How to not crush the opposition and stay genuine?
March 8, 2012 11:19 PM   Subscribe

How do I express myself strongly and disagree openly while being inoffensive? I have strong opinions coupled with a strong desire for harmony: overactive dollops of both sarcastic-foot-in-mouth disease and sensitivity-itis, and no idea how to use them in any real-time balance together!

I just had a meeting where I think I railroaded right over someone. While I don't think I was offensive, I think I came on way too strong. In part, I've been tired and frazzled (end of quarter), in part I just don't like this person (normally rare, but we're really different-- I'm introverted, dreamy/idealistic/creative and sarcastic, while he's extraverted, organized/practical/technical and earnest). I've been ok as long as I didn't talk to him, but this was an Important Meeting we were both in (well, important in a college-work environment, kinda low stakes... though he didn't see it that way). Actually, that was the main conflict: he's treating everything seriously, which to him means like a Normal Job with Expectations and Rules and Schedules. I'm treating everything seriously also, which to me means like a Creative Project with Needs and Desires and Commitments. We do not gel.

Normally this wouldn't be an issue-- and it still mostly isn't, 'cause largely I can avoid him, and I'll leave in 3 months. But for future reference, I think I'd like to not go overboard in the future, especially since I'll be working with people like him in my team one day (most likely). Anyway, he said stuff to the effect that we have to find a Schedule and get on top of our Target Output (he didn't use those words) 'cause that's what we're paid for, and I was like, 'pfff, I'm not'. He said the real pleasure of work was results and providing a service to users, and I said (literally) No. Now, several hours later, it's really embarrassing and awkward, though the other people there smoothed it over some. I mean, I just said NO. When he suggested I give up on my project 'cause of time constraints, I actually burst out, 'No way!' (note, not angrily, just emphatically). Now I'm cringing big-time.

I don't deal well with conflict-- that is to say, I'm over 30 and I have not had arguments except with close friends, family and lovers. Basically, I just plain don't engage with most people enough for this to come into play, and I generally pick friends I'm very harmonious with. Sometimes I get friends I'm not-- and usually they're so much further along the shit-stirring spectrum that I am automatically the gentle, conciliating and forgiving one (who loses her temper only when super-overloaded, and even then it's passive-aggressive only). The bottom line is that 80-90% of my personality is flower-child sensitive and empathic. But 10-20% (higher under intense stress) is stubborn, passionate, outspoken and impulsive (though not cruel, I am very emphatic when I have an opinion-- I just usually only express it in writing). A bigger complication is that when I'm uncomfortable (in 95% of all social situations, including work), I magnify the 20% till it can look like 60: the sarcasm/joking around amps up, I become a smart-ass, and my priority becomes amusing myself and making statements (though it's still conflict-avoidant). Lately I've been noticing this (sarcasm alone) puts more sensitive folks off. But still, until very recently, I've just been over-the-top and brash, not offensive, generally.

But yeah, in actuality I am pretty opinionated and have strong beliefs and feelings, I just generally don't express them to people I don't know extremely well. So by then, they're generally not offended and they get that I have my moments of crazy, and we get over it (I'm also all about heart-to-hearts and processing any issues). That kind of processing works in online discussions too (in online community circles where processing/introspective discussions are normalized), just not in real life. If I blow up online and write a rant on my blog, people may be offended, but we have days after the post to discuss it, and to cool down and reach and understanding. In real life, no one processes things at length three days later unless they're your best friend (and even then, maybe not).

So, what do I do? I don't want to just burst out 'No'-- but I don't want to literally bury my head in my arms to not say anything (my other option). It's a bit complicated 'cause I have ADD and blurting things out is a big problem. It's usually not so bad 'cause unlike many people, I'm naturally fluffy-natured and don't have a lot of negativity I'm repressing, so being off-the-cuff is vaguely acceptable. But today, nearly for the first time, it was literally 'be half-catatonic and stare out the window-- or, kick ass and take names'. I didn't literally knock him on his ass and plant my huge heel in his chest, but... well, metaphorically speaking, yeah. In retrospect, it's embarrassingly... macho? Er, help?
posted by reenka to Human Relations (20 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: In retrospect, it's embarrassingly... macho?

