Question of the Week: How Confrontational Are You?

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Are you conflict-averse and, if so, do you associate this with introversion/extroversion?

A reader on my Psychology Today blog posted a comment describing himself as a strong introvert, but a confrontational, challenging, and highly verbal one. He wonders how unusual it is for these traits to go together. Here’s the comment:

“Test after test places me on the introvert spectrum.  In most respects, I am
your classic case: I become irritable after long exposure to social
situations; I have few close friends; I obtain more enjoyment from being
alone or with a few people than spending time in crowds.  Etcetera, etcetera.
However, one trait I do have that seems to go against the introverted grain
is my method of confrontation.  I am extremely confrontational.  I enjoy
bickering, challenging people.  Tell me I cannot do something?  I’ll do it.
Criticize me?  Watch out.  I am not confrontational in quiet, passive ways,
either.  I will engage in the most brutal verbal arguments without a second
thought.  Is it a quality that comes from being in a family of debate
enthusiasts and public speakers?  Most of my relatives have participated or
are participating in something that requires public speaking.  And we’re
very, very good.  Confrontation has never been an issue for this introvert.
Now tell me, am I an anomaly?”

Many studies do suggest a correlation between introversion and a dislike of conflict. This is partly because a subset of introverts (no one knows how large) are born “highly sensitive,” a trait identified by the psychologist Elaine Aron in a series of groundbreaking research papers. Highly sensitive people tend to react strongly to physical stimuli such as bright lights and loud noises, and emotional stimuli such as moonlight sonatas and unexpected acts of kindness. And they tend to dislike conflict.

But I’m curious to hear about your experiences.

How confrontational are you? How competitive?  How do you react to criticism? Would you describe yourself as highly sensitive?


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37 Comments »

37 Comments

  1. Catherine on 03.05.2011 at 06:47 (Reply)

    Clearly, I was born in the sensitive subset, and my husband wasn’t. That explains so much! I want to learn how to be more assertive, but it always feels so uncomfortable when I try.

    1. Susan Cain on 03.05.2011 at 14:42 (Reply)

      Catherine,

      One of the best pieces advice I’ve ever heard re: this problem came from a class I took in law school, given by Roger Fisher, author of “Getting to Yes.”

      He advised: “Be soft on the people, hard on the problem.”

      This is great advice for everyone, but it works especially well for people who are not naturally assertive. You can be your regular self ,but still stick to your guns.

  2. Angelina on 03.05.2011 at 07:38 (Reply)

    Half-half? I’m more confrontational than most introverts, and definitely argue a lot more, and I will most of the time step in to defend my beliefs. I also love a good debate, and I can be assertive, loud, noisy, passionate: almost overwhelmingly so for some people. However, if you place me somewhere where everyone involved is louder than me (happens all the time) I will shut up instantly, and you won’t get a peep out of me for the day. My assertiveness also increases with high self esteem: and decreases dramatically with low self esteem. Over the years I’ve coached myself so that I usually have a pretty high self esteem, so my assertiveness tends to come up quite a lot: although mostly only amongst friends or people I am so annoyed with I really don’t care what they think of me.

    1. Susan Cain on 03.05.2011 at 14:43 (Reply)

      Angelina, how have you coached yourself to have high self-esteem? What techniques have you used? Bet other readers would love to know!

      1. Angelina on 05.05.2011 at 08:03 (Reply)

        Dear Susan: Hi :-)

        First of all, congratulations on your blog. It’s really inspired me in many ways. Generally, I’ve found the best way for me to stay confident is to believe in myself, and believe in others. It’s almost stereotypical in the sense that I naturally assume everyone is a good person, until and if they prove me wrong.

        Also, I am quite comfortable in my own skin. I know my strengths and failings, and I am happy with what I have achieved so far in life. When confronting people, I can do so because I am aware of what my abilities are, and I am aware of what I believe in. The step of confronting a person is almost an afterthought: it is one of my firm beliefs that everyone should defend their beliefs.

        Furthermore, I generally don’t shy away from challenges: rather, I embrace them, and use them as opportunities to learn. Here is an article about what I mean: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201103/the-tough-track. Somewhere in that article, the blogger describes people who embrace challenges.

        Basically, I would tell people who want to become more confident to foster natural optimism which will help you relate and relax in the presence of people, become more comfortable in your own skin and come to terms with your failings, embrace challenges as opportunities instead of pitfalls, and keep on trying.

        Hope this was useful!

        1. Angelina on 05.05.2011 at 08:07 (Reply)

          I would also say to put yourself first. Love yourself, and while other people are extremely important in our society, you should always make sure you are happy and satisfied before moving on to others. If you think about it, it’s not at all selfish, because:
          1. If you don’t take care of yourself, someone else has to do it for you, and
          2. Only when you take care of yourself can you help others and contribute greater amounts to society.

