I sat through a meeting this week during which a client and my boss had a very strongly worded, aggressive disagreement. The client wasn’t raising his voice, but his words, tone, and body language were very combative, and my boss was trying to defend our position against his.
I have a hard time with this type of conflict: that type of aggressive tone makes me really jittery and produces an adrenaline-fueled “flight” reaction. I spent a lot of the meeting hoping it wasn’t obvious how much I was shaking.
I also avoid interrupting others in a conversation, so fast-paced arguments make it extra hard for me to know what to do. My instinct is to avoid getting involved and to not draw more attention/ire toward myself.
In situations like these, I often feel that if I open my mouth, I might start crying, which I know is read as extremely unprofessional and is something I particularly would want to avoid when I am already being dismissed as young, inexperienced, and insufficiently skilled at my job.
However, sometimes I know there is information that I have or perspectives I can bring that would help with the disagreement if I could only figure out how to insert myself into the conversation.
What strategies can I as an introvert use when I need to jump into a contentious/agitated situation in a professional setting?
Jittery in Massachusetts
Oh, my—I could practically feel the jitters with you while I was reading your letter. Conflict can kick up our self-preservation instincts such as fight, flight, or freeze. It’s particularly tough in a work situation where we can’t easily run away and we have our professional reputation at stake. This is a big challenge for anyone.
Introverts’ challenges in conflict situations
You might feel the stress of conflicts more than the extroverts around you would.
High sensitivity and introversion tend to go together. You’re likely especially sensitive to the emotional energy in the room.
It’s also common for introverts to hate the idea of interrupting. It just seems to go against our grain, maybe because we hate being interrupted or because we value listening so much. But having a say in a conflict often requires interrupting.
What’s more, introverts prefer to think carefully before speaking. It’s hard to get our thoughts together quickly enough to jump into the fray. We can get caught in analysis paralysis, especially during conflict, and tension can build inside us.
Keep in mind that avoiding conflict will only increase your discomfort with conflict and foster your original frustrations. In the long term, the more comfortable path in dealing with conflict is facing it.
Your hidden strengths for handling conflict
The way you told your story tells me that you value being considerate, or else this wouldn’t bother you so much. That puts you in a good position to be able to speak up effectively and respectfully. In fact, I suspect you did well in that situation even if you felt messy on the inside.
Because introverts tend to think carefully before speaking, they are often good at incorporating many perspectives and imagining new solutions. Your insights are needed, no matter how young or inexperienced you might feel!
Getting used to speaking up
I used to be very conflict-avoidant, never wanting to draw attention to myself. Gradually, I found my voice during conflicts, but I still have my nervous moments. Everyone does—no matter how calm they look.
In order to find more ease and make yourself heard in the midst of conflict, you need to:
Choose one or two of these techniques before your next group meeting, and see how it goes. The more you apply these tools, the easier these situations will become. You’ll see that when you speak up, you will not only survive but you will also find that your fear will have lessened, and you’ll also enjoy the relief and rewards of having a say.
If the issue of conflict is a big one for you, I highly recommend learning Nonviolent Communication (NVC).
What works for you?
Dear readers, I welcome hearing your thoughts below. What works for you in handling conflict situations or tense work meetings?
Career or business worries? Want to know how to say something at work? Want to figure out how marketing or networking can work best for you? Send your questions to [email protected].