In the post Grow A Pair! Overcoming Your Fear of Confrontation, I wrote about the fact that confrontation doesn’t have to be ugly. I explained that the act of confronting someone should be done with the mindset of achieving a win-win outcome and outlined steps on how to make that happen. And many of you wrote to me letting me know that you liked this new definition of confrontation and that you would be so happy to implement it, if only the idea of confrontation, peaceful or not, didn’t make you break out in hives/night sweats/ panic attacks/ projectile vomiting. Although this issue is by no means confined to those with two X chromosomes, women, in particular, have a hard time seeing themselves as someone who confronts others, especially when it comes to their own needs.
You may have no problem standing up for your kids or little brother, but when it comes to telling your husband or wife that you’d really rather not go to see the in-laws for your vacation this year, you clam up. You may be able to handle even the toughest vendor at work, but asking for a raise makes you curl up in the fetal position. Perhaps the idea of talking to an employee who has been disrupting the work environment with his negativity leaves you hyperventilating, and so you don’t do it, to the detriment of your entire team. When your teenage son’s grades start slipping, you want to talk to him but the anticipation of his surly, hormone induced response makes you postpone the conversation until you’ve let it go to the point where it would be ridiculous to say something. Or, perhaps you do voice your concerns, but only ever once you’ve become so fed up that your confrontations more closely resemble a deranged elephant stomping a Chihuahua to death rather than an actual, productive conversation.
You don’t have to use Gorilla tactics (yes, gOrilla)
There’s another fallacy at play here, one that states that you have to be warrior like in order to stand up for yourself. Blame it on your role models, or rather, the lack thereof. For most of us (who were born pre-1990), our main examples of people standing up for themselves routinely came from men. And these men were raised to be tough hombres, not touchy feely, sensitive guys, but order barking, respect demanding, authoritarian, sucker bunching, britches wearing, table pounding men who put people in their place. Women, on the other hand, either didn’t stand up for themselves at all, or had to act just like those aggressive men in order to do so. And while men’s behavior was excused as being “assertive” and “necessarily aggressive”, women who acted like that were called something else: bitches. Bottom line, the idea of asking for what you want became inextricably linked to the equivalent of thumping your chest and issuing threats.
And if you weren’t comfortable barking your demands at people, well, though shitsky. You either learned to fake it, or you simply tucked your tail between your legs and hoped for the best. Like the runt of the litter, you’d wait for the scraps because you weren’t willing to get into a bloody fight for the meaty bits. But all the while, your own needs weren’t being met. Your opinion, no matter how valuable, went unheard. Your contributions went unappreciated. You may have even gotten to the point where you felt like you didn’t really have much value to begin with.
My warrior woman days
When I got my first big restaurant management job, I was 19 years old, still in college and green as can be. Oh, I knew how to work in a restaurant, I could pretty much do any job you’d ask me to do, but I had no idea how to manage or deal with people. I was intensely insecure, eager to prove myself, and armed with a fierce, A-Type, hyper energetic, warrior mentality. I was ready to fight the good fight and boy did I. Not only had I grown up with an authoritarian, male role model, all the managers I had ever worked with were cut from the same cloth: they barked orders, screamed at employees and expected shit to get done. So, I did the same thing (sands the screaming. I have never been a screamer), only it didn’t really work for me. Not only did I feel awful about treating people with so little respect, but my employees hated me. HATED me. With a freaking vengeance. Clearly, there had to be a better way.
Well, there was, but it took me years of trial and error to figure it out. And even then, I was never really 100% comfortable in my own skin until I had the absolute honor and pleasure of working for a manager unlike any I’d ever encountered before. I was working in Las Vegas, as a dealer in a casino. Never mind the old boys’ club. This is the Goodfellas’ club and female managers in this environment will generally become tough, leathery broads who look like they could crush your skull with two fingers and would rather chew glass dipped in lemon juice than wear a dress and high heels. But not Karen. She was amazing.
- Never screamed at people. In fact, she always talked softly, gently and respectfully.
- Never told anyone to do something. She always asked them to do it. No one ever refused.
- Was feminine. She dressed like a woman, not in boxy suits but in flow-y skirts and blouses that flattered her figure and made her look soft and beautiful.