  3. SnowOwl on 03.05.2011 at 07:53 (Reply)

    I am a highly sensitive introvert. Not at all competitive. When I am criticised, I ruminate for days. I avoid conflict at all cost. It even cost me my job and my health because I was a victim of bullying for years and didn’t speak up because I felt it was my duty to avoid confrontation, to be a model of calm behavior and wisdom for my peers. When I am with friends and family, I speak very little. I feel I never have anything interesting enough to talk about. However, I love giving conferences. (go figure!). For 30 years, I have enjoyed giving talks about work-related topics in front of audiences, on radio and TV. I love the adrenaline rush it gives me. I am never nervous before a talk. I have always considered this an “anomaly” and still don’t understand this behavior.

    1. Susan Cain on 03.05.2011 at 14:46 (Reply)

      So interesting. You know what, your comment that you’ve felt it was your “duty” to avoid confrontation suggests that some of your style is not only inborn sensitivity but also a social attitude you learned along the way, perhaps from parents or teachers. I wonder if you feel on some level that in the arena of public speaking you’ve been given a free pass to assert yourself, because you know this is what’s socially expected. (Highly sensitive people are, as you’d imagine, very attuned to social expectations.)

  4. Lisa Jenn Bigelow on 03.05.2011 at 07:57 (Reply)

    I’m both competitive and very sensitive — not a good combination. If it’s a game, I want to win; if it’s a debate, I want to be right. But I hate confrontation, fret terribly over what people will think of me, and worry about hurting other people’s feelings myself. Over time I’ve learned that I feel more healthy, mentally, if I stay out of competitive situations, whether it’s an online debate or a game of Scrabble. I try to stick to discussions with friends, not anonymous strangers, whom I can trust not to railroad me or vice versa. I try to stick to group games in which everyone is having so much fun that the scores don’t matter.

  5. Luna on 03.05.2011 at 08:09 (Reply)

    I used to be too non confrontational then went too far to the other end of the spectrum. Now I tend to wait things out. Wasn’t it the Dalai Lama who said sometimes silence is the best response. I find I have rarely regretted my silence but too often regretted my words.

    1. Jackie on 03.05.2011 at 09:34 (Reply)

      I like what Luna says….

      I have an internal conflict about confrontation and speaking out. I am a debater, and will have difficulty backing off… and as Luna says, I have never regretted my silence, but have often regretted my words.

  6. Esha on 03.05.2011 at 09:27 (Reply)

    I’m totally non-confrontational, and I’ve ended up with more than a few moments of non-authenticity because of it. But I just abhor conflict and disagreement; they negatively affect me both emotionally and physically.

    1. Susan Cain on 03.05.2011 at 15:16 (Reply)

      I know what you mean, Esha. I’m thinking, though, that you probably abhor inauthenticity too…I wonder is it worth sometimes weathering the short-term emotional/physical effects of conflict, for the sake of the longer-term goal of being true to yourself?

    2. Christy on 03.05.2011 at 18:17 (Reply)

      I also am a non-confrontational introvert, but I used to be quite argumentative. I grew up in a quarrelsome family and was a terrible quarreler until one day in college when my dearest friend and I were sniping at each other and I realized how much I hated it and how much it upset me inside, and I simply decided I would stop being quarrelsome. So I did.
      But now I have to work on allowing myself to disagree with people, in gentle ways, because, like Esha, I end up feeling unauthentic if I let certain occasions go by without speaking my mind. I feel like I’m lying if I don’t say, “I disagree with you,” or such on certain topics. I do not wish to suppress myself, but I also don’t wish to come over harsh and overbearing, and I tend to fall into either of those failings rather than finding a nice middle ground.

  7. Maureen Soules, CID, IIDA on 03.05.2011 at 10:31 (Reply)

    I’m confrontational in the sense that I won’t start a fight, but if someone pushes me the wrong way, I’ll be sure to end it. I would consider myself highly sensitive; I’m easily annoyed by loud people or children in restaurants, I don’t mind crowds if I can lose myself in the corner; that sort of thing. The only time I shrink away is if someone becomes verbally abusive, or starts to interrupt and shout me down. Then, I’ll throw in the towel and walk away. I’m competitive, but only with myself. I prefer to help others improve their own game than to compete with them, but I’m never satisfied with my own performance.

  8. chel on 03.05.2011 at 10:39 (Reply)

    Unfortunately, I’m confrontational but I won’t actually CONFRONT anyone. So I stew about it and blow it up in my heart and head and then I just want up having this crazy internal battle with myself.

