Why do we find confrontation so hard?

I am a grown woman of 25.

Sssh. Go with it. 

I have my own home, a business, and a driving license.

Heck, I’m even in sole charge of a small person for a big chunk of my week.

I can plumb in a dishwasher, change a car tyre and set up a wireless network.

To all intents and purposes, I’m an independent, functioning adult.

But I am utterly unable to deal with confrontation.

If someone upsets me I am approximately 10 million times more likely simply to never speak to them again than to say, “Hey, I really didn’t like that you did that.” 

I go out of my way to avoid confrontations – giving people the benefit of the doubt, trying to understand and explain away the thing that has upset me (“She probably thought I wouldn’t mind”) or just indulging in some good old-fashioned passive aggressive snarking on Twitter.

I don’t mean disagreements, as such. If I disagree with someone, I’m usually pretty happy to state my case – although I’m unlikely to get involved in prolonged arguments, since I’m a big believer that it’s more important to be happy than to be right. I’m pretty content to let people think I’m wrong about X or Y, or to let people believe rumours about something if they choose. I’m not about to waste my time and energy trying to change their minds.

So the woman on Facebook this week who told me that it is “not okay” that Flea occasionally had “powdered poison” as a baby is more than entitled to her view, and while I disagree, I fully support her right to be completely and utterly wrong.

That, I can do without a second thought.

Where life gets more complicated is in those funny grey areas of interaction – when someone hurts your feelings, or isn’t honest with you. Or when someone has let you down, or betrayed your trust. The sort of situations where you think someone has behaved poorly, but you know they won’t thank you for bringing it up.

I’m really bad at that. By which I mean catastrophically bad. I express myself badly, I forget the point I was trying to make halfway through, and I feel horribly guilty and nine times out of ten end up apologising to the person who I really want to apologise to me.

And then I end up removing the person from my social circle because, honestly, nothing’s been resolved, I’m still pissed off, and I don’t really want to talk to them any more. Sometimes that feeling passes, sometimes it doesn’t.

I have a sneaky feeling that, as a parent, this is not the best example to set to my child. After all, I’d like her to be able to resolve disagreements constructively – so I am trying to be better at confrontation.

Do you have any tips? How do you teach your kids about confrontation?

And how do you set a good example for them to follow?


Sally is a full-time blogger and founder of the Tots100, Trips100, Foodies100 and HIBS100 communities, along with the MAD Blog Awards. She spends a bit too much time on the Internet. She’s also a very happy Mum to Flea, the world’s coolest ten year old.

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  1. 7th March 2013 / 12:33 pm

    Ooh Sally – I’m a bit like you. I do try to address these things but I come across far more aggressive than I mean to and then my reaction becomes the problem rather than the original offence! However, I have learned to use the ‘I’ word, rather than the more inflammatory and rather more accusatory ‘You.’ e.g. I feel this when…’ not ‘You made me feel this when …’, ‘I, I, I…,’ i.e. owning your stuff. Hope that helps. 🙂
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    • 7th March 2013 / 9:05 pm

      That’s a good tip, Anya – it’s easier to be seen as not attacking someone if you’re talking about yourself, I guess.

      • 10th March 2013 / 10:26 pm

        I statements are definitely good and something my colleague teaches in assertive communication. Being straight is the best way I think – telling them how what they did affected you and that you don’t like it. Good luck, Mich x
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        • 13th March 2013 / 7:56 pm

          Thanks Mich, it turned out to be good advice 🙂

  2. domestic goddesque
    7th March 2013 / 5:40 pm

    I so wish I had the answer to your question, if only to help my darling girls manage their future.

    • 7th March 2013 / 9:05 pm

      Tell me about it!

  3. 7th March 2013 / 5:43 pm

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this and have a post about it….Im pretty sure I need anger management training. I don’t have rage, I just don’t know how to vent it and usually let it build up and then get all verbal diarrhoea about it all! Recently I actually said “that’s really mean” and then felt like I was about 10!
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    • 7th March 2013 / 9:06 pm

      Yes, I think there’s a part of me that feels 5 years old and I need to find a sensible adult way to have these tricky conversations, I know.

  4. Purplemum
    7th March 2013 / 7:59 pm

    I am absolutely terrified of confrontation possibly coming from a family who were constantly fighting. My advice, for myself too, would be to state your case and then stop talking. Give yourself time to respond to the discussion in your own time. I think it’s rushing to fill those awkward gaps which end in feeling awkward then taking responsibility when you shouldn’t be doing so. What do you think?

