Doormat no more
April 18, 2018 2:31 PM   Subscribe

Any mind/behaviour tricks to help an almost pathologically conflict-avoidant person become less of a doormat?

Tl;dr: how to be less worried by and scared of conflict, and what behavioural tips and tricks to adopt in order to make people stop assuming that you're a doormat.

I am intensely avoidant of conflict. I attribute this to my (non-Western) cultural upbringing as well as the fact that my family modelled really messed-up ways of managing conflict because of their cultural, generational etc hang-ups. So growing up I saw conflict as something intensely stressful and characterised by passive aggression, emotional blackmail, the silent treatment, expecting people to read your mind, and of course the occasional angry outburst during which unforgivable things would be said. Conflict had to be avoided at all cost and it didn't matter what you had to accept in order to maintain that situation. I've grown up very anxious to avoid conflict and willing to accept many forms of non-ideal situations in order to avoid conflict. I try to communicate directly and clearly, which tends to work in relationships with friends and colleagues, but rarely works with my family (Me: "Well, why didn't you tell me you wanted me do [x]?" Family member: "I shouldn't have to tell you!")

Recently I have found myself in numerous conflict-heavy situations that I don't know how to deal with and which upset me to various degrees.

1) I am in a complicated family situation wherein various members of my extended family are putting me under a lot of pressure to do something I don't want to do. They have used all the typical conflict tools I am used to from my childhood: emotional blackmail, attacks on my character, bizarre circular reasoning, the works. Even though I know they're wrong, the sense of constantly being under attack is really wearing and upsetting. Sticking to my guns in this situation is exhausting and scary. I dread checking my emails or replying to their emails and a new email inevitably leads to me being unable to sleep.

2) I work with a very overbearing domineering woman who doesn't like to be overruled. (She's not my direct manager, but senior to my manager.) Whenever I speak up from my own experience (which is more detail-oriented than hers as she's senior and not that close to the operational side of things), and it goes against what she thinks, she'll interrupt me and talk over me, and shout at me if I don't back down. She'll also make a big deal of saying in meetings, "Oh, [x] is really trivial and low-level, Ziggy500 can do it". She is both older than me and more senior and experienced by a long shot. This is not ok behaviour, but I let her get away with it simply because I genuinely don't know what to say or how to react in these situations (which are always in public and witnessed by many other colleagues). (She also tries to get me to do random tasks for her at very short notice, even when they're not within my remit and I'm clearly occupied with my own work, but I have learned to push back politely in these situations.)

3) I've had the same lady cleaning my apartment for many years. Lately she has taken to changing her days at very short notice, and sometimes just not showing up and texting me at night saying "Sorry I didn't come today, I'm too tired"; this week, she had a big hissy fit at me over text message because I asked her to come to clean my place on a day that I'd be at home (usually she comes when I am out), as she apparently prefers to clean when I am not there. I didn't really engage with her reasoning (which I could not understand) but just reiterated that I would prefer if she came as scheduled whether or not I was at home. This seems to have resolved the current situation, but I am unclear as to what in my behaviour would ever have indicated it was ok to have a hissy fit at an employer for such a bizarre reason.

I feel that I am in control of what messages I send out. (I realise that smacks of victim blaming in the abstract but I don't mean it in the abstract - I mean it specifically in my situation.) I really do not feel like I am a shy retiring wallflower, I have confidence in my opinions and confidence in general in myself, I make sure not to use submissive language like 'Sorry but', 'I was just wondering', etc, but yet I feel like I must be giving off signals that attract aggression in the sure knowledge that I will not fight back (and I am usually too cowed, embarrassed, or just plain confused to do so). What can I do to come across as less easily cowed? How can I feel less discombobulated and anxious around people who are aggressive or who thrive on conflict?

I have done CBT therapy for anxiety. I know the basics of CBT and use those tools to deal with my anxiety about conflict when it gets too bad, but I'd like to just be a bit more zen about conflict in general.

For what it's worth, I'm a woman in my 30s and a visible minority.
posted by Ziggy500 to Human Relations (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
One of the best ways to get over fear of confrontation is to invite it, and one of the best ways to do that is with self defense classes.
posted by DarlingBri at 2:53 PM on April 18, 2018 [4 favorites]

Start with the easy one: fire your cleaning lady.

