Growing up, I got high marks for my mild manner and good behaviour. I was the "good kid" who never caused trouble or made a fuss. This has carried over into adulthood, with me avoiding every argument like the plague. But being non-confrontational as an adult is more damaging and debilitating than it is helpful.
Illustration by Jim Cooke.
For a long time I thought of this as a good trait. Where others would argue or complain, I was diplomatic and kept the peace. Having been around lots of outspoken people who sometimes exploded into rage over the littlest things, I didn't want to have anything to do with ugly emotions like anger. In the "fight or flight" reaction paradigm, these loud, outspoken people were the fighters, whereas my gut reaction, especially in social situations, was to run and hide. I now know that both approaches — expressing all your emotions and opinions freely or hiding them entirely — are a recipe for disaster, for everyone involved.
Peace at All Costs
There are times when being non-confrontational is helpful, of course — for example, when you're brokering a peace deal with terrorists or trying to calm your nap-deprived toddler in the middle of the mall — but it shouldn't be your only way of acting towards others. I feared and avoided any sort of uncomfortable social situation, including ones that might've helped me grow or improved my relationships.
For example, if a friend or colleague made a comment that bothered me, I wouldn't say anything. I'd just seethe internally and not talk to the person, maybe letting that negative feeling fester until the friendship fizzled or I exploded, like a pressure cooker, over seemingly nothing (but it was really the built-up resentment). Similarly, instead of asking for a raise or a promotion, I'd wait until the company brought it up, if ever, and just take whatever they offered — all the while growing resentful that I didn't get the raise I didn't ask for and considering leaving for a new job because of it. I let bad relationships linger longer than they should have just because I didn't want to have "that talk" and hurt someone's feelings.
Even the most minor confrontations — which wouldn't seem like confrontations to other people — gave me gut-wrenching anxiety. I felt uncomfortable going back to a cashier if I was given the wrong amount of change, asking my in-laws to turn down the TV if it was on too loud, or even telling a massage therapist that the pressure was too hard and they were hurting me. I was the poster bear-and-grin-it person, and I ended up paying for all those hesitations and fears — physically, emotionally, and financially.
Why People Tend To Be Non-Confrontational
I can't speak for everyone who's had this same issue, but, for me, I think I've never felt comfortable being assertive or dealing with conflict because of both my personality and my skewed view of confrontation. I think I'm non-confrontational by design.
Most people who know me would probably describe me as soft-spoken and quiet. I don't stand out or speak out unless I have to, because doing so requires so much energy and effort for me. But other people in my family? No problem. My 9-year-old daughter is ready and willing to challenge anyone in an authoritative role — myself, teachers, and other adults in general. I'm shocked and dismayed by that, wondering why she can't just be "good" and quiet (like I was) and follow the directions even when she doesn't agree with them. But she's a fighter, while I'm a flighter.
Beyond personality, I think we non-confrontationalists (new word!) just care too much about what others think. I want everyone to be happy. I don't want anyone to think of me as aggressive, selfish, loud, or uncooperative — things I associate with people who are more outspoken. I don't want to be seen as a complainer or get labelled with that damning description for women who are assertive: bitchy. (This is a whole other post, but for women especially, being assertive is seen as aggression and sets you back even more.)
Mostly, though, direct conflict just makes me feel awkward and extremely uncomfortable.
The Problem with Being Non-Confrontational
Although being non-confrontational might help you get along with people more, it also makes it easier people take advantage of you. Author Andrew Schwab explains it well (he's talking specifically about passive men, but this applies to women as well):
First, avoiding conflict never extinguishes conflict. It only delays it. And in being avoidant you actually inflame the issue at hand, so that when it comes to the surface, the situation becomes more dramatic than it needs to be. Second, "pleasing" always breeds resentment. The yes-man always feels ripped off because his true feelings are never heard. And the people being manipulated always feel cheated because they feel like they never have a choice in the matter at hand. Third, passive/avoidant types usually have bad tempers. This is because a) their feelings are always bottled up, and b) they become trapped in situations they can't get out of because they don't want to step on any toes. Fourth, this type of guy usually ends up feeling isolated. When your goal is to avoid conflict you can hardly ever connect to anyone deeply-because that would require a level of vulnerability that is uncomfortable and risky. Also, "nice guys" tend to be anxious, because they spend so much energy on trying to make everyone around them happy. The ultimate casualties in the equation are our courage, and ultimately, our character.
In other words, by trying to avoid direct conflict or tension, we're actually making it worse. Trying to please everyone without standing up for ourselves can also lead us to act passive-aggressively, a defence mechanism that's really anger expressed with a smile.
I didn't realise how passive-aggressive I was until my daughter pointed it out: "Mummy's the most passive-aggressive person ever!" Defaulting to sarcastic comments like "Gee, wouldn't it be nice if the lawn was mowed" or "Too bad our kid doesn't know how to put her toys away" are prime examples. Sometimes passive-aggressiveness is simply saying nothing or avoiding people — classic non-confrontational moves. As the Washington Post explains, this annoying behaviour is often a strategy we use when we're afraid to be honest and open or think we don't deserve to speak our minds.
How I Overcame My Non-Confrontational Tendencies
As with anything you want to change, the first step is realising there's a problem and exploring the reasons behind it. One turning point for me was when a counselor told me that depression is really anger turned inwards. Like a light turning on, what she said explained at least partly why I've struggled with depression from an early age. I have trouble expressing anger.
Since then, I've been taking steps to accept conflict, if not embrace it. In addition to learning to manage my anger better, a few strategies that have helped me:
Deal with conflicts immediately, when they're small. Like other social skills, being assertive is a learnable skill — one that takes practice. It's easier to speak up at the start of a conflict instead of trying to wait it out. If you have a hard time being direct with people close to you, look for opportunities to practice with strangers, such as calling to negotiate your cell phone bill. Remember: "No one cares, so do what you want."
Rethink your idea of conflict. Being assertive or speaking your mind isn't mean, selfish, or aggressive. Conflicts aren't always bad — they're often necessary for change — and even angry confrontations can be healthy. These are hard things to believe when you're non-confrontational, but mull it over at least.
Act as if you are advising a friend. We're all probably more rational and braver when we give advice to friends than when we make our own decisions. If you're facing an awkward social situation, get over that non-confrontational barrier by imaging you're acting for a friend. Or think about what you would advise a friend to do in the same situation.
Use the communication medium you're most comfortable with. For me, that's writing. If I have to challenge or confront someone, writing an email or letter helps me organise my thoughts. I'm able to express myself better in writing compared to talking, but a letter can also lead to a deeper in-person conversation.
If you must avoid confrontation, try to make the situation less stressful for you. Besides fight or flight, there's another option: stay and change your perspective. Recently, I've had family visiting and driving me batty by overstaying and overcrowding me. I could've: confronted them and asked them to leave, said nothing but cried alone (my previous default strategy), or worked on my feelings of frustration. I'm not completely there yet, but I've been working on fixing my resentment so I can operate from a place of kindness and compassion.
I'm still the calm and diplomatic person I was before, but just a little more direct. As writer John Weirick says, our healthiest relationships won't avoid confrontation, but will learn how to navigate it well.