Problem: your aunt breaths fire at you whenever you see her.
She’s belittling, insulting, hurtful, and all other synonyms for “offensive” you can come up with, and her nastiness burns you. What do you do? Is this worth a big fight, an exchange of words, a gentle palaver, or should you just leave it alone? Luckily you have your handy-dandy, choose-your-battle decision tree with you, and…
Handy-dandy, choose-your-battle decision tree, you ask? Read on.
(Warning: this article is best read with a big screen)
What’s all this about choosing your battles?
Before we talk about trees and choosing battles, it might be good to give the word “assertiveness” a couple rounds.
Assertiveness is a vague friend, a word mental health providers and teachers like to fling around, as though it were a super secret weapon only they knew about. They even come up with cool designs, like this one:
You guessed it (likely from the cool design above): assertiveness is about balancing what you want and what others want.
But that’s not all. Assertiveness is passive when needed, and solid and immobile when needed. It knows when to fight a battle and when to bow out, and it recognizes that the concept isn’t all or nothing. Sometimes you fight a little. Sometimes you fight a lot.
Okay, here’s a strange one: imagine assertiveness to be a sort of knighthood. I picture a world filled with dragons and evil spirits, where women wear stunning purple dresses (that is, those women who aren’t secretly working as soldiers and mages) and knights roam the countryside looking for people to save. Knights are called to defend others, a matter of integrity, taking on life’s struggles with wisdom and know-how. They handle conflict with careful direction. They don’t fight the wrong battles. They know when it’s time to slay that dragon, when to give it just a scare, and when to leave the fight for another day. They’re supercool, and yeah they’re assertive.
Conflict happens, and it takes two to tangle.
Whether it’s a family member who’s badgering you, an unfriendly server at a restaurant, an offensive colleague at work, or a dragon breathing fire, conflict happens, and it can be filled with indecision. We’re always back to those same questions: do we step forward and hurl the worst, or do we turn on our feet and run? Is there something in between?
There’s no easy, universal answer to these questions.
This is because our response to conflict depends on our mood, thoughts, attitude, background history, needs, alertness, physical sensations, and a thousand other things… and well, that response tends to change depending on how we feel. We’re much more likely to make a fuss about delayed food in a restaurant if we’re hungry.
To complicate things, our response also depends on the other party’s mood, thoughts, attitude, etc. When the food was served ten hours late, was the waitress’ response to our complaints understanding or disinterested? Her reaction changes our reaction. Our reaction in turn changes hers. And we’re off.
How to choose your battles
So what’s the right way to handle conflict? Sometimes you just don’t know. Here are some pointers for those difficult moments.
(1) Don’t fret.
(2) First, decide how important the issue is to you. Does the outcome really make a difference? Does “letting the other person win” hurt you? Answer these questions first.
(3) Next, decide whether fulfilling your need (your “winning” the fight) hurts the other person. How badly? More than it hurts you?
(4) Now compare your answers from questions 2 & 3. If the issue is life-or-death important to the other person and nothing to you, let it go and let it go fast. If the outcome is crucial to your well-being, and you need to “win” the battle more than the other person does, pursue your desired goal respectfully but firmly, and don’t back down.
The chart below is that infamous super-duper pick-your-battles decision tree. Just follow it through, from line one to line three, and you’ll get the idea. Here’s a breakdown.
Line 1: How important is the issue to you? Choose one of the three boxes in line 1, the box that corresponds with your answer. Then follow the arrow to line 2.
Line 2: Does your “winning the battle” hurt the other person? Is your need to win greater than the other person’s? Answer yes or no, then follow the arrows to the third line.
Line 3: What’s the right strategy to deal with the problem? Read the recommendation.
What is a choose-your-battle decision tree? In basic terms, it’s a simple way to figure out what to do in tough situations. Choose a box from the first row, the one that corresponds with how you feel, then follow the arrows. The graph will hopefully point you in the right direction.
What do you do next? If the chart recommends you fight, that doesn’t mean rolling up your sleeves and throwing a punch. It suggests a wider, deeper course of action. Respectfully, wisely consider all possible reactions to the situation before acting. What are your options? What are the consequences of each action? Brain-storm a list of possible interventions, then choose the one that meets knighthood criteria: integrity, respect, empathy, self-interest, all of it. Wed yourself to that response and carry it through.
Knowing all that, we’re back to our nasty family member.
The family member who badgers you like crazy
Your aunt breaths harsh fire at you whenever you see her. She’s belittling, insulting, hurtful, and all other synonyms for “offensive” you can come up with, and her nastiness burns you. You’re not finished with the similes: she fights a one-way verbal boxing match and holds no punches. It’s bad. You’re tempted to avoid her altogether, but you’d prefer to just clout her one. At the same time, it seems too petty an issue to take on. You feel sort of foolish about it. Maybe you’re just too sensitive. What do you do? Is this worth a big fight, an exchange of words, a kind palaver, or should you just leave it alone?
Undecided, you pull out your handy dandy choose-your-battle decision tree and follow the directions. You start with the questions.
Line 1: How important is the issue to you? This is a big deal. It’s affecting your self-esteem. If 100% were life or death, you’d say you’re at a 60%.
Line 2: Does your getting what you want hurt the other person? More than walking away hurts you? You’re not likely to clout your aunt, that isn’t your style, and all other outcomes would hardly phase her. At worst, she’d get embarrassed and defensive if you confronted her in front of the family. If 100% were life or death, you’d give her a 5%.
Line 3: What’s the recommendation? If you look at the chart and follow the arrows, the third line reads “pursue the issue respectfully, firmly, and don’t back down.” That’s 100% permission to respectfully fight the battle with or without meeting halfway.
What do you do next? You brain-storm your options and consequences. Here is a partial list of interventions, both good and bad:
- Accept the situation and decide it won’t bother you anymore
- Avoid your aunt
- See if you can befriend her and understand where she’s coming from
- Be super-nice to her and see if that makes a difference
- Send her a letter expressing concerns and requesting she change
- Talk to her in private expressing concerns and requesting change
- Confront her in front of the whole family
- Fling insults back in her direction
- Record her nastiness on tape/recorder and threaten to play it in front of the entire family
- Record her nastiness on tape/recorder and threaten to play it to her underage kids
- Write a newspaper article about bullying for your college newspaper, listing her as an example. Threaten to share it with the whole family.
- Involve the matriarch (your grandmother) in the discussion. You’re her favorite grandchild.
You decide to talk to her in private. You plan to describe the problem, give her a chance to express her point of view, then explain what you’re requesting. She might back down. Maybe she won’t. If things go south, your next step is to repeat your request and respectfully offer consequences.
What’s the outcome? Your aunt is surprisingly attentive, and when it’s her turn, she talks and talks desperately. “Your hurt my feelings,” she says, and describes an obscure event from two years ago. It’s a misinterpretation, but she took it gravely, gravely enough to trigger two years of harsh comebacks. You consider your knighthood, your integrity and wisdom, and offer a friendly hand. “How about we start again fresh? It’s time we stop being hurtful to one another?” Your aunt is hesitant. There’s still a nastiness about her, but over the minutes she visibly relaxes, lowers her defense, and returns the handshake. “Done.”
This is one in a million possible outcomes. But, no matter the situation, your job is to maintain your cool and integrity, choose your actions carefully, and battle that dragon like only the wisest knight would.
Okay, that’s enough about conflict and assertiveness for the day! Pleasant battle-choosing, and see you another moment.
Check out this article on communicating with difficult people.