Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone always got along and communication was always agreeable? That, of course, is a fantasy that will never happen as long as human beings co-exist on Earth. The reality is that there are times when discussions must take place that involve disagreement or confrontation of a behavior or situation that needs to change, whether you like it or not. You may know someone who enjoys a good argument or seems to relish stirring up discussion about difficult subjects, but that doesn’t describe most people. It is more likely that you would rather run the other direction – and you are not alone!
I would have to say that fear of confrontation is one of the most common issues many of my clients face. It’s not uncommon for people to literally become sick to their stomachs at the thought of having to confront for fear of having it turn into a conflict or facing the possibility of rejection. Consequently, these same people often experience low self-esteem, sub-par relationships and emotional turmoil. They live with constant nagging of unresolved issues, anger and frustration. Resentment often creeps into their relationships, and sometimes the other person doesn’t even realize there is a problem.
All of us are designed with a biological alarm system that goes off when we experience a real or perceived threat. When this alarm is activated we must choose to either run away from the situation or prepare to face it. This is known as the “fight or flight” response and, when functioning properly, can serve us very well.
Unfortunately, when our alarm sounds because we may need to confront an issue with someone, many of us automatically choose to run, even if there is no danger of real harm. We allow our fear to convince us that it is better to avoid the possible negative consequences (like rejection, embarrassment or disapproval) than to work on resolving the issue, which could ultimately lead to very positive consequences (like relief, reconciliation or understanding). Not only is this fear triggered by an irrational thought, but it’s the type of thought that leads to avoidance, which in the end only serves to strengthen the fear – and the vicious cycle continues.
As a psychologist, I have worked with people who felt afraid to confront someone for very legitimate reasons, such as mental illness or drug/alcohol abuse. If you are facing an issue in which there is a possibility of physical, mental or emotional harm if you confront someone, I recommend you get help from a counselor or other professional advisor. My recommendations today are for situations that pose no immediate threat, but are still distressing.
The next time you are afraid to confront someone even though you know that it is the appropriate thing to do, follow these suggestions: First, take several deep breaths and do your best to relax. Acknowledge your feelings and remember that you can control how you handle them. Second, keep reminding yourself that it is the right action to take. This will strengthen your resolve as you see your role as a problem-solver. Third, practice organizing your thoughts and rehearsing your comments in advance. Write a list of things you want to say, if necessary. Your confidence will grow as you learn to put your thoughts in order. And, fourth, don’t put it off – face the situation as soon as possible. It is much more effective to confront when the issue is still fresh. The sooner you deal with it, the sooner you will be free of the fear and angst associated with confrontation.
If you consistently practice these four steps it won’t be long before you begin to experience and enjoy stronger relationships, greater respect from others, increased confidence and ongoing peace of mind. You may never like confrontation, but you can overcome your fear and learn to do it well!
Would you be willing to share your experience with confrontation? How did you overcome your fear? Have you ever benefited from someone confronting you? We can learn from one another, so I hope you will share your stories! For more information on this topic check out our article Keys to Confronting Well.
Live, Work and & Well!
Dr. Linaman is a psychologist and executive coach providing counseling and professional development services to individuals, couples, work teams and organizations.