    • 7th March 2013 / 9:08 pm

      I avoid confrontation totally, possibly for similar reasons – I never shout, I rarely lose my temper – confrontation just isn’t my thing. I think for me it’s not the silence so much as trying to justify myself, and not be seen as being needlessly mean or whatever – I remember recently having a confrontation with someone and they got so upset and misunderstood me, and after 20 minutes I apologised to them, hung up, and loathed myself for the rest of the weekend! Hopeless.

  5. 7th March 2013 / 9:12 pm

    State your case that’s all you can do.
    Some people are just control freaks .. Leave them to it.
    I have made some poor lapses of judgment myself before and been hung out to dry never to be let back into their little social world . But it’s their choice just as long as they don’t don’t bang on forever about it.
    Power to all but it’s how we handle it that counts.
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    • 9th March 2013 / 11:55 am

      Of course, the flip side of confrontation is being the person who is confronted – in that case, honestly, I am a HUGE believer in ‘fessing up to what you need to and apologising. I almost never bear grudges, but if someone doesn’t apologise, I just lose all respect for them. If you apologise, and someone still holds a grudge, it’s their loss, frankly.

  6. 7th March 2013 / 9:14 pm

    I have different categories of offense. If someone offends me because they have a flaw in their character, they don’t even know they’re doing it and they are not a bad person and certainly not out to offend – I can forgive that. It may take a while for me to muster up the courage to mention it. Usually I distance myself from them until they ask if anything is wrong – and then I can tell them how I feel.
    If someone is manipulative or outright nasty I don’t bother informing them of our impending separation – I just walk away and let them figure it out. Unless they ask, in which case I’ll tell them.
    The big problem arises when it’s a family member, one who will not accept any criticism (“Oh, you’re just too sensitive is your problem.”) If it’s family you can’t walk away without causing major upsets for everyone. So I swallow it and let the anger fester. And nothing is ever resolved except that there’s a member of your family who you secretly hate. Not good but what’s the alternative?
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    • 9th March 2013 / 11:56 am

      I agree – I do try very carefully to work out why someone is upsetting me – if I think it’s because they’re insecure, or defending a friend, then it can take some of the heat out of it, but I’m guilty of trying to do that too much, sometimes I think and not letting people know that, regardless of the reason, it’s not okay to take advantage of me, or be dishonest.

      I like the idea of, “unless they ask” – maybe I should take that approach more often!

  7. TheBoyandMe
    7th March 2013 / 9:28 pm

    Eeek! I don’t remember writing a guest post for your blog because this is surely me writing? I am ok to have a minor disagreement but like you I hate actual confrontation where someone won’t appreciate your point of view and doesn’t care about it. Or they set out to be a bitch deliberately. That upsets me, and like you I end up apologising and beating myself up for their behaviour. No idea how to solve it but I don’t want The Boy to do it.

    • 13th March 2013 / 7:56 pm

      Ha! Well, I’m very pleased it isn’t just me!

  8. 8th March 2013 / 5:10 am

    Well, no tips from me because I do EXACTLY the same thing. In fact I’m dealing with this sort of thing at work at the moment and struggling with it tbh. It’s the passive aggressive thing, very difficult to deal with. If you find the answer, pass it on.
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    • 8th March 2013 / 5:11 am

      Not sure why I used the word ‘thing’ three times in that comment….might have something to do with the fact it’s 5am?
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      • 9th March 2013 / 11:57 am

        You were up early! I think it’s hard, and in a professional context even more so because you have to continue dealing with that person, don’t you? I don’t envy you, hope things get better!

  9. 8th March 2013 / 4:23 pm

    Funny I learnt so much from my daughter and the ‘conflict resolution’ practiced in her nursery. The first time I used it with the Hubster was almost comedic ‘now p, we appear to have a problem’ said in my best Mummy voice…’how can we work this out?’ Since then I can do it without ‘the’ voice and things get resolved the better for it! It is all about acknowledging the problem then focusing on the solution. I wish that I had learnt that many years ago – and, no I have not is sorted, it is still a work in progress.
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    • 9th March 2013 / 11:59 am

      That’s brilliant, I love it – thanks 🙂

  10. 9th March 2013 / 10:02 am

    Unfortunately I would have shouted and screamed and gone completely the other way. I think it is possibly best to be non confrontational than be OTT.

    • 9th March 2013 / 11:58 am

      Yes, I’m always very aware that it’s better to say too little and not offend someone than to rant and rave and perhaps permanently damage a relationship by saying something you don’t mean. But I need a happy medium!

  11. 9th March 2013 / 12:05 pm

    I avoid all confrontation until eventually I have so much suppressed anger that I irrationally explode over something tiny, throw all my toys out of the pram, and end up crying. That’s healthy right?!? No. I have no helpful advice.
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    • 9th March 2013 / 8:53 pm

      Oh, totally healthy.