  9. Carmen on 03.05.2011 at 12:55 (Reply)

    I can see parts of myself in the posts by Angelina,Luna, and Chel.Thanks to each of you for such eloquent posts.
    I am competitive as far as trying to outperform myself as compares to the last results of something I did. I also love word games like Scrabble and Lexulous, and I like to win, but it doesn’t upset me if I lose.
    I still get very, very hurt when someone says something that I feel is abusive in retaliation for my stating my opinion in a neutral way. I posted recently that I felt appalled by the celebratory air in the U.S. upon the announcement that Bin Laden had been killed. Another person posted that unless I’d been in the military, I could “choke on it”, along with other words implying that I am a sissy for being nonviolent, and an F Bomb or two. I became so upset on reading the comment that I was shaken and nauseous for the remainder of the day. This, from a complete stranger’s comments!
    I know that I have a good mind and I love to write, but when it comes to responses full of ugliness or cursing, I seize up and cannot defend myself or my words. I hate to be in front of an audience and feel better with small, respectful, intelligent people.

    1. Susan Cain on 03.05.2011 at 15:04 (Reply)

      Carmen,

      Thx much for your very honest post. I have an idea for you. I wonder if you can use your writing as training for withstanding criticism. When you receive comments like the ones you describe, yes you will freeze up and feel nauseous — but no one else will see you reacting this way; you’ll have the freedom to react, talk yourself down, and move on, with no eyes on you. Eventually you might find that you’re more and more able to withstand it — especially if you write things you truly believe.

      What do you think?

    2. Angelina on 05.05.2011 at 08:27 (Reply)

      Quote: ‘I hate to be in front of an audience and feel better with small, respectful, intelligent people.’

      Don’t we all? I can emphasize with what you say: it’s very strange how big a role criticism plays in our lives! While it would be amazing to live in a world where only respectful, intelligent people existed, that is clearly not yet possible.

      What I would suggest is not to take it personally. It sounds odd, but if you think about it, people who post those comments certainly aren’t taking it personally.

      ‘Personally’ implies they know you as a person, and they don’t. They are blanket stereotyping you according to what you say, which is one of the great evils of the internet. When people object in this way, they are reacting to what you SAY, or what you BELIEVE. They don’t have anything against you, exactly. For example, I debate in high school, and when I give a point in a debate, it will almost inevitably be under attack. However, I know that my opponents don’t have anything against me, exactly: just my point. For exchanges over the internet, the same style of thinking may be applied.

      For public speaking, I learnt it the hard way: by forcing myself to go debating and attend public speaking competitions, and then finding the will to slowly get better. This is what I would recommend if you want to eradicate those particular fears. However, I can think of one thing: Before you speak, visualize yourself talking. Visualize your speech, and what it should sound like, as well as how you should act. This will both boost your confidence and increase your chances of doing things better.

      Not sure if you find this useful. Good luck!

  10. Carmen on 03.05.2011 at 12:57 (Reply)

    “…with small GROUPS of respectful…” Lol!

    1. Carmen on 03.05.2011 at 19:14 (Reply)

      That’s a very nice idea. I will try it.
      Yesterday, I was just very overwrought about the whole situation, but in a way “I had it coming” because I had written something against mainstream opinion. I should have expected fallout and braced myself for it.
      I do love to write and I express myself much better in writing than I do in spoken conversation.
      I also realize that at least some of the reason for my sensitivity to criticism is due to having grown up in an abusive family…I think I’m probably tied with Woody Allen as to who has been in therapy longest :D… but this is a new, safe idea of how to slowly grow a thicker skin.
      Thank you, Susan!

      1. Susan Cain on 03.05.2011 at 21:07 (Reply)

        You’re welcome!

      2. Susan Cain on 03.05.2011 at 21:07 (Reply)

        P.S. Let me know if it works!

  11. Valerie on 03.05.2011 at 19:26 (Reply)

    I have always hated loud noises and bright lights. I never related it to being an introvert! I always thought that either I was strange or my friends were because I never wanted to go to listen to a band or to loud restaurants. I do not like confrontation. I have to be pushed pretty far before I will push back, thinking everyone has a right to his/her opinion. But as I am getting older, I am getting better at standing up for myself and expressing my opinion.

  12. Rebecca on 04.05.2011 at 19:00 (Reply)

    I completely identify with the original poster. I am introverted, but I actively engage in debate and discussions happily. I have no problems with crowds or presenting information in front of them;In fact I am more comfortable in a large group versus a small group, unless it is people I am close to (family).
    However,I often feel drained and abhor social ‘niceties’,small talk, gossip, and cliques.More often than not, I prefer introverted tasks.The Meyers Briggs types me as an intj.

    1. Angelina on 05.05.2011 at 08:32 (Reply)

      How utterly bizarre: I have a friend, an INTJ, who also actively participates in debating. He is completely confident, and is the only one who can match my hyperactivity when I get excited. Also, all INFJs I know in real life (amazingly, including me there are THREE of them, which is probably very rare) are supremely confident. Not in the sense that they are inclined to confront people, but in the sense they are excellent debaters, and have no qualms about public speaking and themselves at all.