I don't know why you should feel embarrassed by this. Women are generally socialised to be inoffensive and non-confrontational, and so tend to couch their opinions ("Well, I can't help but feel... It's just my opinion, but.... I can't help wondering if..."). That is actually neither helpful nor productive. I would encourage you to spend a few months actively observing how your male colleagues express dissent. There is no reason not to be emphatic when you have an opinion; I suspect the issue may actually be becoming more comfortable doing so.

Err, let me just couch that opinion by saying I may be way off base here, but that is emphatically a dynamic I see women engage in over and over and there are a ton of studies that back that up.
posted by DarlingBri at 11:34 PM on March 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I think you're underestimating how much resentment you have for this person - you say you don't tend to repress a lot of negativity but most of your question is talking about just how irritating you find this person. Given your reaction to him, your reaction seems in line with how irritating you find him.

It is possible that in the moment *you* felt that you were being railroaded because the way he spoke seemed to be making assumptions about how people think and feel and perhaps on some level you felt you didn't have a voice. So couple that in with being tired, etc and this is how it comes out.

You're right that you will come across a lot of people like this in the future and the way to deal with it is to be aware within yourself that you *do* have a voice (most of the time you will, sometimes you will not, and if you're sensible, you won't continue to be in that environment for long) and subsequently express your views more diplomatically.

Of course, also keep in mind that you're human and you'll have off days and this was one of them.
posted by mleigh at 11:55 PM on March 8, 2012

I find that when I have a strong statement to make, it's sometimes much better to ask a (maybe kind of pointed) question instead. This gives the impression that you are open to further development of the issue and you don't get seen as The Hardass as easily.
posted by telstar at 12:23 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

You are being WAY too hard on yourself. Cut yourself some slack reenka. Sometimes some people just need to be put in their place. As bad as you feel about it, I would wager that there are others in that room who were silently cheering you on and you earned their respect.

Don't be embarrassed. Don't harbor it. Just drop it. Pretend like it never happened and move on.

You are the only one worrying about it. In a week's time no one else will remember or care.
posted by three blind mice at 1:02 AM on March 9, 2012

Both men and women pay a pretty heavy price in the long run for not being able to process and filter emotions in a socially acceptable way. "Macho" is a smoke-screen here.

I'm willing to bet that this part of your personality that you downplay, this side of you that only "comes out under extreme stress" is mostly what people remember about you. I know that's not what you want to hear, but your question reads very dismissively of others and very self-excusingly of yourself.

I'm confused by whether this was a college project, a project for a real job, or what, but when someone in a real job environment (or a college project simulating a work project) says "X and/or Y are what we're getting paid for," he or she is not necessarily saying "You, individually, get paid to do X and/or Y." He or she is asking you to think of yourself as part of a team and that the task is critical to the success of the team, which in business generally boils down to - does the management think your services are worth paying for?

If you were on my team and I made a statement like Overly Ernest Guy made and you slapped at it like you did, I wouldn't take it personally, but I would view you as an obstacle and not a resource until something major came along to change my mind. Like an apology, or better still, an honest effort to contribute something.

If you don't want to be on a team because you don't believe in what they're doing or it doesn't appeal to you, then let yourself off of it. If you can't because of a grade or a paycheck, then - surprise!- you DO have a stake in the problem, whether you really like it or not. It's almost, then, like you're getting paid to do that. Or something.

To directly answer your question, the key to dealing with conflict, especially in the work-place, is to concentrate on the problem, not the personalities. Really, it all follows from that. I work every day with people I would not choose to have dinner with, but when the issues can be confined in my own head to the nuts and bolts of the problem in front of us, I don't usually get too thrown off by how they express themselves about it, and if I can keep my emotions out of it I can concentrate on clearly expressing myself and proposing solutions.
posted by randomkeystrike at 3:28 AM on March 9, 2012 [17 favorites]

I don't think your reactions were wrong. They were the reactions of two people having a disagreement about a project. There is nothing wrong with this sort of thing: people disagree sometimes! Sometimes you have to express your disagreements so everyone can get on the same page and resolve the issues. When someone tried to steamroll you by suggesting you give up the project, responding "No, way!" was the precisely correct response (how else did you think you should respond?)

