The assertive womans guide to handling conflict, confrontation & challenge

Here’s a regular thing I hear from women – they’re told they’re way too emotional in the workplace. Funny that, because I’ve never known a man get that kind of feedback. I want to ask you a question actually before we get into the detail, what emotions sprang to mind when you thought of the woman and then the man. I’ll bet it was getting upset or crying for the woman and being too aggressive for the man… am I right? There’s one issue right there.

Let’s start with the obvious stuff here for a minute. Humans are emotional creatures. We’re designed that way. It’s a good thing. It should be celebrated! I’m a huge advocate for bringing emotion back to the workplace – things have gone too far…. I walk into corporate offices these days and see zombies, clones of each other. Clinical, dead spaces with no vibe or atmosphere. No fire in anyone’s belly. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own introverted energy, not wanting to be seen as the one that’s a bit different. There’s a desire to conform, to blend in. It’s grey, it’s boring and it has no soul! It’s ‘wrong’ to have any emotion or even half a personality! Who wants to work in a culture like that?

So, for clarity, when I talk about emotions today, I want you to recognise that it’s not exclusive or limited to the ones mentioned above, nor in that context. Think about the vast array of emotions that can be experienced and demonstrated by all genders. From anger, frustration and confusion to excitement, elation, nervousness or shame, humiliation and embarrassment.

Let’s start with the good news. Generally speaking, women are a little more emotionally intelligent than men. This means you can see this as an opportunity rather than a limitation or a threat. So let’s begin with shifting that mindset. As women, we’re more intuitive. We ‘sense’ things more. We’re naturally more present and notice things, especially the unsaid and there’s a big gaping hole in business and society crying out for someone to step in and hold that space. So let’s take it. Trust your natural instincts and capabilities and own it. Use it as your competitive advantage. I’ll guarantee if you’re able to shift your mindset in this way you will naturally start to behave differently and you’ll already get immediate results.

Many people, not just women, men included, do struggle when it comes to handling conflict, confrontation and challenge. It tends to trigger people’s fight or flight response because they ‘see’ it as a threat. Similarly, to my point above, progress starts with a mindset shift. That shift is learning to see an opportunity rather than a threat. To do that means becoming more curious. To get out of your own head and into theirs. Asking yourself the question

“What’s going on for them right now and how can I best serve them in order to serve myself?”

It’s metaphorically moving from the ‘facing each other across a table’ position to ‘standing by their side and walking along beside them’ position. When you’re able to do this, you’ll avoid your own amygdala hijack, meaning you minimise the release of cortisol and adrenaline in your body that inhibits cognitive function and decision-making capability, which is a good shout at this point.

In handling confrontation, conflict and challenge there are some really practical approaches and techniques that you can use in order to come out the other side with your credibility firmly intact:

The biggest tip I will offer you is to completely avoid using the phrase “I disagree”. Why? Because it’s like adding fuel to the flames and you know it. Because you’ll likely have had your fingers burnt before (or you’ve at least witnessed it). Instead, with your curiosity still engaged, listen first. Listen, purely to understand, not to prepare your next response or anticipating the moment they draw breath that gives you a gap in airtime to jump in. Clarify that you understand them fully. Then offer to share an alternative viewpoint. It might sound something like this:

“OK, it’s useful to hear the situation from your perspective, can I just check I’ve completely understood you (then clarify). I can see where you’re coming from. I have a bit of a different view that’s important is considered, can I share that with you?”

That’s the assertive response. It leads with consideration and listening, but follows through with courage. Notice also that it’s not focused on the people involved, it’s focused on what’s important.

You may still get quite a confrontational response to that. When you do, manage yourself carefully. Keep your influence intact. You can do this by ensuring you respond proactively rather than react in the moment. When we react, we do so based on moods, feelings and circumstance – a recipe for disaster. When we press the pause button and respond, we’re able to do so based on principles and desired results. In this example my recommendation is that you move to a position of personal boundaries with a little bit of feedback. State your intent first (and make sure that intent is clean and good) e.g. “I want this project to be a success just as much as you do”. Follow that with specifics about the behaviour that you find unacceptable and the impact it has….. “shouting at me in that way is not ok, I find it intimidating and that isn’t going to help me be my best, it’s unacceptable. Please stop it.” Then zip it. Even if that means a bit of a tumbleweed moment. Don’t get sucked into filling the black whole of silence with waffle. Let it hang, it’s doing it’s job. It’s powerful. Just hold the space for the other person to respond. Just continue to care, and let that show on your face. That should do the trick and you’ll likely get a shift at that moment, maybe even an apology. But if not….. its time to take control and end the conversation for some cooling off time. Feel within your rights to say “I don’t wish to continue this conversation and be spoken to in this way. I think it best we take a break and reflect”. What’s important here is that you do follow up. Don’t leave the ball in their court. Go back, call or send a message later that day or the following day to discuss it.

My last tip is specifically linked to managing your emotions. I’ve helped lots of menopausal women deal with situations like this with great success. They’re almost scared of their own emotions and reactions and don’t trust themselves to be able to stay in control. Here’s a really simple technique to help with this. It starts with being able to recognise and label the emotion that you’re experiencing and where you feel it in the body. For example, worry in your tummy, anger in your chest, excitement/nervous in your veins, frustration in your head. Once you can spot an emotion and know what it is, the trick is to describe it rather than demonstrate it. This prevents you from having an outburst but doesn’t mean you have to leave your emotions at the door. You could be in a meeting and feel very frustrated at the lack of progress. That might make you feel like crying but if you do, people misread that signal. Instead, you’re able to articulate it…. “This project is significantly behind schedule and is at risk of going massively over budget, I’m extremely frustrated and cross right now about the lack of accountability in this team”. That clearly states where you’re at without going bat sh!t crazy or being labelled an emotional wreck. If you’re experiencing brain fog as a menopausal symptom and you’re being challenged with lots of questions by stakeholders, take control and own it by saying “I’d like some time to reflect and consider my thoughts to be sure I give you the right recommendation to land this change successfully so I’ll come back to you by lunchtime”. 

There are many more strategies in my toolkit to deal with situations like this, these are just my favourite top 3. If you’d like to learn more and develop the skills to handle these situations with ease, influence and credibility then add yourself to the waitlist to be the first to receive details of my autumn run of Woman Up – my 8 week  programme.

You can find out more HERE.