  12. wendy
    9th March 2013 / 6:03 pm

    I am the same I hate confrontation to the point where I will get upset. I hate upsetting people even though they upset me. I think how we deal with things is shaped from our past. That’s no help at all is it ?

    • 9th March 2013 / 8:53 pm

      No. But it’s nice to know it’s not just me.

  13. 9th March 2013 / 9:23 pm

    Like everyone above I wish I had an answer to this. I actively back away from confrontation, and work really hard to try to keep everyone happy all of the time.

    The only useful thing I’ve learnt from my years of management training has been if you do have to deliver an unpleasant message to someone it’s best to do it in terms of how what they did made you *feel* – it’s very hard for them to come back and argue about that. Try to keep it calm and factual.

    I know all the theory… It’s just putting it into practice that’s tricky!
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    • Sally
      10th March 2013 / 10:12 pm

      Yes, I agree – the “feeling” thing is very good advice, I think. I often come undone when I say “this wasn’t okay” and find the person I’m talking to just doesn’t agree!
      Sally recently posted..Why is confrontation so hard? My Profile

  14. 11th March 2013 / 5:04 pm

    I found living in America really helped with this. Seriously. They just don’t see it as such a big deal. I liked the phrase “this works for me”, and put conversely “you did x, and I just want to say, that didn’t work for me”. I found that a helpful phrase to be brave behind. Also, majoring on the “I feel…” instead of “you did…”.

    I found it really interesting to see how they dealt with their children, on this subject. It was really different to how we deal with ours. Less emphasis on worrying about the other child’s feelings – yes, that’s part of life, and empathy is important, but I think we go overboard on that. eg we all teach our kids to share toys, but what do you do if the other child doesn’t play the game? American moms wouldn’t have a problem removing the toy from the unsharing child to give to the other, whereas British mums would possibly make excuses for the unsharing child, and steer their child to find another toy, to avoid conflict. (Am I right? Don’t want to make generalisations that others don’t agree with. See… am so British!)

    I noticed that American moms teach their children to separate the feeling from the action more than we do. eg “I don’t like the way you shouted at your friend, it’s ok to feel angry with him, but it’s not ok to shout at him”, rather than “you mustn’t shout at your friend”.
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    • 13th March 2013 / 7:57 pm

      I agree – Americans tend to be much more willing to say something doesn’t work for them, when an English person would curl up in embarrassment! Oh, and I wouldn’t hesitate to take a toy off a child who wasn’t sharing, but that’s just because I’m really bossy, I bet!

    • 24th March 2013 / 10:44 am

      Totally agree Iota. I have also noticed this and I will try to raise my son like this, but I’m sure it won’t be easy considering I am awful at confrontation like you Sally!! I have seen it in my baby groups already and my son isn’t even 11 months old yet. That being said, I am working on dealing with being criticised myself. I think the hurdle I fall down at is that mostly, I have found that the criticism given to me isn’t usually constructive and that is again another English thing-we get so flustered and embarrassed giving criticism that we forget to give it kindly. I have definitely been guilty if this in the past.

      Or maybe I’m just too sensitive…?!
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  15. 11th March 2013 / 5:12 pm

    I think, also, we teach our children to be afraid of someone else’s expression of emotion. I remember a blog post where a mum felt her son had been treated unfairly at nursery, because he had said he didn’t like another child’s picture, and that child had started crying. The boy had been made to sit in time-out, and told to think about someone else’s feelings more. I get that. But I think in America, there might have been more emphasis on “OK, so that’s your opinion, and that’s fine, but how might you say it a bit more kindly”. The lesson the boy learnt was that if someone else cries, they get the benefit of the doubt. So he’s learning that it’s more important not to make someone cry, than to have an opinion.

    I haven’t explained that very well – it sounds too harsh, too black/white, but I think we do teach our children to walk on eggshells round other people’s feelings more than is healthy. I think it’s better to teach them that everyone has different opinions, and that’s ok.

    Easier said than done!
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    • 13th March 2013 / 7:58 pm

      Yes! I think what derails me is that I start a conversation feeling very confident and then people – especially women I find – come back with how hurt, or sad, or upset, they are as a result of you bringing this up, and that’s sort of where I crumble.

  16. 18th March 2013 / 10:31 pm

    I’m exactly the same Sally and can’t do confrontation for toffee. Everyone thinks if you’re confident and successful you can deal with any situation but that’s not always true. I’m a firm believer in encouraging my girls to practise confrontation at home with us (not always pleasant) so they learn how to do it in a safe environment. That’s more than I did.
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