“If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” — Nelson Mandela
“You’re a Nazi!” he screamed.
“I’ll have you arrested!” his voice bellowed down the hall.
He’d lost all control. He wasn’t making any sense. He was pacing back and forth behind his desk, darting forward every now and again to shake his finger in my face. All of this came out of nowhere and escalated quickly. Something about it was comical, though I tried not to laugh.
Others soon told me of their shocking encounters with him, the absurd, offensive insults he’d hurled at them, their dismay. It was his pattern. He was the boss, and everyone was afraid of him. It is the way things worked.
What I was there to talk about was of little consequence. He was a tea kettle ready to pop off on any on anyone, at any time. He was rabidly confrontational, and explosive anger was the vehicle he used to get everyone to do whatever he wanted.
I’ve had close, personal, and at times messy encounters with rabidly confrontational persons on a few occasions in my life. Once was while I was a student, twice on the job, and a few times outside of work. You know, these people are out there. We’re all bound to come across them at one time or another.
I was studying peace and conflict at the university at the time of my first ‘encounter.’ We had just finished some study on conflict dynamics and nonviolent resistance. I figured that it would be useful to develop some techniques for dealing with aggressive persons if I expected to be of any use working for peace and justice.
So it was then that I began to embrace rabidly confrontational persons as my teachers.
Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert on this or anything. This kind of stuff is far from easy. One would have to be on a higher spiritual plane to be a true expert in dealing with such persons. What I have is some background in studying conflict dynamics, and some personal experiences to draw from. I feel like I’ve done alright in those situations, and I’m continually learning.
Tips for engaging effectively with rabidly confrontational persons
So here are my tips for engaging effectively with rabidly confrontational persons.
Tip 1: Calm yourself in the moment. Breathe.
Whether you are aware that someone is rabidly confrontational or not, you can expect that confrontation can happen at any moment, and it will escalate quickly. It can feel like a rush of stress and emotion. Chances are you’ll either have a fight or flight response. Resist both.
Take a breath. Calm yourself. There is already one person in this situation who is out of control. Don’t let there be two. You’ll make better decisions and ultimately be able to control the situation if you are able to calm yourself in the moment. Let them explode and wait for the calm after the storm. Then make your move.
This is relevant both in face-to-face exchanges and in email communications. When receiving provocative email communications there is a tendency to want to respond right away. Resist the urge. Take a breath. Reflect. And formulate a response when you’re feeling calm and more level-headed.
Tip 2: Remember that it’s not about you. Don’t take it personal.
Persons who are rabidly confrontational have a tendency to project their own issues onto others. They go easily on the attack. Don’t worry, it’s not about you. Don’t take it personal. This is their pattern, their issues, their problem.
If you take things personally, they have won. Don’t let them have that power over you. Shake it off. Let it go. Their words can’t hurt you.
Tip 3: Speak from a place of compassion, but stand firm.
Rabidly confrontational persons tend to have piles of personal issues they are dealing with (or more likely not dealing with!). There is no way to know what is really going on with these people. At the very least, we can have sympathy for them as a human unable to handle his or her emotions, consumed by their own anger.
As much as they make others suffer, they too suffer from their own ways. Their confrontational manner would only isolate them from everyone, even those who are close to them.
But while is important to recognize and acknowledge the suffering of the other, it is no reason to allow them to bully you or other persons. Try to strike a balance between showing compassion while now allowing their anger to dictate the situation. There may be windows of opportunity to show compassion, in words or deeds, and in some cases this may soften the person.
Tip 4: Don’t be afraid to tell them when their behavior is not acceptable. Choose your words wisely.
While it is possible that a rabidly confrontational persons may treat you with dignity and respect amidst a confrontation, this is unlikely. Chances are there may be shouting, insults, threats, or worse.
I feel like persons who have this pattern are seldom told that their behavior is unacceptable. It can go on unchecked for years, decades even. Others may have different opinions on this, but I feel like such deplorable behavior needs to be checked, no matter position or status of the rabidly confrontational person.
My efforts to do so however, have not always gone well. Telling a rabidly confrontational person that their behavior is unacceptable can be a slippery slope. Such people are easily triggered. One must be skillful in their delivery of such messages. I’d like to think, however, that no matter how it is taken in the moment, such things need to be said, and maybe it will make a difference in the long-run.
One thing I’ve been reflecting on and practicing is being skillful in delivery of such messages. Let me know if you come up with any good strategies‚Ä¶
Tip 5: Draw it out. Then decide if it is worth engaging further.
I’ve found that whatever the confrontation, it is unlikely to get resolved in the heat of the moment. It is often necessary and helpful for you to draw it out. Give the person time to cool off, then revisit the issue. This also gives you time to reflect on the situation and come up with a plan.
