Why Some People Shy Away From Confrontation
What’s your first response when presented with an argument, or an unfavorable situation, or a combative person? If it is to nod along, or frantically search for ways to diffuse the situation, or agree to a solution while your mind cringes in protest — congratulations, you have a non-confrontational attitude.
Being averse to confrontation is largely considered a negative trait, with myriad self-help websites ready to spice up your personality with extroverted-sounding platitudes: ‘Stand your ground!’ ‘Don’t be a pushover’ ‘Speak up!’ Confrontation skills are also considered paramount to being in leadership as well as more junior positions; people addressing conflict head-on are also considered to foster effective and clear communication with colleagues and higher-ups. If a person displays a non-confrontational attitude, they’re often thought of as fearful of reproach, underconfident about expressing their views, and afraid to burn bridges with others. Sometimes, a fear of confrontation can also arise from mistaking the other person’s enthusiasm for rigidity, prompting a giving-up attitude, leadership expert and author Lisa McLeod writes for HuffPost.
But, the psychology behind why an individual has a non-confrontational attitude also points to underlying positive character traits. Non-confrontational people, or those with conflict avoidance tendencies, perhaps for the amount of time they spend fearing and analyzing possible confrontational scenarios, have usually thought entire situations through — this tendency to analyze deeply can translate to a conflict resolution approach that often enables them to pick their battles easily, and interact with confrontational people with reason and calm, New York-based relationship expert April Masini tells Bustle. This analytical approach also betrays foresight — “[Someone who avoids confrontation] may feel that the relationship they have with the person provoking them, is too valuable to damage with an argument,” Masini adds.
Other traits Masini says are telling of conflict-avoidant people, that both influence their aversion of confrontation and result from it, include being passive and co-dependent, conforming to the status quo, and feeling uncomfortable under pressure.
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Generally, people averse to confrontation are also understood to value harmony and relationships over directness and honesty, according to Amy Gallo, author of HBR Guide to Dealing With Conflict. Here, cultural collectivism plays a part in who turns out to be non-confrontational. A study, of college students in Hong Kong, published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, found the participants were less likely to confront an in-group disputant than an out-group disputant — in line with how collectivistic cultures value comfort and well-being of a community more than that of the individual. The same study found stronger inclinations toward confrontation in American students, whom researchers surmised belonged to a more individualistic culture.
When all is said and done, however, conflict avoidance can wreak havoc on the individual’s mental health. Repressing actual thoughts and feelings in exchange for pleasantry and superficiality can not only render relationships weak but can also escalate small disagreements and disputes into long-running sources of anxiety.
At the end of the day, “it’s best to try and articulate a problem without emotion or blame and ask for what you want — whether it’s a discussion, a particular resolution or something else,” Masini tells Bustle — a practice called healthy confrontation. No, it’s not an oxymoron.