The problem here isn't in your tone or the fact that you were being disagreeable. The problem is that you picked a fight over nothing because you find practical people irritating, and he wanted to have a meeting where people figured out a plan to get things done, and that sort of practical planning gets on your nerves. As someone else said above, you're way underestimating the degree to which your irritation with this person drives your reactions.
posted by deanc at 5:27 AM on March 9, 2012 [1 favorite]

...I am automatically the gentle, conciliating and forgiving one (who loses her temper only when super-overloaded, and even then it's passive-aggressive only).

First off, you say "only" passive-aggressive as though that's not as bad as being outspoken about anger. It's not. It's dishonest and makes real communication/progress impossible. It's poison to relationships, whether they're personal, professional, or anything that requires more than surface pleasantries.

Secondly, your post is filled with passive-aggressive examples. That you say "no" you won't step up and get organized and work as a team to meet deadlines etc., but also "no" that you won't drop the project so they can get on with the deadline-meeting without you, is passive-aggressive. Your refusal to take action makes it impossible for them to succeed.

Then you justify your actions (tired-frazzled, personality conflict) and assert what a nice person you are. So it's not your fault, it's just the situation. But that's not true. Part of being an adult is dealing with less-than-ideal circumstances graciously. That doesn't mean suppressing your feelings, and it doesn't mean being a jerk. It means focusing on the work that needs to be done, and doing it.

How do I express myself strongly and disagree openly while being inoffensive?

By not making it about the personalities involved and not letting your ego get in your way.
posted by headnsouth at 6:14 AM on March 9, 2012 [15 favorites]

as though that's not as bad as being outspoken about anger. It's not.

Sorry, meant it is. Passive-aggressive behavior is much worse than outspoken honesty. It gives you plausible deniability ("but I'm nice!") while wreaking havoc in relationships.
posted by headnsouth at 6:36 AM on March 9, 2012

Best answer: I'm introverted, dreamy/idealistic/creative and sarcastic

One of these things is not like the others. Introversion, dreaminess, idealism and creativity are all innate qualities. Sarcasm is a behavior. Try not to see these all as a package deal, because they're not. You could dial down the sarcasm and substitute less problematic ways of interacting without sacrificing a shred of introversion, dreaminess or idealism.

I agree with others that this conflict sounds to have been perfectly legitimate. Earnest Guy's declarations about what is and isn't valuable in the work you are doing sound pretty presumptuous. Your irritation makes sense, and being assertive about your own perspective is generally a good thing. But, invalidating others' perspectives (which is what sarcasm does) is counterproductive, because it escalates disagreement into a power struggle, and sets up a situation where someone has to lose.

You asked, How to not crush the opposition and stay genuine?

Practice seeing and validating others' perspectives. Use that innate creativity to frame your relationship as something other than opposition. You can express respect for Earnest Guy's desire to achieve results and provide a service, even if you don't feel the same way. You can acknowledge that orderly schedules and explicit expectations are a perfectly reasonable way to approach a project even if you wouldn't choose to handle the project in the same way. You needn't stake your whole identity on getting to do everything your way all the time. Your opinions be different and yet coexist.
posted by jon1270 at 6:54 AM on March 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Err, Your opinions can be different and yet coexist.
posted by jon1270 at 6:55 AM on March 9, 2012

Best answer: If you want fellow team members to value your input and working style, you must value theirs. Teams require the type of input you describe from your steam rolled colleague. When deadlines and specifications are to be met, the members of a team must have a specific agreement about how that will happen. In my experience, the meeting you described would have already identified you as the person to work around in order to get the job done. (There is usually at least one.) If that person goes away and produces something of sufficient quality that fits the ongoing plan, in time to be included...we'd do so. Otherwise, just keep pushing ahead and avoid future team assignments with that person. Value those who keep the wheels turning and they may learn to value your dreamy, creative input. If you don't, you will be mainly irrelevant.
posted by txmon at 8:08 AM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

One of the best ways to make your point in a non-confrontational way is to ask a lot of questions. Be careful to not be condescending with them, but focus them towards the goal. It somehow seems to come off as less threatening and confrontational and is often more effective in making your point. You also can achieve small steps of agreement along the way. Ben Franklin was supposedly a master of this technique.
posted by caddis at 8:46 AM on March 9, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks for all the input!