And just because someone is confronting you doesn’t mean you have to engage with them further. Sometimes the issue at hand is trivial. Sometimes the situation is changing and the issue will pass. Sometimes it’s just not worth your time. You don’t always have to continue engagement. You have a choice if you want to continue engagement or move in another direction. Own it.
Tip 6: Document your interaction(s) and inform others.
Depending on the circumstance it may be important to document your interaction(s) with this person. Sometimes everything is happening so fast it is hard to remember important details of what happened, who said what, and when, etc. Particularly if the issue that sparked the confrontation is drawn out, documentation of these details may be useful later on.
Also, if this person is prone to confrontation you can expect this is a pattern. So it is likely that there are others who have experienced similar interactions, but kept it to themselves. Talk to people. Reach out for support. You may find that there is a community of people ready to support you. In some situations this may lead to taking the issue to a public/community forum.
Tip 7: Look for common ground.
Sometimes when things are stuck it is because everyone is fixated on their positions. Your position isn’t compatible with the another. Try to figure out what their key interests are in the situation, or what underlying need they have that isn’t being met. And reflect on yours. Focusing on shared interests and needs can be a helpful way of re-framing the situation.
It isn’t always easy to figure out the underlying interests and needs of the other. The first part involves listening in the midst of the confrontation. Somewhere in the mist of their yelling, with some discernment you may be able to work out some deeper understanding of what’s going on with them. Then do some brainstorming and maybe talk to a friend about it.
You may also recognize that you need to shift away from your position and come up with an alternative way, focusing on shared interests.
Tip 8: Guide the narrative, and work towards something concrete and positive.
I’ve found that persons who are rabidly confrontational often find themselves in positions of power and authority. And persons in positions of power and authority are often accustomed to dictating the situation. If not dictating the whole situation, they at least frame the discussion.
Don’t wait for them to control the situation. If you’re seeking a positive solution, you’ll have to create the framework of discussion. Control the narrative. If they are hyper-focused on one thing, reframe the conversation. Shift the focus to something else.
Spending too much of your energy struggling against whatever situation they have put you in, by their rules, can be exhausting. Often you must look beyond the current circumstances and create a new, different path forward, towards something positive. Focus on what you want, not on what you don’t want, then map a pathway to get there. Sometimes I think about what I want in the long-term, then I work backwards from there.
Tip 9: Don’t lose focus on the issue at hand, but take opportunities to make broader change if and when they emerge.
The longer a conflict continues, the more it grows. It draws in more people and exposes deeper related issues. And before you know it the conflict is spiraling out of control. But here is where the opportunity lies. If you anticipate this, you can work it to your advantage, and you can make deeper, more lasting and broad-reaching change.
Look for issues and brainstorm possible solutions in two categories: 1) structures, and 2) culture.
Structures may include policies or the way organizations or institutions are setup. Who holds power? How is it exercised? What structures and policies support this?
Culture may include collective behaviors of all those involved or norms that have developed. How do people respond to the issue at hand? Is it healthy? What collective behaviors and norms could be changed that would help the situation?
You have to be perceptive. You have to know what to look for. And you have to have a vision for what positive change will look like. Then you have to mobilize for it.
Tip 10: Make them your ally.
This one is next level, and I haven’t quite mastered it. To get here takes time and work. You must have some understanding of the other person and they must soften a bit to understand where you’re coming from. It’s about developing a relationship with the other person.
In the long run, if you are in a situation where you’re trying to achieve something bigger, making adversaries your allies is a powerful and often necessary strategy. You may disagree, but on some level, you may work together, and the other person may support your cause.
Afterward: Take care of yourself, decompress, and find your own lessons.
Experiences with conflict and with confrontational people can be stressful, particularly when drawn out over a period of time. We’re all human. Make sure you take care of yourself.
If the conflict is ongoing, then you’ll need to take care of yourself to be able to engage fully and effectively. If the conflict has passed, take it as an opportunity to let it go completely and care for your personal wellbeing. Sometimes events have passed, but we run them over and over in our minds. This only magnifies the stress. Don’t do this to yourself.
Only when you are calm and when you’ve truly let go of whatever feelings you have associated with the confrontation will you be able to draw deeper lessons on how you can engage better next time.
I hope my tips are helpful, but you must also see that you are your own unique person. You may have a unique sense of humor or way of communicating, and in that you have unique potential for engaging with rabidly confrontational persons. Embrace it and hone your unique skills. And next time you’ll have greater capacity in managing and transforming the conflict.
Find creative ways you can transform conflict and build peace in the world around you. Download my free handout 198 Actions for Peace.