I think you're dealing with a lot of unreasonable people, and you've been dealing with people like this your whole life. But this isn't about "messages" that you're sending out - it's about these people behaving like jerks. You're not causing people to act this way towards you.

What you are doing, though, is putting up with it, and I get that you don't like conflict (me neither!) but it seems like you feel like your only options are to cave/be cowed or to fight back. I would actually recommend a third option in most cases: disengagement.

You could disengage with your cleaning lady permanently, as easy as sending her a text that says, "You know what, I'm not going to be needing your services anymore. Thanks for all you've done over the years and best of luck. Please return my key by the end of the month." And then you find a new cleaner or whatever. Worst-case scenario, you have to change the locks.

Obviously with your job and your family, things are more complicated. With your family, it sounds like you're actually doing a great job holding your line! You have decided not to do the thing they want you to do. So now try to stop engaging with their attempts to convince you. Don't argue, just say that you've made your decision and you don't want to talk about it, and leave/hang up/delete the emails if they keep trying to engage. It's not *easy*, but it's pretty simple. You can't change their behavior, but you can, to some extent, change the way you feel about their behavior.

With the job, whether you want to push back really depends on your work environment/culture, how badly you need this particular job, and how much impact your overbearing overboss actually has on your work life. If she's *shouting* at you, that's cartoonishly bad behavior, and it's completely normal to not know how to react in that situation. You could try talking to your own manager about how you should handle situations like that. It might be that everyone just gives this woman a lot of space because she's an asshole and no one wants to be in the line of fire. That's not OK, but it's very common.
posted by mskyle at 2:56 PM on April 18, 2018 [17 favorites]

I agree with mskyle. With (1) in particular, I say stop responding altogether to any comments about whatever topic it is you've made your mind up about. You can answer other things in the email/text if you want, but any comments about the forbidden topic should fall into the abyss without echo.

With (2), given her seniority, you may be stuck. Be excruciatingly polite, and hopefully those around you will see that she is behaving cruddily. I mean, I am from time to time in staffing-type meetings where I am stuck being the blunt one about whether someone's capacities are up to a particular task, but the someone is not at the meeting! (For the long run, you might ask your immediate supervisor if there are particular skills she thinks you should be cultivating or training you should be taking to advance and do more sophisticated work.)
posted by praemunire at 3:26 PM on April 18, 2018 [1 favorite]

Random thoughts in no particular order:

You don't have to open your email. You can delete it unread. It's ok. You're allowed.

Seconding firing the cleaning lady. She works for you, which means she does it your way. Full stop.

I read in a female entrepreneur group I'm in on Facebook that the most powerful thing a woman can do to strengthen her interactions with other people is to eliminate the word "just" from her vocabulary. "I was just wondering..." "I just had a question..." "I just needed..." Drop the just.

One thing that helped me a lot in dealing with other people was this idea: what you think of me is none of my business. Life's too short for me to worry about what everybody I interact with thinks of me. I have a sticky note on my wall that says "I'm not available for feeling like shit any more." If someone else disapproves of how I live my life, to be blunt, screw them. It's my life, and I get to live it.
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess at 4:11 PM on April 18, 2018 [13 favorites]

she'll interrupt me and talk over me, and shout at me if I don't back down

Any manager in an office job who shouts at their staff is being abusive. (I give more leeway to people whose jobs involve fighting fires, rescuing injured people, or working outdoors in general - they sometimes need immediate attention, or work in settings where shouting's the only way to be heard.) There may not be much you can do about it, depending on the office culture, but do be aware that this is not appropriate.

Start keeping a record - track the date, topic, and what got said when she shouts at you, belittles you, or interrupts you. You may eventually have a solid complaint for HR or a lawsuit for a hostile workplace.

