It was 90 degrees last Sunday afternoon. I walked out of Trader Joe’s with a cartful of frozen food and started the hike across the parking lot to my car. I transferred the groceries to my trunk and, in the interest of time, heat and frozen food, I made a quick decision not to walk the cart all the way back to the store. Instead, I stashed it at the curb and out of the way, between my car and the next.
“Hey, you!” I heard someone yell as I walked back around to my door. It was the guy in the next car. “Why would you leave your cart there in the way of everyone else? That is so selfish and you need to move it right now,” he called out with a condescending, irritated sneer. Then he continued to explain what a loser I am and how wrong I was to do that.
I froze in my tracks as I listened, surprised and ashamed. Here’s an accounting of the progression of my thoughts as he continued with his complaint:
Oh man, I shouldn’t have left the cart there.
How embarrassing that I got caught.
Actually, it’s not that big a deal. The cart’s not in the way.
Wait a minute, he just called me selfish.
This guy is mean.
I think he’s just looking for a fight with someone.
This guy has a real problem of some kind.
The man ended his diatribe with the repeated command: “You need to move your cart. You need to move your cart. You need to move your cart, right now.”
Very quickly, in the spur of the moment, I had to decide what to do…
Unlike Angry Cart Guy, most people don’t go around looking for a fight. That is certainly a good thing. But there are plenty of folks who err in the other direction; by going out of their way to make sure they don’t find themselves in a conflict of any sort.
We all agree that clashing or arguing is not fun. Conflict has a way, as I did in the parking lot, of making us doubt ourselves, and feel vulnerable or even ashamed. Conflict shakes the ground beneath our feet a little bit. It can turn balanced, self-assured people into yelling monsters or bowls of jelly.
Most conflicts are not such clear-cut attacks as the one I described. Instead, they’re typically more nuanced and complex. But as I did with Angry Cart Guy, in any conflict we all have four main options:
- Agree with the other person and say nothing – Conflict Avoidant
- Ignore the other person completely – Conflict Avoidant
- Yell back some equivalent insults at our critic – Aggressive
- Calmly and evenly convey our point of view while doing what we feel is the right thing – Assertive
Which of these four options would you be most likely to choose?
Your answer probably depends on the conflict-management style of the family you grew up in. If members of your family were loud fighters, you might naturally tend toward aggressive. If your family avoided emotions or discouraged anger (Childhood Emotional Neglect), you may be more comfortable with conflict avoidance.
Tending toward the aggressive response in conflicts can help you feel less vulnerable. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t really work very well in parking lot confrontations or in relationships. The problem is that you are either lowering yourself to the other person’s level or blowing him (or her) away. There’s no opportunity for anyone, yourself or the other person, to learn anything. There’s no opportunity to work anything out.
If you chose either of the conflict avoidant options, I understand! In some ways it makes sense not to provoke an angry person. But there are actually two problems with the avoidant options. First, the other person gets to run the show, and his bad behavior goes unchecked. Second, you walk away feeling victimized and stifled. All of the toxins from the other person’s anger settle into your gut, and you then have to deal with them on your own.
Saying, “I don’t like conflict,” is the same thing as saying, “I don’t like standing up for myself.”
Now lets talk about Option #4: Assertive. For this one, skills are required. To be assertive, you must be able to do four difficult things at once.
The Four Skills of Assertiveness
- Manage your feelings, especially anger
- Assess the situation
- Formulate your response
- Deliver that response in an even, calm and respectful manner regardless of what you are actually feeling
Having gone through much of my life seriously short on all of these skills, my choice for decades would probably have been #2. But lucky for me, I’m a psychologist. I’ve had to learn how to be assertive to teach it to my patients.
So I know first-hand how well conflict avoidance works (it doesn’t). I also know that assertiveness skills are effective, and that they can be learned. And I know that assertiveness skills are the cure for conflict avoidance.
So here’s how I handled Angry Cart Guy.
“You know, I’m not going to move the cart because I don’t like how you’re talking to me. If you’d asked in a nice respectful way, maybe I would.”
He didn’t stop ranting, but he didn’t escalate either. I walked calmly to my door and got into my car. As I backed out, he was still raving at me.
Did I teach him anything? I doubt it. But I didn’t walk away with his toxins either.