‘Let’s agree to disagree…’ Learning to manage conflict and build assertiveness

Content warning: bullying, prison

I am the first to admit that I don’t do well with conflict. I was not really given many examples of effectively disagreeing with anyone as my household was pretty agreeable when I was a child. I think I have only seen my parents argue once and when it happened I assumed they would get a divorce! Conflict simply wasn’t part of my home life as a child.

I was bullied a lot in high school. I never disagreed with the bullies or stood up to them. In fact I would try to appease them by being friendly and offering to do things for them. This only served to make me more of an outsider in their minds and things just got worse.

Between the ages of 20 and 25 I spent a lot of time in prison (if you want to know more I wrote a book about it – ‘Finding a Different Kind of Normal’). There was plenty of conflict going on in jail and I was – rightfully – utterly terrified for my safety every day. I managed being in such an aggressive and dangerous environment by appeasing everyone else and being extra nice to my fellow prisoners. On one occasion I asked my parents to sign out $500 to the boyfriend of a prisoner who bought drugs and got them in. I was supposed to get a significant amount of weed and pills but I actually got almost nothing while half the jail had a party at my expense. True to form I did not stand up for myself fearing a fight. I managed to spend over three years in jail without getting attacked by any of my peers. I did this through a combination of buying cigarettes and other treats for my fellow prisoners, never standing up for myself and masking like it was an Olympic sport! My aim was to avoid conflict at all costs. I was very good at it! In fact I was so good at it that I ended up having no idea who I actually was. When I was 26 I decided to change my life and I had to work out what my character was as I had lost it somewhere amongst all the masking and trying to appease everyone!

Along with my fear of conflict was an inability to set boundaries or be assertive. This is also a huge issue for many other people and especially autistic people. I have worked on this over the years and am now doing a lot better. I even learned a nifty trick which can help with stranding up to bullies. During a hospital admission in 2010 there was a fellow patient who was being a bully to me. I told the nurses and they said I should stay out of her way – not very easy in a small locked ward! I was terrified of this person and did try to avoid them but it didn’t help much. Eventually I was in the  queue to use the hot water urn and this woman pushed in front of me. Angrily I snapped ‘You don’t have to be so aggressive!’ at her. The impact was immediate. She went from bullying me to wanting to be my friend. I learned a lesson there that sometimes if you stand up to a bully it changes the power dynamic and means they respect you. I know, bullies are baffling! It was a useful lesson though and I have put it into practice since with similar results.

Conflict is scary. Assertiveness is scary. Setting boundaries is scary but all of them are a part of life and we cannot avoid them forever. Assertiveness is a great way to get your needs met. I was a taught that being submissive  or aggressive both mean you will not get what you need but being assertive gives you the best chance to do so. However, being assertiveness is not a guarantee that you will get your needs met. Assertiveness works best when employed in communication with reasonable people. Assertiveness is less likely to work with a bully or an aggressive person. One of the lovely things about assertiveness is that you get to state what you need. It is a great piece of self-advocacy but it can be hard too do, especially when you start out doing it.

I used to think it was impossible to learn to be assertive. I could not imagine a situation where I would be able to do it. Then in about 2013 I started to make inroads into assertiveness. Firstly I practiced with ‘safe’ people like close friends and then worked up to others. I remember being very proud of myself for doing a follow up with the people who were painting my apartment and were taking a long time get started. It was amazing! I was being assertive. It is a skill that improves with time and I would recommend starting out with people you know and who you are fairly certain will respond well and respect you and work form there.

I used to be terrified of conflict and disagreement but now I recognise them as just another part of human communication. And if I disagree with someone and they respond badly well that is their business, not mine. As an activist and advocate I actually need to be able to manage conflict as people often disagree with what I say. There is a difference between respectful disagreement and trolling. I can’t just block everyone online who disagrees with me! That being said the trolls get blocked with no warning as I need to stay safe and trolling is a form of conflict that I am never going to address – even if I use all the assertiveness at my disposal! 

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