Written by Chloe Laws
Stylist’s Chloe Laws explores why she found confrontation so hard, and how much it had to do with gender.
When you hear the word ‘confrontational’, what do you think of? For me, it was always associated with pushiness, strength and a ballsy attitude. I feared and admired ‘confrontational’ people, in equal measures. Yet, I put myself firmly in the non-confrontational camp. That is, until recently.
Like anything, confrontation exists on a scale – I’m sure a lot of people in my life might dub me as confrontational, given that I’ll readily jump into a political debate or tell a catcalling man to go fuck himself, but the thought of sitting down with a friend or family member and telling them that my feelings were hurt by their actions or drawing a boundary with an employer, plagued me with anxiety.
I’d avoid confrontation at all costs, letting situations escalate without saying anything. I’d be rich if I had a pound for every time someone said, “Why didn’t you say anything earlier?”
This experience is one many women may find familiar, so intertwined are our coping mechanisms with the patriarchy we’ve grown up in. For example, the UN Women’s research found that almost one in four adolescent girls aged 15–19 (24%) have experienced physical and/or sexual violence from an intimate partner or husband. Another study found that 36% of female students in mixed-sex schools say they have personally been treated differently on account of their gender, compared to 15% of male students. Messaging tells us, from a young age, that to be good we must be polite. But politeness can also mean obedience and silence. While boys are encouraged to speak up, girls are told nobody likes a bossypants. It’s no wonder, then, that finding the vocabulary to confront people feels unnatural.
My fears around being confrontational were about how I would be perceived. If I’m being honest with myself, I’m not sure I would call a man ‘confrontational’. It’s a word reserved for women, often said with a negative tone – a woman asking to be treated better or speaking up for herself is aggressive. A man doing the same? That’s just standard practice. If anything, it’s seen as admirable. That, obviously, is my internalised misogyny speaking. As with most examples of internalised misogyny, it’s glaringly obvious once you spell it out. And once noted, it’s hard to ignore.
The fear women have around confrontation stems from a fear of judgment, according to Dr Rina Bajaj, a counselling psychologist: “Initially, it’s important to identify where this fear is coming from. For example, is it linked in with past experiences in relationships, internalised rules around how you ‘should’ be or a fear of judgment? Now ask yourself, is this fear a fact or an opinion? Most of the time it’s an opinion. Bringing in our logical and rational mind in this way can help to ground us. In order to become more assertive, it will require you to take some emotional risks: to feel the fear and to do it anyway.
“You can start by practising being assertive in relationships that feel more emotionally safe until you start to feel more confident. For example, you might use more assertive body language like making eye contact or standing in an upright position with your shoulders back. Or you might say no to something without giving a reason, excuse or excessively apologising. It’s important to state clearly how you feel and what you need in assertive communication. For example, ‘When you did that, it made me feel this way and what I would like or need from you is this.’”
Dr Rina Bajaj continues: “If there are people who are more emotionally triggering for you, you can plan ahead and think through what you might want to say and challenge any negative thoughts or self-doubt that can come up. Becoming more assertive is a process, and it’s important to acknowledge and validate the small changes that you make along the way.”
Over the last year, I’ve challenged myself to be more confrontational. Professionally, I’ve learnt to speak up at the first instance, rather than allow situations I’m displeased about rattle on. In my friendships, I’ve made baby steps in expressing boundaries and being honest with people when they’ve hurt me. In my relationship, I no longer avoid confrontation until it transforms into passive aggression; instead, I express myself clearly rather than letting small annoyances build up.In turn, it’s changed how I respond to confrontation. It’s something I was scared of and couldn’t bear the thought of someone being ‘mad’. Now, I know it’s just healthy communication and boundaries. This practice has made even the smallest interactions easier. Now, when a waiter brings me the wrong food, I don’t just eat it (even when I’m allergic… yep, I’ve done that before). I simply tell them, and the world continues to turn.
Dr Rina Bajaj’s three tips for handling confrontation better
1. Look beyond the behaviour.
While it’s important to set boundaries around behaviour, it can be useful to try to empathically understand the feelings behind the behaviour in an attempt to connect with the other individual. For example, someone’s anger may be signalling that they feel vulnerable or unheard. Reflect on what you’re noticing and how it might feel for the other person. End the conversation if it feels unsafe.
2. Strike while the iron is cold – a heated discussion is rarely likely to be productive.
Sometimes, it’s important to de-escalate and end a conversation and then come back to discussing concerns when both parties are more grounded. For example: “It seems like we are going around in circles at this point and I really want to make sure that we can discuss this further with the aim of finding a resolution that works for us both. So let’s take some time to process and think about this and we can arrange to meet again to discuss things.”
3. Focus on the problem, not the person.
It’s easy when we feel emotionally overwhelmed to see the other person as the problem. We can also turn our logic off so it makes it harder to solve problems. One way to challenge this is to name what the problem is and then to decide – together – how you might tackle it. For example, “I can see that we are both getting heated here and it’s probably not the most productive approach. From what I can see, the real issue is this.Would you agree? How can we work together to solve this problem?”
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