In the example above, Teresa should meet with the colleague in private to communicate the issue his behavior creates for her and the team, and then make clear the change in his actions she expects to see going forward. Here is an example of how Teresa can address her colleague:
“I have valuable input to share about this case during our team meetings, but don’t always have the opportunity to do so because you often interrupt me. I don’t think it is your intention to prevent me from sharing my views or to disrespect me in any way, so I’d appreciate it if you would refrain from talking over me in future meetings."
2. Asking for What You Want and Deserve
Eileen found out she’s being paid 20% less than her male peers with the same level of experience and responsibility. Although rightfully outraged, she has a good relationship with her boss and doesn’t want to confront him. She’s worried he’ll be defensive and angry about her allegations.
Eileen’s situation is not uncommon. Indeed, fear of confrontation is a key reason for the existing gender pay gap where women earn only 81% of men. One of the primary reasons women typically don’t ask for what they want and deserve is fear of putting a strain on their relationships with others. Instead, we, as women, tend to repress our anger and frustration to not “upset the apple cart.” But this unresolved conflict can play out in negative ways that eventually erode our job satisfaction and performance.
How to Stand Up for Yourself: Don’t present your concerns as a complaint for your boss to unilaterally resolve. Instead, position the issue as a matter to be addressed constructively and collaboratively. Communicate the pertinent facts clearly, calmly, and confidently, while still being open to hear the other person's thoughts and perspectives. Below is an example of how Gloria can initiate a collaborative approach to addressing her issue:
“When you have a moment, I’d appreciate sitting down with you to discuss my compensation. I recently obtained reliable information indicating my salary is materially less than my peers. I don't know the reasons for this disparity, but I’d like to understand why this gap exists and how we can work together to remedy it.”
3. Asserting Your Own Needs and Preferences
Gloria’s legal team tends to socialize at bars late into the evening. As a single mother and non-drinker, these opportunities to network with fellow team members are both inconvenient and uncomfortable. Rather than share her concerns, Gloria just goes with the flow, because she doesn’t want to appear difficult or demanding.
Gloria’s tendency to go along with what everyone else wants or does is a common modus operandi for many women who are often expected to be selfless team players and simply “suck it up.” However, by not voicing our preferences, we subordinate ourselves to the wants and needs of others.
How to Stand Up for Yourself: Assertiveness isn’t about being selfish, it’s about confidently advocating for your own needs without disregarding those of others. Here is an example of how Gloria can offer up alternative plans reflecting her needs, while accommodating the preferences of her teammates:
“I heard the team is going out for drinks later. How about we meet for appetizers beforehand at the new sushi restaurant around the corner. I know a few of us have been wanting to check it out. I’m happy to make reservations at 5:30.”
4. Speaking Up on Behalf of Others
Paulina is a new partner at her firm. During a recent meeting, one of the firm’s senior partners made disparaging comments about an associate who works closely with Paulina. She knew these claims weren’t true and wanted to speak up in defense of this colleague. But she didn’t. Paulina was afraid challenging this senior partner would damage her reputation and shift unwanted focus and attention on her.
Paulina’s fear of speaking up on behalf of the disparaged associate is really about her fear of being rejected by her peers. As a new partner, she doesn’t feel she can safely challenge the views of others, especially those she perceives as having influence and power over her.
How to Stand Up for Others: It takes courage to speak up when you don’t agree, even when you have a strong opinion about something. But speaking up for yourself or others doesn’t have to be challenging or confrontational. You can acknowledge other opinions, while also offering your own. Here is an example of how Paulina could have spoken up in the partners’ meeting to share her own observations of the associate without discounting those of the senior partner:
“I’m sorry to hear about your difficulties with this associate. This has not been my experience. Actually, she has been a consistent top-performer on our project team and highly rated and regarded by our clients. I’d welcome speaking with you later about your concerns and how we can address them.”
Is Fear of Confrontation Holding You Back?
If your fear of confrontation in the workplace is keeping you from standing up for yourself and your career, know that asserting yourself effectively is a skill you can and must learn. Reframing confrontation as a form of positive self-advocacy can go a long way towards making it a collaborative problem-solving process rather than a perceived conflict to be avoided.
If you’d like more information on how I can help you assert yourself more effectively, please contact me. You are also welcome to schedule a complimentary coaching session to experience the power of coaching to help you "get out of your own way" so you can realize your full potential.
Jill Lynch Cruz, PhD, CPC, GCDF, SPHR
Executive Coach & Career Development Facilitator