Also agree with "fire the housekeeper." This isn't a hostile move - you want a housekeeper who follows a schedule that works for you, and works under conditions that you establish (i.e. sometimes being home.) I'd be giving the side-eye to someone who only wanted to work when I'm not around - your presence can't possibly be so distracting that she can't get the work done. Maybe there's nothing wrong, and she likes to crank the music way up to work, and she can't do that when you're there. That's fine - but you need a housekeeper who works around your needs, which sometimes includes the house getting cleaned when you're still in it.
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 4:59 PM on April 18, 2018

For #1 and #2, I would look for allies -there are limits on what you can do for yourself. Ideal, someone with influence who would speak up for you (like maybe your manager??) but even to have a friend/ally/confident who can help confirm the reality of the situation so you don't feel totally alone.
posted by metahawk at 9:19 PM on April 18, 2018

I think you're being a bit hard on yourself. For one thing, being "conflict avoidant" is not a defect of character - if anything it shows you're a sensitive, nurturing and valuable person.

As to the "conflict-heavy" situations, maybe recognise that this is something you will have to face over and over again so you might as well have fun with it. That cleaning lady? Fire her ass, vindictively and nastily. The domineering boss? Drop LSD in her coffee. The extended family? Send their emails to the spam folder and spread fake news about them.

Just kidding, of course, but rooting for you anyway.
posted by Pechorin at 2:51 AM on April 19, 2018

To me the non-doormat way to deal with the abusive manager is to look for another job. You can report it to HR and hope that works out, but you could also just look for a workplace that wouldn't tolerate that kind of behavior in the first place.

These books might be of interest to you:

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't - a lot of this is about not being an asshole in the workplace, but it's also about dealing with assholes.

The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work - Often recommended on the green, I haven't read it yet myself. Here's the author on the podcast How Stuff Works

The Dance of Intimacy: A Woman's Guide to Courageous Acts of Change in Key Relationships - Harriet Lerner's has several "dance of" books and I've found them to be really practical and helpful.

Good luck.
posted by bunderful at 5:49 AM on April 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

Agreeing with praemunire with regards to your family: don't engage any further. MeFites often employ the 'that won't be possible' approach when someone asks for or expects something you don't want to do; perhaps you can craft a brief response which simply states that you're sorry but you won't be doing what they ask. Instead of reading and agonising over emails or debating the point in conversation, just paste in this response whenever the subject comes up. The important thing in this circumstance is to stand firm and not give them a toehold for engagement, so no explanations or justifications or reasons that they can use to keep the subject in play. Think of the words like a forcefield: all those tactics you mentioned in your first paragraph strike your forcefield and then fall to the ground, lifeless, without having touched you.

As far as your cleaning lady is concerned, it's likely time to terminate that relationship. For whatever reason she's come to feel too comfortable and is taking more freedom than is appropriate, and it's hard to say exactly why; perhaps a few small acquiescences on your part made her feel that she could push your flexibility (blowing off a scheduled day) or make preference-based demands (only working when you're not around). Either way, once an employee starts taking these liberties it's difficult to get them back to the starting point, and having a cleaner is supposed to reduce stress, not increase it. Notify her that her services are no longer needed, find someone new, and lay out some clear boundaries and requirements with them.

And more generally, if you're trying to figure out how to be less of a doormat, I've found it can be quite helpful to make yourself some space to calm down and consider. Especially if you can feel your emotions engaging as soon as a situation with conflict potential arises, respond whenever possible with 'I need to think about that' or 'I'll get back to you [tomorrow, next week, in an hour]'. It gives you some space to breathe and orient your thinking, and lets the emotions and the adrenaline dissipate somewhat before figuring out how you want to reply.

Personally, I also found reading The Paradox of Choice to be helpful. Somewhat counterintuitive, as on the surface it's about consumer decisions, but in a broader sense it focuses on how reducing the number of decisions made can reduce anxiety. Oftentimes becoming a doormat can be a result of having to make snap decisions or feeling pressured to give an answer, and research into decision fatigue indicates that the more decisions we have to make, the worse we are at it (not unlike the spoon theory in disability). One thing the book advocates is to make as many umbrella decisions in advance as possible so that there's less to consider in the moment; you're not reinventing the wheel every time a situation comes up. This can be useful interpersonally as well: if you decide in advance, for example, that you don't answer certain personal questions, then you're spared the stress and spot decision-making of how to answer, or whether the questions is justified in this circumstance -- you just say it's something you don't discuss. It makes your life less stressful and helps form good boundaries, which are also useful in avoiding being a doormat.
posted by myotahapea at 7:24 AM on April 19, 2018

How does your direct manager handle this person? Are they acquiescing and rolling over, or standing their ground and supporting your suggestions?