I wanted to clarify this is a college-work in-house project, and (this may sound unbelievable) I actually value practical people who want to get things done and rely on their skills. Eh, well, thinking about it, I think I am being worked around though in exactly the mentioned way of 'we'll use you if you come up with something on your own'. It's not exactly because the Practical People are in charge and I'm not, really, and in part that's what was driving my resistance: my workplace is heavily dreamy-idealist driven/supportive. To clarify, we're a Writing Center. I actually think we should definitely become more structured. But a typical corporate results-driven workplace, we're not.

So saying I hadn't felt heard is spot-on. I also genuinely want to state I contribute a lot to our team (besides hot air); I know this is just me saying it, but assume it's correct. I said both I and Earnest Guy are serious and contribute a lot, and I meant it. Note, he isn't really meeting me half-way either, but I realize I should have done that, and I let my irritation get the best of me.

Anyway, all of that stuff I said about him being practical wasn't blaming him: I mean, I was describing stuff I think of as good qualities (I didn't say he was a useless bum). So I actually appreciate him and realize I'm being knee-jerky, but I think our workplace is genuinely quite different from the 'normal' environment he's used to, and thus the 'bottom-line' is different; I've tried to express that calmly before but he wasn't really listening. I should be aware that I'm being heard, and his approach is in the minority, actually, so I should be gracious. Thank you for all the different perspectives, once again. I really do appreciate them.
posted by reenka at 9:04 AM on March 9, 2012

There are big rewards if you can avoid being sarcastic or passive-aggressive during conflict-prone conversations. That behaviour hurts people's feelings and makes them feel bullied, which can make them shrink or feel defensive, and both reactions are incompatible with good discussion.

Being sincere, open, and kind is much more helpful. Sarcasm and passive aggression are hard habits to break, but life is much better when you master them- I used to be super sarcastic and I stopped over the course of a year or so*, and now I'm pretty sure everyone likes me much more. You can still be funny, just be witty and playful instead.

Never say no without also offering a solution. "No" just shuts someone up without helping,it's rude and dismissive and dominant, and it pushes buttons for a lot of people. It doesn't let others in on your reasoning or process, and it ends a conversation that could have been productive. People who give flat no answers in group endeavors can really bring down the room and grind creativity to a halt.

Instead, try explaining why and offering an alternate. "That approach may be problematic because of ABC; it might be better to try solution D or E because of FGH" is much more palatable and productive, and including a brief summary of your reasoning can spark other people's contributions.

If you don't have an alternate solution, think harder before you talk. Jot down ideas in the meeting if you must.

If you must say no but really can't come up with an alternate, at least explain your reasoning: "I don't think that approach will work because of ABC, I think we need to find an answer that will address those issues as well."

To learn how not to be sarcastic (also works to correct any conversational habit you want to break), wear a watch and try to be aware of when you're sarcastic. Every time you're sarcastic, change the watch to the other wrist. If you're sarcastic three times in a row, you have to change the watch three times in a row. The rule is that you must do this in view of others (not below the table), and if they notice and ask why you're switching your watch from wrist to wrist like a crazy person, you must explain truthfully: "I'm trying to teach myself to be less sarcastic". You'll kick the habit in days if you do this with commitment.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 10:27 AM on March 9, 2012 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Sounds like you alternate between repressing your feelings -- so people think you're "nice" but you're not expressing yourself -- and blurting out sarcastic or angry comments. Just fixing one side of this equation will not solve the other problem. Similarly, just fixing what comes out of your mouth, without fixing what you're thinking internally, will seem inauthentic.