- Was kind and compassionate. She really listened to people, even their personal problems and truly cared about them.
- Had her employees’ backs. She protected her staff whenever necessary.
- Never lost her cool. Not once. She was always calm and sweet.
- She was incredibly competent, and she knew it, but never felt like she had anything to prove.
- She removed obstacles from her employees’ way, instead of expecting them to work around them and deliver results.
- Was highly respected by everyone. No one messed with her, but not because they feared her – because they loved her.
THIS was the type of manager I wanted to be. Hell, this was the type of woman I wanted to be. Karen showed me that my “feminine” characteristics, what I had considered my weaknesses before, were actually my greatest strengths. I could be feminine and strong. I could be nice, compassionate, kind and still stand up for what I believed. I could wear heels and nail polish and still be respected. And, she showed me a way of standing up for others and myself in a way that didn’t feel bitchy. Did I master it immediately? No. I still fell back on my warrior persona from time to time, particularly when I felt threatened, but overall, I became a hell of a lot more effective at asking for, and receiving, what I wanted.
Karen showed me that being strong and standing up for yourself has nothing to do with thumping your chest or how loudly you can scream. It has everything to do with believing in yourself, your cause and your own value. In other words, it all starts with your mindset. Go figure.
You have to first believe two things:
- That you or whoever you’re standing up for, deserves to get what you’re asking for
- That there is a way for you to achieve your goal. In other words, that it is possible for you to get what you want.
Once you’ve achieved the “I believe that I deserve this and will get it” mindset, you emanate a confidence that’s not to be missed, even by the most brutish of opponents.
Second, you’ll want to practice something that I like to call Quiet Strength.
- You don’t have to raise your voice to be heard. Speak quietly and the other person will have to shut up to hear you.
- You don’t have to feel threatened by your “opponent”, even if they start to scream at you. The fact that they’re screaming means that they feel threatened by you.
- You don’t have to thump your chest or threaten. Just believe in your cause and don’t back down.
- Be a diplomat. Listen to people. Really listen. What is your “opponent” afraid of? What assurances or resources will they need in order to give you what you want? Turn them from an opponent into a partner – come up with a win-win compromise.
- Speak from the heart. Tell people what you REALLY want, not what you think you need in order to get what you want. Tell them why you want it. Be honest and authentic and you’ll give them permission to be authentic, as well.
- Don’t demand that people help you, ask them to do it. You’ll be amazed at the response you’ll get when you make this small but incredibly important change.
- Don’t fight. Don’t get defensive. Don’t raise your voice. Listen and show them you care. But don’t back down. Speak with compassion and love. But don’t back down.
- You don’t have to yell “no” to mean it. You just can’t change your answer to “yes”.
- Don’t give up. If one person can’t give you what you want, go to another. I once spent three weeks knocking on the doors of very senior executives, asking them to support a project that was very important to me. Many said no. I just kept trying. Then, one said yes and I got all the support I needed.
Now, I’m not saying that the brutish style of confrontation can’t be effective. Of course, you can bully people into giving you what you want. You can intimidate and threaten, or manipulate and connive, but at what cost? Have you ever seen a happy bully? Have you ever seen a dictator whose subjects loved him, or who wasn’t reviled by his “allies” and enemies alike, and whose life wasn’t constantly in jeopardy?
If you’ve never felt comfortable acting like a big ape and pounding your fist on the table to express yourself, that doesn’t make you weak. It means that this method isn’t the most effective for you. You’re allowed to care. Deeply. You’re allowed to follow your instincts. You’re allowed to be who you really are. And when you figure out how to be authentic, and how to practice Quiet Strength, you can be more effective than any drill sergeant. Much more.
You don’t have to fight to be strong. You can be compassionate and kind. You don’t have to yell. You can move mountains with soft words. Strength doesn’t come from brute force. It doesn’t come from a loud, booming voice. It doesn’t come from threats or having a big personality. It doesn’t come from dominating. It comes from not backing down when you really care about something, from believing in yourself and your cause, and knowing that you can get it, even if you’re not yet sure how that’s going to happen. And real strength, the kind that changes the world, comes from doing so without being a bully.