Getting Better at Handling Confrontation

by Jan 19, 2016

Why is handling confrontation difficult for women?

There are two reasons women find handling confrontation difficult.  The first is socialisation: young girls are generally expected to keep their anger suppressed, while boys are allowed to lash out. The second is that women’s anger is often dismissed, leaving her labelled as emotional for airing legitimate complaints.


Handling confrontation can be a challenge for women

Healthy Conflict does not work

Things are especially difficult in the workplace, because the usual techniques for healthy conflict are useless.  When addressing an issue in your personal life, it helps to use lots of “I statements” and focus on expressing your feelings rather than drawing conclusions. “When you were late for our anniversary dinner, I felt worried that you didn’t take our relationship seriously”

Can you imagine trying that technique at work?

“When you submitted your data three days after the deadline, it made me feel worried that I wasn’t going to be able to complete our departmental report in time for the annual conference”

Nope.  Absolutely not.

At work, drawing attention to your feelings (however justified) can give people a chance to call you hysterical.  How can you make your voice heard effectively?

Before you confront someone

  • Decide what you want to get out of this. Are you simply explaining your view?  Do you want an apology?  Are you trying to find a compromise between your needs and theirs?
  • Mentally prepare and gather facts if needed. If you’re raising a difficult topic, try writing a list of points you want to raise – it helps to organise your thoughts before starting.
  • Face-to-face is best. It’s much easier to ignore an email than to dismiss a colleague who’s standing in front of you.
  • Find somewhere private to meet. Public confrontations tend to spiral out of control, because both parties are trying to keep face.

During the confrontation

  • Open with a couple of sentences that explain your position, then stop and let the other person talk. Gabbling is a sign of nervousness, and it signals that you aren’t confident in your position.
  • Substitute a reference to your feelings by mentioning your experience, always relating it to the professional situation.  “When you submitted your data three days after the deadline, it impacted the schedule for the annual conference, causing me additional work.”  Read: Assertive Communication 9 tips to avoid being labelled a bitch
  • “If you want an explanation for someone’s behaviour, try simply asking them, “What happened?” If they have a good reason, you want to hear it: if all they can offer is an excuse, you want to know that too.
  • Listen to your opponent, rather than waiting for them to stop talking so you can make your next point.
  • Remember the obvious: stay polite, avoid raising your voice, and stay focused on the issue in hand.
  • If one of you is getting upset or angry, suggest a break: “I can see that we’re not going to reach an agreement on this today. Why don’t we both take time to think, and meet again next week?”


  • If you need to set up a paper trail (for example, if you’re worried about your conversation being misrepresented), you can follow up with an email summarising what was said, “just to be sure we’re on the same page”


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Alice Bell Contributor
"Alice writes online about business, popular science, and women's lifestyle. After a few years working her way around the world, she has settled in the north of England and taken a day job as a maths teacher. Her life's ambition is to earn enough money to start repaying her student debt."

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