I'd recommend finding a way to 1) change how you think about these communication dynamics, so you don't feel stuck between two unacceptable options when facing conflict, and 2) finding skillful ways to express yourself. I'd recommend reading Difficult Conversations for a primer on how to shift both your internal voice and your behavior.

I do a significant amount of research on gender and negotiation, and while women are socialized to repress their "negative" emotions, neither gender has a monopoly on passive-aggression! Perhaps it would be helpful to start to believe that emotions (both yours and other people's) are an inevitable part of the workplace, that they don't disappear when you ignore them, and that there are effective ways of channeling them. Managing emotions is a skill, like baking or programming, and it can be learned.
posted by equipoise at 11:00 AM on March 9, 2012

Response by poster: I guess I should add: it's next to impossible for me to really think of sarcasm as negative as such, because normally I only use it in the 'witty' way and I can tell it's ok 'cause people don't give me weird looks or what have you. So I really appreciate the idea of changing my approach internally rather than focusing the format of what I say. Plus, to clarify, in this case I degenerated from initially explaining my reasoning (which is actually my default, as I mentioned-- processing ideas in discussion is basically what I do... even excessively so). I wouldn't say being like 'bam! period!' is an ongoing or serious problem... not expressing myself is, but simply refusing to expand my thoughts and listen generally isn't. I realize it's hard to believe when you don't know me, but let's just say this is true.

While passive-aggressiveness has been a problem, I normally express it in really... um, less obvious ways than sarcasm, if that makes sense. I think being passive-aggressive through sarcasm is related to stress 'cause I tend to be more subtle and aggressive sarcasm is pretty in-your-face. I'm generally only sarcastic in low-stakes/non-confrontational situations, and it seems to become problematic when I'm stressed. I do appreciate that sarcasm used aggressively shuts down discussion. The whole discussion yesterday was pretty non-representative of my usual behavior, which is why it bothered me in the first place. It's not that I routinely blast 'no's' at people. Far from it: I can barely ever say no at all! (Which is actually closer to being the real problem).

Since I never say no, when I do get pushed to say it (and I feel tired, stressed, etc), and I don't feel heard and/or am frustrated, it's just this really embarrassing and horrifying thing to me. Especially 'cause I think increased structure is a good thing. But I'm essentially the main person driving the projects being discussed, and while I appreciate the need for order, saying we should stop creative projects and start canned presentations on a schedules completely disregards everything I've been doing as useless. Yes, I realize that sarcasm and blind resistance is not 'the answer', but at that point I've just become so frustrated I'm no longer in complete control of my behavior. The people saying this is largely driven by my irritation with this particular person than my natural discussion style are spot-on, basically.
posted by reenka at 12:18 PM on March 9, 2012

normally I only use it in the 'witty' way and I can tell it's ok 'cause people don't give me weird looks or what have you.

No you can't. Half the people you use it on simply didn't notice, another 25% didn't think it was funny but ignored you. Go on, prove me wrong.
posted by jacalata at 12:23 PM on March 9, 2012

Anyway, all of that stuff I said about him being practical wasn't blaming him: I mean, I was describing stuff I think of as good qualities (I didn't say he was a useless bum).

It's hard to separate your question from your status as an unreliable narrator, here. When you were less guarded, you said about him:
I just don't like this person (normally rare, but we're really different-- I'm introverted, dreamy/idealistic/creative and sarcastic, while he's extraverted, organized/practical/technical and earnest). I've been ok as long as I didn't talk to him, but this was an Important Meeting we were both in (well, important in a college-work environment, kinda low stakes... though he didn't see it that way). Actually, that was the main conflict: he's treating everything seriously, which to him means like a Normal Job with Expectations and Rules and Schedules. I'm treating everything seriously also, which to me means like a Creative Project with Needs and Desires and Commitments. We do not gel.

Normally this wouldn't be an issue-- and it still mostly isn't, 'cause largely I can avoid him, and I'll leave in 3 months.
Part of interacting with people is that if someone has good qualities, you treat them as good qualities, not things you sort of resent and try to avoid.