Your manager is the best (and probably only) person to help you in this situation. It's important for your manager to have your back, stick up for you and your ideas, and redirect or call out inappropriate behavior. This is not, and cannot be, something you address directly with this woman. Sit down with your manager and hopefully together you can strategize on how to move forward. Working with jerks doesn't make you a doormat.

And yeah, fire your cleaning lady.
posted by ananci at 1:37 PM on April 19, 2018

All three of those situations sound like you're dealing with bullies- your problem may be less with conflict and more with assholes, to be honest.

Family- family shit is always super hard and often throws us back in time to repeat patterns from when we were kids and had less tools. Do you have any relatives who agree with you? Even if they don't directly speak up, venting to a sympathetic cousin can feel helpful.

Boss- she sounds like a fucking nightmare and dealing with her would be very stressful even if a person were comfortable with conflict. Pushing back politely at her task requests already is a great start. Perhaps gently calling her out on her rudeness: "May I just finish what I was saying?" when she interrupts you (say it verrrry politely, no scolding tone).

Or MAYBE when she insults you ("this task is trivial, give it to Ziggy"), you can just gently say "ouch". This works really well in social gatherings, miiight work in a meeting depending on tone. Sometimes that makes the person back down without embarrassing them too much. The trick is to do it immediately, almost as if her words had literally pinched your arm- there is power in a sincere, fast, truthful response.

Cleaner- you've dealt with her well, actually, by asking for what you needed. She's being a jerk. Fire her, or, if you want to practice conflict-having, call her out and keep her on-board (only if you trust her not to mess up your stuff though).

Here's what I'd say, and why:

Text - "Hey Joan, I need to speak with you, can you give me a call today / tomorrow?"

Or, do it in person: "I need to speak with you after your appointment tomorrow, can you plan to wrap up cleaning at 5:50 so we can talk for 10 minutes before you go?
>> This phrasing- "I need to speak with you", is a bit formal so it tends to alert people that a critique is coming and they will need to clean up their act. You're also giving her options of when to have the convo so it's not broadsiding her when she's busy.

"I like having you as my cleaner and I think you do a good job."
>>Start with the truth, (if this is true and you're planning to keep her on).
And don't say BUT after this sentence- just give the compliment, and let her say thank you.

"Lately there have been a few times when our usual plans have not seemed to work out. I'm not sure what's going on.... It seems like our scheduled times aren't working for you, is that accurate?"
>> Create a nice neutral non-blamey framing of the problem, that you and she would both be able to agree with. So avoid blamey phrases like "you've been unreliable."

"My preference is for you to clean on Tuesdays, 5-6 pm, when I am home."
>>State what you want.

"Does that work for you, or do we need to pick a new appointment time?"
>>Ask for consent/buy-in.

So then she agrees to the new time or whatever.

"I also wanted to mention- there were a couple times when I expected you to come by, but you didn't, and gave me little or even no advance notice. When your plans change on short notice, or no notice beforehand, it doesn't work for me- in this case I had guests and needed the house clean so I was in a tough spot. Barring any emergencies, I would appreciate 24 hrs notice if you can't make a scheduled time- would that work for you?
>> Again, state what you want factually with no blame, explain why it's a problem, propose a solution, ask for buy-in.

"Is there anything I can do to help make things easier on you?"
>>Give her a chance to contribute to the convo and try to take her suggestions seriously.

"Ok well I'm really glad we talked; thanks for being receptive. Is next (date/time) cool by you? Awesome thanks!"
>>Show appreciation for her listening and confirm you still want to work with her.

Send followup text or email later that day-
"Hi Joan, Thanks again for our chat today- I feel better having cleared the air. So just to confirm what we talked about:
1. We'll move your cleaning day to (date/time) going forward, and
2. Unless it's an emergency, if that appointment needs to change, you'll do your best to give me 24h notice.
Does that work for you?
Thanks again for our talk today. I'm glad we talked and I look forward to seeing you next week!"
>>Put the new rules in writing, but non-critically, so the expectations are clear and it's easy to fire her later if she doesn't live up to them. And express kind sentiments to smooth things over.

And if she misses another session- you get to practice firing her.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 2:46 PM on April 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

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