You drop off the dry cleaning, your husband picks it up—that’s how the system works in your house. But for the last few weeks, both tasks have fallen to you. The first time didn’t bother you…even the second instance wasn’t a big deal. But by the third pick-up, you grew irritated. So, when your husband asks you—again—to stop for the dry cleaning on your way home, how do you respond?
You don’t. You just nod, pick it up and let your anger linger.
You yell: “Are you kidding me? How many more things can I possibly take care of?”
You reply with a brief “sure” and then decide not to pick it up.
There are names for these types of responses: passive, aggressive and passive-aggressive. And although many of us have adopted them, none are particularly productive when you have tension with someone.
If you fall into the passive camp, you try to keep the peace most of the time, often saying “yes” or agreeing with the group in an effort to avoid conflict and confrontation. While your intention might be good, you’re sending a message that your thoughts, feelings and even your time aren’t as important as those of other people. “When you ignore your needs, and essentially allow others to do the same, you may be left hurt, outraged and resentful,” says Ann Pardo, director of life management at Canyon Ranch in Tucson.
Having an aggressive argument style, however, means you make sure your thoughts and feelings are heard loud and clear. They usually come across as forceful, sometimes superior, and often uncompromising. While it’s important to stick up for yourself, it’s not helpful to do so while disregarding or at the expense of others.
But if your approach is more of passive-aggressive, you tend to express negative feelings through actions, instead of directly addressing them with words. While you may voice a simple “yes” when you really mean the opposite, it’s the fact that you didn’t pick up the dry cleaning after all that makes your point clear.
So how should you respond when you disagree with someone? “Assertively, which is essentially a midpoint between passive and aggressive,” says Pardo. “It means you’re expressing your opinion, while still respecting others.”
Try saying no in a clear, calm way: I know you’ve been pretty busy lately, but no, I can’t pick up the dry cleaning again. I’ve been doing my share of errands and hope you can find some time to pick it up in the next few days.
Or suggest an alternative: I realize it’s been hard for you to get to the dry cleaner after work. I’d be happy to pick up the clothes if you’d be willing to take over another errand when you have more time, like watering the plants.
Here are some more examples of how to be assertive.
Recognizing what your argument style is can help you slowly adjust how you respond when faced with conflict. It may take some time—and a few heated arguments—but whether you’re fighting about something small or a bigger, more serious issue, you can work it out in a productive way. Consider these tips:
If you’re usually passive…practicing some assertive phrases, including saying “no” in low-stress situations can help. “Try declining a small request from a friend or family member,” advises Pardo.
If you tend to be aggressive…take a time-out. If you’re too worked up going into an argument, give yourself a moment to just breathe. It’ll help calm you down and allow you to collect your thoughts. (Try an anger-releasing breathing technique.)
If you’re passive-aggressive…speak up more often. Instead of avoiding a discussion, express how you feel without placing blame. Start with “I disagree” or “I feel frustrated,” rather than “you’re wrong” or “you’re ridiculous.” While putting your emotions into words may be difficult, try doing it with a request for help in solving the problem: I feel frustrated that our previous system hasn’t been working. We always shared the dry cleaning responsibility. Can we figure out a solution so it doesn’t continue falling onto my to-do list?
Try these other strategies for resolving conflict effectively.