This entire FPP has a subtext where you sound kind of proud of yourself, and you're trying to ask, "well, normally I'm just a sweet creative person, but this Big Bad uncreative stick-in-the-mud told me to get organized, and I just slapped him down like the dog he was! How do I stop myself in the future so I don't crush my opposition as awesomely as I just did?"

There's a difference between how to become more assertive in the workplace while also not being antagonistic and argumentative while also learning how to function in the workplace and not picking pointless fights. In a writing center, you are paid to deliver services to your users.

I'm essentially the main person driving the projects being discussed, and while I appreciate the need for order, saying we should stop creative projects and start canned presentations on a schedules completely disregards everything I've been doing as useless

See, you're taking it very personally, so your responses are "No!" rather than articulating an argument about what the best way to be organized is that conforms with the value system you're trying to bring to the writing center. You said later in a followup that your opinions weren't being heard, but your original question posed the situation as one where you couldn't articulate a response to the proposals and plans of someone you don't like, so you shot back with just some aggressive defiance and snotty comebacks. "Getting to Yes" is the canonical book on negotiation. That might be helpful, as well.
posted by deanc at 12:33 PM on March 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Yeah, it's odd... in regards to 'how can you say you dislike him yet say the qualities are good ones': in terms of qualities (organization, strategic thinking, commitment, logic, practicality)-- all these things are things I admire... er, in other people who are not him. When I talk about the general stuff he wanted us to accomplish as a group, I appreciated his input (in times I've talked about this to in a calm manner), to the point where the last time I discussed this with a friend, she was left with a good impression of him. She was like, 'you describe positive things, why does this bother you?'-- so in other words, I don't skew these contributions, demonize him, discount that he's well-meaning, or wish him ill. I went out of my way to help him when he asked.

So yeah, I'm being unreasonable (in that sense), but until yesterday, I wanted to get over my knee-jerk issue and I thought basically it was all my problem and nothing to do with his qualities. I actually thought I disliked him (in a mild manner) because, y'know, he was too friendly. Yes, that irritates me, and I realize it sounds ridiculous. But basically I avoid the tiniest hint of conflict, and so I was happy with being calm and friendly at a distance. But then we had that meeting where our philosophies/desires for the team really clashed. We never actively clashed before, working separately, and basically the Center is inclusive of multiple personal projects within one umbrella, so it was fine. I didn't have to be his friend, I thought, and he didn't have any authority over me or vice versa. I never really felt like he wasn't helping others or wasn't contributing useful things-- I could tell others appreciated him. He just didn't rub me the right way and we didn't 'gel', as I said, though I saw these good qualities. It was actually weird, but I was like, 'ok, whatever, I'll avoid him'.

I imagine sounding 'proud' would be a danger of people not knowing me (but I appreciate the different types of mirroring), though as I said, I was actually mortified and horrified at myself. Certainly I'm not that deluded to think I'm sweet and awesome (I think the people who think I'm sweet are more deluded-- I just said I'm creative and idealistic, but nothing about that is 'sweet' or 'nice'-- I said I'm empathic, but that means I easily understand people's feelings, not that I'm nice to them, necessarily, or that I always make the effort to do this thing I'm very good at). Well, I don't really want to defend myself, as such-- it doesn't matter except insofar as it perpetuates misunderstandings. My whole note about my personality was meant as background for understanding 'cause I use people's personalities to understand their behavior, but I don't know that it was helpful for anyone else. Noted.

As far as the Writing Center providing a service, I don't think it's that straightforward given our particular philosophy and intended relationship between tutor and student. We are a resource, but service implies we 'give' or 'provide' things rather than the student finding their voice, getting useful feedback and growing as writers. Rather than a user-provider model, we sort of encourage a process-based interactive model, where it's not the tutor's responsibility to provide editing, for example, but to create a space for the writer as they work on their writing process. This is not something I made up and am projecting on him-- as I said, I realize he's not the one 'in charge'. The poets are in charge here, so to speak. We are 'providing a service' but in a totally different way than the Computer Center (where I was fine with that framework, too). To clarify, I'm not trying to institute but sustain a philosophy/value system that already exists. He is not working within it in a way that works well; I attempted to explain this to him in the past but... there's clearly a miscommunication. The more I explain, the more it seems I was overreacting, I know-- I can basically do whatever I want, really (within limits), and be supported. He's the one fighting a bit of an uphill battle. So that's why it was personal-- 'cause I know I'm unreasonable so it's a personal issue I realize was unhealthy (if I was proud, I definitely wouldn't post for help with it). Thanks for all the resource recs!
posted by reenka at 4:12 PM on March 9, 2012

