Most people are aggressively anti-confrontational, and it’s holding us back. When someone comes at you, you duck. You let them win. You choose to not deal with the person or the problem.
I’m guilty of this — I hate coping and dealing with people. I am terrified of arguments. Unfortunately for me, there are times when it’s best to confront people, working towards a solution assertively.
We don’t like to cope with confrontation, so we lean towards just dropping out of the problem and either simmering with resentment, exploding one day in a fountain of rage, or making snide comments without actually addressing the issue. These options are easier, because you don’t have to deal with your emotions or anyone else’s, and you can feel justified in your anger.
We don’t like to talk to the person we feel has wronged us, figure out why they’re acting like that, and get them to stop.
It’s hard work — but it’s worth it.
That’s assertiveness, and it’s a skill that many of us lack, myself included. Assertiveness is one of the best and most practical leadership traits — all the more rare because not many people are born with it. Instead, the people who solve problems well have simply learned it.
Here are the steps you can take to learn how to solve problems assertively.
1. Recognize your fight style.
Before you can start being assertive, try to figure out what you’re currently doing. That way you can be on the watch for it and know when to prepare to be assertive instead.
If you’re the kind of person that, when things bother you, you just let them go and go and go until you let the whole friendship go, you’re probably dealing with things passively. That’s bad because it means you’re just left feeling a lot of resentment towards the person, but don’t feel like you can bring it up to them.
An example of a passive response:
Your friend: Can you do me a favor?
You [internally]: When will you stop asking me to do you favors!
You [externally]: Yeah, of course. What can I do?
If you let things simmer until you break down or explode at the slightest provocation, that’s an aggressive style. While it clears the air, it doesn’t deal with the problem in any lasting way. The person you shouted at probably doesn’t know what they did before to make you angry, and they might not understand why you’re yelling now.
An example of an aggressive response:
Friend: Can you do me a favor?
You: YOU’RE ALWAYS ASKING ME TO DO YOU FAVORS AND YOU NEVER F*CKING STOP.
If you’re the type of person who makes snarky comments and is sarcastic and biting when you’re annoyed at someone, you’re probably leaning more towards passive aggressiveness.
An example of a passive-aggressive response:
Friend: Can you do me a favor?
You: Sure, of course! What’s another favor? It’s not like I do 100 of them for you every day.
In my opinion, passive-aggressiveness is the worst of the three, because we feel that by being sarcastic and cruel, the other person will notice what they’re doing and stop. It shifts the responsibility onto them. But in reality, the other party just feels hurt, often without understanding why you’re acting like this.
Most of us alternate between the three types of response, depending on the person we’re dealing with, how justified we feel in getting angry, and how often they’ve annoyed us. But when you think of one person in particular, you can get a gauge for which one you’re most likely to use and think of ways to catch yourself.
2. Identify the problem
Now that you know how you tend to respond, you can start constructing your assertive case. Chances are, you have a person or problem in mind when you’re reading this right now.
For example in my case, my colleague constantly asked me to do things that she could easily do herself. Super annoying. What bothered me was that it felt like she thought her time was more valuable than mine, and rather than making any effort to solve the problem herself, she would just ask me to do it.
This part can take a bit of soul searching, as there will be the surface problem (colleague asks me to do stuff) but then a deeper underlying issue (it feels like she thinks her time is more valuable than mine). In order to get through to the other person, you’ll need both.
3. Outline your feelings — using facts.
This is one of the hardest aspects. You’ll have to speak to the person who’s bothered you and let them know why they’ve upset you.
Start positive. Explain the positives of what they do. Say how nice it is that they care so much about X, Y, or Z that they do it a lot.
For me, I mentioned how impressed I was with my colleague’s dedication to work that she was keen to always be up-to-date with my information.
Then what you should do is have a recent example of what bothered you, as well as explaining how it made you feel, to explain why you’re bringing it up now.
Don’t say “You always do X and it’s annoying.”
Instead, say “Yesterday, you did Y and it made me feel annoyed.”
The key difference is that you give a specific time frame and example. If you say it’s something the person always does, they feel attacked. The exaggeration will work against you, making them feel that you’re over-inflating the issue.
You’re also putting the emphasis on how they made you feel. Instead of saying “When you do X it’s annoying,” which is you stating an activity is flat-out annoying as a fact, you’re saying the action made you feel a certain way. That can’t be denied, and it’s more likely to get through to them.
It’s less aggressive, because you’re not judging their action as annoying, you’re simply stating that it made you feel annoyed.
4. Explain the solution.
When you’ve communicated what’s bothering you, it’s tempting to leave it at that, and let them resolve the rest of it. Don’t give in — the next step is crucial.
You should have thought of your solution beforehand so you can present it now without hesitation. In my example, I wanted my colleague to begin checking our mutual spreadsheet for information rather than asking me first. I was just directing her to another port of call. Then, if she couldn’t find the information, she could ask me.
Your vanity might want them to apologize first, or propose a solution themselves. If they do, that’s great, but don’t count on it. Remember, you’re being the adult here, so be prepared with a proactive answer to solve your issue.
Be sure to emphasize how it would make you feel. Again, it might sound wishy-washy here, but it’s crucial to explain that your friend or colleague doing the solution will make you feel listened to, and happier.
5. Detail the consequences of success (or failure).
This step is the last and trickiest to get right. What you want to do is let them know that there will be consequences for their actions, whether negative or positive.
This is building off the last part of Step 4 above: you’ve told them that when they do X, you will feel better. But you can also add on additional “bonuses.”
Start with the negatives, because you want to end on a positive. Think of a “negative” consequence. For example, in my case, I said that if she continued to ask me instead of checking the spreadsheet, I couldn’t guarantee that I would get back to her in a timely manner. The consequence was that she’d have to wait for the info.
The benefit was that if she checked the spreadsheet, she wouldn’t have to wait for me to get back to her, plus I’d have more time to put more details and keep it current.
The crucial thing is to word it correctly. Don’t say, “When you stop doing X, I will do Y.”
Say, “If you start doing X, I will do Y.”
The difference is far more positive, and leaves the conversation on a hopeful note. Throughout, try to sound less transactional, and more conversational. It’s a negotiation, yes, but it’s also an interaction between you and another person.
Why should we be assertive?
Why the heck should we care? Why not just be sarcastic or shouty or just let it be? Where’s the benefit in forcing ourselves to face our fears, and confront the people who offend, annoy, frustrate, or otherwise bother us?
First of all, there’s a sense of relief. We’re social creatures. We don’t like strife. When we have negative feelings towards others, even if they know nothing about it, we’re more stressed. This is because we’re always feeling like we’re on the brink of a fight. That’s why, when you get up to do it, your body puts you in full flight-or-fight mode.
This is why it’s so important that you plan out your assertiveness, or else you can get lost in the heat of confrontation.
It strengthens the relationship with the other person, too. Other people will recognize when you’d rather do the hard work of dealing with issues instead of burying them or unleashing them, and it matters.
Confrontation sucks. It’s hard to learn, and sometimes it feels like it isn’t worth the effort. But I disagree. No matter how much my palms sweat and no matter how annoyed and afraid I am, I believe it’s worth doing, and it’s worth doing right. Dealing with people is a hard skill to learn, but it’s a trait that carries you far. Assertive people lead and change this world.