Conflict doesn’t come naturally to many. Not everyone feels comfortable arguing their side of a point or even engaging in an argument. But avoiding disagreements or big fights altogether is not healthy and learning how to argue is a big part of being a capable adult. So, if you happen to be someone whose natural instinct is to not fight in the first place, how do you make yourself better?
According to Sherri Williams, a marriage and family therapist based in Pittsburgh, the way to cope with fights is to figure out if you’re a turtle or a bear. Bear with us. Turtles, she says, tend to process internally and need time to figure out things and gather their thoughts. Bears, however, are external processors and let everything out. The question then becomes how can the naturally passive battle it out with the more conflict-centric?
As with all types of personality-based struggles, self-awareness is essential. If you are more naturally passive, per Williams, then during arguments you need to learn how to allow yourself more time to process your thoughts. “Turtles need to set boundaries and ask for a timeout when the discussion becomes unproductive or the Turtle is feeling overwhelmed,” she says.
If your partner won’t respect the verbal request, then it’s up to you to simply inform the other that you’re taking a timeout and, this is key, give your partner a time-frame for returning to the conversation so it comes across as a necessary tactic rather than a way to avoid the argument altogether. Try: I need some time to process; I’ll be back in 30 minutes.
During the downtime, it’s time to ask yourself some questions or develop some techniques to help you approach the argument more constructively. “Some useful questions to explore are: What is my unmet need here? What is the misunderstanding? How does it make sense my partner is so upset? What is their need?”
This time should also be used, per Williams, to do some constructive exercises or activities that might help them organize their thoughts. She suggests quickly jotting down some thoughts to get your feelings in order. Or, if you’re feeling especially anxious, going for a walk to burn off energy and help you process.
In general, self-examination and reflection are important to getting to the root of one’s passivity, says Laurie Endicott Thomas, the author of Don’t Feed the Narcissists! The Mythology and Science of Mental Health, who adds that passive people need to constantly ask themselves why they are this way in order to keep themselves from avoiding their own issues.
“Are you avoiding the argument because of general anxiety?” she asks. “If so, then you need to learn that the sky will not fall if you speak up for yourself in a reasonable way. Avoidance can set off a vicious circle. If you avoid the things you fear, then you will be training yourself to continue to be fearful.”
People who tend to avoid arguments do so because they don’t feel like delving into drama over small things. But those small things eventually seem like a big thing which causes you to overreact.
“When you finally reach your limit, it could be over a relatively small thing,” says Thomas. “As a result, your reaction to that small thing can seem out of proportion. So you will have to draw and enforce reasonable boundaries before you lose your temper.”
It’s no secret that passive people hate conflict and find it uncomfortable, due to the fear or rejection or wondering what will happen if they’re suddenly put on the spot. But, per marital social worker Laura MacLeod, effective fighting comes when the passive person stays focused and looks at conflict as a problem to be solved.
“Stick to the facts,” she says. “If the other person is getting riled up or accusatory, state that. ‘You’re very aggressive. You’re way off track. That’s not what I said.’ Stating what you see — just the observation — gets the argument back to a civil place and you can work through the facts of the issue,” she says. “Be methodical and clear.” And, in the likely outcome, you’ll start to realize that arguments aren’t that big of a deal.