Best answer: I’m reading your post very differently from most people here. To some extent, your updates seem to be drifting away slightly from what I feel your initial question/problem to be. In order to not make my answer confusing in case I am mistaken, I’ll summarize my understanding of your post (warning – this has become very long:

You have a great need for harmony in your interactions. Sometimes, you encounter resistance – disagreeable opinions, unsettling behaviours, or simply different worldviews. Mostly, you let such latent conflicts pass you by, and deal with such situations mainly by withdrawing from them. However, that is not always possible, and then you may explode, which makes you feel awful and is possibly also counter-productive. Latest case in point is your run-in with Earnest Guy. You are co-operating on a project which is something that you have a bit of “ownership” of. E. Guy has an entirely different approach, which you feel could endanger the project’s success. Also, you feel he disregards your (singular or plural you) contribution. After repeated attempts to bring your own concerns into the mix, you blew up.

If the above is close, I indentify with much of what you say. My ideal world is one in which harmony predominates. When reality does not measure up, my preferred method of dealing is to withdraw – either by avoiding the respective people/situations, or by following the path of least resistance (this is aided by the fact that there are tons of things which capture my attention, so I can easily relinquish one in favour of the next, and those issues which I am genuinely passionate about I tend do privately). Every now and again I explode, usually with dire results. These are my credentials in answering.

In time, this approach proved to be flawed for a number of reasons:

1. You give up on far too many things. In my 20s, this seemed a healthy way to go – for each thing/person I renounced, there were ten replacements. In my late 30s, I feel differently, and in more miserable moments it seems like the past is a cemetery of desires, relationships, failed attempts, which I myself killed off out of misapplied fastidiousness or simply cowardice.

2. At times, you are in situations which are not easy to leave and withdrawal is illusory at best. You either end up living in your own imagination, become increasingly vulnerable to hurt with each new conflict, or present as spineless, eager to become everybody’s doormat, or you become passive-aggressive (and I must agree with people above – this is the downfall for any honest and open relationship), etc. So the usual avoidant strategies don’t work.

3. The accumulated tension leads to explosions which are usually very damaging. I turn from lamb to charging bull.

4. These explosions tend to not have enough positive outcomes to counterbalance the damage they do.

From the few times which could have led to either doormatitis or an explosion, but which I somehow successfully managed myself away from either, I learned:

1. Practice saying no politely, firmly, unapologetically, but kindly and considerately. This I find really hard, because my instincts are still very much fight or flight. Practice in really low stakes scenarios. Get increasingly comfortable with refusing, or voicing opposition, when doing so is no big deal. You will feel more able to occupy a possibly solitary opposing position in more important situations, without becoming overly compliant or embattled.

2. Where possible, prepare before going into situations which you know might lead to conflict/tension. Rehearse the important points from your point of view: objectives, methods of reaching project goals, how do you measure success, what role participants have, what constraints are, how invested you are, whatnot. Knowing the difference in views between you and other person, try to understand how their take on things might impact on your own ideas. Figure out where this different approach might actually further your own objectives etc. Where compromises can be made. If your investment is proportionally bigger or smaller than theirs, and what this means. Where you feel that compromises or a different approach would endanger the project and why. What your/their motivations are, if they are truly project-related or more ego-worldview related, how these can be work in or around. Etc. Become aware of what your non-negotiables are and why. For instance, in your example, one of your fairly non-negotiable objectives seems to be “working has to be creatively stimulating and the process, whether or not it seems to meander away from the straight route to results, is as important as obtaining measurable(?) results”, whilst his seems to be “(measurable) results are of paramount importance, and are to be obtained via schedules and discipline, even if the “softer” approaches have to fall by the wayside”, or, at least, he seems to be proposing methods which are commensurate with such an objective. Maybe do this on paper, so that you know for sure you are truly prepared.

