Fear and Confrontation

I used to think that I was scared of certain types of people. That is: people who are quick to judge, quick to turn on you, make assumptions without checking facts, act one way to your face and another way behind your back, or, maybe in a work context, treat you with contempt by ignoring you or overriding your decisions. Etc. That’s a lot of different behaviours – and there are many more, that I haven’t mentioned – but hopefully, you get my gist.

I suppose, when it comes down to it, I am talking about people who make radically different choices from me. I try to behave thoughtfully, logically and reasonably, maturely, rationally, and to have perspective and see other perspectives. (Now. It was a very different story when I was younger! I was often self-righteous and contemptuous.) I try to think actions through to consequences. I don’t always behave in these ways, but I’m always trying to, and working on it.

So, yeah, I used to think that I was scared of people who made radically different choices from me, but I’ve changed my mind; I don’t think that’s what’s happening. I think I’ve been scared of confrontation, and the consequences of confrontation.

What am I so afraid of? I’m afraid of being wrong, sure, maybe. If you enter into an argument, you could be proven wrong. It could be humiliating and confusing. But I think, more than anything, I’m afraid of being disliked. Now, that might seem nuts – why should you be afraid of being disliked (or worse, being marked as an “enemy”) if you have an argument about something? Ohhhhhh. Well. Because it happens all the time. Our society is so terrible with confrontation that people often can’t separate liking someone personally from having differences in opinion. If we disagree with people who don’t want refugees coming to Australia, we don’t engage logic or reason to rationally discuss; we dismiss, shun, censor, misrepresent, bully and abuse our opponents instead. “Idiots.” “You disgust me.”

(Side note: Did you know: In the world of reasoning, logic and arguments, “slanting” is using evaluative terms without having reasons to do so, e.g. “You’re an idiot if you don’t have the same opinion as me” or “You’re weird if you like that music.” People typically do this when they don’t have a reason for the evaluation, and when you see slanting, you can use it to find weaknesses in the arguments. Thanks, Coursera!)

In work arguments, as well as being disliked, you run the risk of damaging your professional life. Maybe you are a designer, and you have a dispassionate and rational argument with the Creative Director, and then you find that you’ve effectively been demoted, and now you receive all the most boring tasks. Don’t rock the boat, man. Don’t say you disagree with how something’s being done.

And… worst of all (and I wish it weren’t the case), I think this problem is particularly relevant to females interacting with other females. I don’t know why we are so ready to turn on each other, be nasty, criticise, judge, mock, delete each other from our lives, and assume the worst of each other, but unfortunately, this also happens all the time.

Confrontation, if you are unused to it and go to great lengths to avoid it, becomes an horrific gargantuan monster. The monster leaves a trail of destruction made of terrible consequences: instead of having healthy confrontation, you may experience passive aggression, physical aggression, stress, anxiety, hatred, fear, resentment, embarrassment, humiliation, loss of self-esteem, loss of confidence, loss of empowerment, frustration, and more!

But where do we learn to have healthy confrontation? Where do we learn to debate fundamental beliefs while acknowledging that we still respect each other? Where do we learn that it’s okay to argue about something and still be interested in the other person’s perspective? Where do we learn that we don’t have to dislike people, or make enemies of them, because we disagree? Where do we have role models for any of this?

We have parliamentary debate, which is superficial, contrary, ridiculous, immature and ineffective.
We have our elders, who may believe that arguments are impolite and to be avoided.
We have the media, who set bad examples for a living.
Goodness gracious!

Well, I am trying to learn healthy confrontation. (My boyfriend does it so well – but, boy! When we started out having differences of opinion, I was so bad at confrontation that I would be terribly offended and stop talking to him, which he couldn’t understand.) I have been slowly trying to have more difficult conversations, because I think that they become less of a mythical monster every time that I practice them. Yes, arguments are really hard. Yes, you might be wrong. Yes, they can get emotional and you might cry. Yes, you might be disliked, or marked as an enemy, and be dismissed, shunned, censored, misrepresented, bullied and abused. But I believe you become better at confrontation with practice, and you can hopefully learn how to mitigate some of these negatives, and in the long run, it’s better for everyone – you, your opponents, and the world – if you try.

Last week, I called up a friend to have a difficult conversation. I wouldn’t have done this a year ago; I would have swallowed my hurt (so it goes down to your belly, and boils and burns) and left the matter unaddressed, which would have negatively impacted our relationship in various insidious ways. But I have changed, somewhat, and I was able to call them, and say that their behaviour had hurt me. In turn, they explained the reasons for their behaviour and how they disagreed with me on some fundamental philosophical issues. It wasn’t easy for either of us, and yeah, I cried. But by having this difficult conversation – doing something that wasn’t pleasant for either of us – we were acknowledging that beneath the current issue, we respected each other and wanted to resolve our differences in some way.

I see now that when I have been “scared of certain people,” I have actually been afraid of a raft of consequences: being disliked, being wrong, humiliation, insults, feeling frustrated about my poor argument skills, and running the risk that the argument changes nothing – and I also haven’t wanted to be inconvenienced by pursuing the difficult and unpleasant option. It’s easier to boil and burn than to stutter and cry. Enough of that. As Merlin Mann says: What’s the worst that can happen? – They can’t eat you. They can’t slice you up into little pieces and eat you. (He was talking about fear in general, but I think it applies here too.)

I joked a while back about having an Argument Club, but I am still interested in that idea. I want to practice debating controversial issues with other people who agree, deep down, that we all respect each other, and that we want to get better at having healthy confrontation. I especially want to practice this with females (see also: the friendship contract idea), so that we can learn to actually talk through the logic of our arguments, while acknowledging that, deep down, the other person isn’t evil, and that we are all flawed creatures in an amazing world for a brief amount of time.


      • Michelle says:

        It was interesting was that they both felt the same about how they handled confrontation – both wished they were less – less smoothy-over in Lulu’s case and less can’t-hold-it-have-to-say-something in Soo’s.

        Soo believes that her inability to let things slide is a flaw – she thinks of it like a scab – that it has impacted her relationships with friends. But then by watching Soo it was amazing how Lu realised that by being vulnerable and connecting and challenging people has the potential to lead to the chance of someone meeting you in that same place and creating a deeper connection. And that really impacted her.

        I guess there is a moderate line between Soo and Lulu. Don’t have to be as confrontational as Soo but also not as detached as Lulu. I guess knowing the lines in your sand and what you care about …wait.. I guess knowing the lines in my sand and what I care about is a missing puzzle piece for me. I mean – what would I stand up for and challenge someone on?

        I have challenged men who are (or appear to be) on the brink of violence where a woman is involved; I have challenged women who have struck children – but not much challenging up to that point. I rarely challenge someone who is lying to me; or someone who is telling me things I don’t believe is true (eg: the earth is 4,000 years old and God planted the dinosaur fossils or that eating 5 pieces of fruit a day is good for me); or someone who is just being a dick out there in the world.

        Does that mean I’m mousey (to use your term)?

        As I type away in this tiny comments box I’m am wondering if it’s it’s because I am not clear on where the lines in my sand are. What do I care about enough to take action and to speak up/out?

  1. Fox says:

    Would you say you avoid confrontation? Do you feel assertive? Do you feel like you know how to have healthy confrontation? Have you had difficult conversations with friends? {Questions}

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