Here’s how to handle on-the-spot conflict so you walk away at peace with yourself.
I just googled “how to handle conflict as an introvert” and there are a lot of articles – really good ones. And they all revolve around one core component: whatever you do, do NOT bottle up your thoughts and emotions – let the other person know, else you’ll implode.
But the articles don’t address on-the-spot conflict, where you literally only have a few seconds to address the other person. Else the opportunity will be lost forever.
The kind of conflict I’m talking about isn’t one that’s between you and your friends/family/roommates/co-workers, but the one that’s one-off and leaves you feeling wrecked and miserable because you weren’t able to express yourself the way you wanted to. Hence the terminology “on-the-spot conflict”.
Personally, there’s nothing worse for me than to walk away from someone and feeling like I didn’t put anything on the table or wasn’t true to myself. Yuck.
So if you’re faced with a situation like I was a few weeks ago at my son’s sports class, here are 3 immediate things you can do to give your brain space to think and react accordingly.
See how I said ACCORDINGLY? The first order of things is to make sure that your anger isn’t on display!
Let’s say you’re being reproached or reprimanded for doing something that you think is within your rights, or that isn’t disturbing someone. Your initial reaction is probably a frozen one. From that frozen moment, do the following.
Yes, sounds counterintuitive, but the moment you come back to earth and realize what they said, you’re going to feel anger, resentment, shame, embarrassment, etc. Mostly negative emotions. You need to somehow push back against those so they don’t swallow you up. Smiling also trips the other person up because they’re EXPECTING a very different reaction.
Ok, so then after you put up that smile and you’ve deflected their words, what do you do?
REPEAT WHAT THEY SAID.
As introverts, we need time to assess a situation and how we’re going to respond to it, so let’s buy some time. Repeat back as a statement what they said to you. Level with them so they hear what they told you. Some people will realize how unreasonable their request is and will back off. In any case, once you say it back, I can almost guarantee you that they’ll say more than just “yes”. They’ll keep going. I assume that they also have a lot they want to say. This buys you even more time to think about how to reply.
Ok, now that you’ve collected yourself better, make sure you have an answer to these questions.
REPLY WITH THE ANSWERS TO THESE QUESTIONS.
The moment the on-the-spot conflict arises, make sure you have in the back of your mind the following questions. Your answer to them is your reply to the person.
Did I do something wrong? If yes, then explain what your thought process was in simple words without any emotional outbursts. If no, go to the next question.
Why do they feel this way? We’re great observers and very self-aware so we can easily put ourselves in someone else’s shoes. We can immediately figure out why this person was ticked off. Once we pinpoint it, address their grievance the way you would a toddler. When my son has a full-on tantrum and is coming for me, I immediately deflect by stating what he’s feeling and why. By defining an emotion and labeling it, the person will feel understood.
How can I resolve this so I walk away unconflicted? This is the trickiest question to answer, but by now you should feel calmer inside. This is the part where you either choose to continue with the action/behavior that pissed the other person off (stand your ground) or you decide to apologize and stop. Only you know what will leave you feeling at peace. Many times I feel better when I apologize, but other times, it makes me sick to my stomach because I didn’t hold on to my principles.
I’d like to use a recent incident that was in the news to illustrate how this would work in the real world.
A man was bird-watching in Central Park when he noticed a woman was walking her dog off-leash (which is against park rules). This man confronted her and asked her to put the leash on the dog.
Now, in this scenario, you’re the woman and someone is reprimanding you on the spot for not following the rules. You freeze. To avoid escalating the situation, you smile at the man and say “Hi, you want me to put a leash on my dog here in the park?”.
He’ll probably say that it’s against the park rules to have a dog off-leash and he wouldn’t feel comfortable if everyone was walking their dog this way.
At this point, you’re asking yourself, did I do something wrong? Even though it’s park rules, you might believe there’s nothing wrong because your dog is well-behaved and there’s no one around. In your mind, you’re not doing anything wrong.
You look at the man and think gee, he might have been attacked by a dog before which is why he’s uncomfortable with dogs being off-leash.
You reply back stating their feeling and say “I hope I’m not making you uncomfortable – he’s a really sweet dog and stays by my side. I know it’s against park rules but there’s no one here and he loves running around“.
At this point, you’re asking yourself if it’s worth engaging even more. You either apologize (put the leash on the dog and walk further away and take it off again), or you stay off-leash (stand your ground). Whatever you do, you have to ask yourself how important is it for you to “win”? Is one of your principles being threatened? Will you regret not saying anything?
Only you know that.
The more you practice these steps, the easier it will be to respond on the spot. I tend to find these types of conflicts much harder to stomach than the ones with people I know because with those ones (although more serious), I can give myself time to think, cool down, and get back to them. I can marinate my words for days and then spit them out. With on-the-spot conflict, I’ll marinate my words but they won’t have a way out because that person is gone.
Hopefully, you’re not running into too many of these but try these steps next time and let me know how you felt!