3. Do not be seduced by artificial beliefs and dichotomies, such as creative/good, organized or disciplined/bad, (or the other way round: creative = fluffy and unreliable, results-driven = good, productive, admirable and the way to go). They do have an air of correctness for the holders of those beliefs, but in real life they are unproductive, useless, and, as generalizations, untrue and insulting for everybody. Creativity, discipline, efficiency, an eye for “worker satisfaction” all go hand in hand in creating truly worthwhile things, even if each of those takes on a different form with each new project or for each person.

4. Once you have clarity with regard to your position, set it aside until later in the meeting. Go into the meeting with a clean mind – you know where you stand, all other things being equal, but you are open to learning that other things are not equal. New information, or a new way of looking at the situation will be absorbed and integrated in your thought process. Does this change things for you? If not, voice your opinions and differences, if you haven’t already done so, but pay great attention to the framing.

5. If discussion has reached an impasse, reset. Maybe propose a break. Try going back to basics, which tend to be objectives, methods, and roles within the project. Frequently, resistances – your own or theirs – are weakened by such reminders. For example, it might become apparent that a method they propose (tight schedules), and which is seemingly conflicting with your main objective as imagined above, might be of benefit to the project in a slightly weaker form (draw up a time-table as a framework for the creative energies, without it taking over to the point of you doing shoddy work in order to keep to artificial deadlines, etc).

6. If you still don’t see eye to eye after weighing each opinion (including your own) adequately, evaluate your stake and also your power in the given situation. Do you have ownership of the project? It is your responsibility to let everyone know that after carefully considering xyz, you have decided a,b,c for the following reasons (or just respectfully state your decision). Expect backlash, but remain firm and polite. Remind yourself that protests are due either to concern for the project – and you want to keep that alive – or to ego-related issues, and it is always unwise to humiliate where such wounds cut deepest, even if this fragility presents in annoying or even aggressive ways. If you have no or little power (someone else is leading the project, or you are in a minority etc.), register your disagreement and state your reasons, and then let it lie. Train yourself to remain invested even after you have been outvoted (it’s much easier to comply if you have not voiced your opposing opinions; once you have and you are ignored, it feels much more personal. The only way to deal with your own fragility in such cases, to my mind, is to make sure my stuff is on record and then just sit through the unpleasant feelings. They do go away, and there comes a point when they don’t even arise any more.

7. If your resistance remains and you feel that you would be personally compromised by continuing given the circumstances, and you don’t have the power to influence proceeds in any way, or if you are persistently shot down (in which case, to my mind, this becomes personal, if only as a matter of incompatibility), I would consider withdrawing from the project/situation. This isn’t flight – this is giving up on an impossible situation after taking a stand.

8. When you find yourself in similar situations without the time to prepare for them – say, they arise during a conversation, or in incremental steps during daily interaction, and you feel the “aura” of an explosion, try to speed up to point 4. Either by allowing yourself some time before you react, or else by actually going through the process in dialogue with the other person. If they say x and your knee-jerk reaction to it is to steamroll over them, actually say that: “My knee-jerk reaction to that is such and such, but this is entirely unhelpful, so I want to tease out what x actually means for me. The reason why it elicits this response is a, b, c”, and then take your conversation from there.

In conclusion – you would probably be more comfortable if you manage to take a stand and make your diverging opinions etc. known much sooner, so you do not accumulate tensions which lead to overreactions. If what you are reacting to is very much out of the question as far as you are concerned, or outright jerkish, be firm but remain polite, and absolutely make your limits and no-go areas known. If not, try to initiate dialogue (and this means genuine dialogue, and not just taking turns to state and restate your differing views), which might put an end to the disagreement, or result in a compromise, or at least make your respective positions clearer and help you decide how to continue. The best way to learn how to do this is by practicing and living through the uncomfortable feelings you will initially feel.
posted by miorita at 1:21 AM on March 10, 2012 [2 favorites]

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