      Is there some sort of pattern I see here, or is this a statistical anomaly?

      1. RJ on 21.01.2013 at 09:19 (Reply)

        I get typed the same usually, and I’m the same way. On that “highly sensitive” inventory.. I took it awhile back and was about 50/50 (on ‘yes’ vs. ‘no’ responses.)
        I tend to be reactive and confrontational as a direct, well, reaction to what I seem to almost unconsciously interpret as confrontation— a lot of small talk (and talk in general, which includes things like TV) is just “noise” to me, something my mind has to block out to maintain inner peace. Same goes for emotional reactivity, though, it’s like a bunch of noisiness that is “coming at me”-my body seems to automatically read it as a threat, I get irritable pretty quickly. But anger tends to drive logical reasoning for me (seems like for most, it’s the opposite?) and I start to just come off as very argumentative, defensive (pretty much lawyer-like)-normally I’m not judgmental at all. In fact, part of the intj thing is you tend to think like a scientist and judgments, if they are needed at all, are your end goal; value-based judgments typically arise only in a situation interpreted as threatening or emotionally/socially overwhelming, so it totally makes sense to me. And there isn’t much about me that I think makes sense, so I wouldn’t overwhelm myself with the “anomaly” thread here. ;)

  13. RaMoNa on 22.08.2011 at 17:39 (Reply)

    I’m introvert but I love a good intellectual debate on any subject I can relate to (typically sort of introvert ones - political philosophy rather than current affairs, personality theories rather than gossip about royals, cookery techniques rather than sports, linguistics rather than fashion etc), BUT only when I’m in a reasonable good mood and have enough energy (not already overwhelmed from too much socializing).

    When I disagree with someone, I likely don’t actively seek confrontation, especially not just for the sake of it - it just costs too much energy - , but when I’m asked for my opinion or if speaking up somehow matters for my work or the well-being of me or the carefully selected people I feel strongly connected to, or simply someone helpless/innocent needs support (my sense of justice can turn me into someone seeming quite extrovert) then I’ll pull no punches and shoot arguments.
    Which is something that sometimes surprises people who previously thought I was ‘shy’ (“I never knew you could be so passionate” - I’ve heard that more than once :D ) and occasionally isn’t well received by people who are more concerned about appearing harmonic and being liked by others than I am - to them my way of asking questions or saying what I think can come across as ‘blunt’. (Sometimes that’s because they don’t notice that I meant something tongue-in-cheek.)

    Anyway, for me, introversion and selective confrontation go well together.

  14. Vicki Cook on 29.11.2014 at 08:11 (Reply)

    Non-confrontational and non-competitive. My philosophy in life is “Why can’t we all just get along?”

    1. bruce on 04.12.2014 at 15:31 (Reply)

      bcoz this world is full of ignorant, selfish, mean, jealous, and nasty people - that’s why!

      u have a very noble thought (one I used to have in my younger days) but I have lived long enough to know it is not attainable on earth - good luck trying!!

  15. Gabrielle on 29.11.2014 at 10:34 (Reply)

    As an INFP, I typically do not like conflict. I love peace, quiet and harmony - that’s the empathic and feeling side of me. However, my values matter tremendously to me. If anyone challenges my values in any way, I can become very passionately defensive of them and I will stand my ground. I don’t think the way a person deals with conflict is entirely determined by their introverted or extroverted nature, but maybe more so by their entire complement and specific combination of preferences on the different personality scales.

  16. Gabrielle on 29.11.2014 at 10:34 (Reply)

    I am the textbook description of an introvert, and always have been. I absolutely LOATHE confrontation. I will do ANYTHING to get around it. It literally makes me physically sick to my stomach.

  17. Shaun on 29.11.2014 at 19:27 (Reply)

    Your article highlights a lot about my life. I sneeze if light is too bright, feel weird pain behind my eyes if I get too close to the vehicle in front of me while driving, feel swimming water as cold when others are fine with it, have a mild freak out (on the inside) when I’m close to the sound of power tools…I could spend a day listing.

    Criticism cuts deeper than what it should (I work hard to not let it), and confrontation - it’s like the language part of my brain shuts down, with conversation in general having a similar, slightly milder effect.

    And try fitting in as one of the boys when you’re a heterosexual, highly sensitive male. Not being an outcast becomes an art form.

    Fortunately, there are enough positive aspects of being sensitive that make life a not just bearable, but very enjoyable, although somewhat-more-complicated-to- navigate experience. However, as much as I love the fact I can be just as buzzed being by myself for hours in the setting of an incredible landscape, as when I got roped into jumping out of a plane, I would LOVE to have more control over my sensitivity, so that my desire, caring or enjoyment within healthy relationships, arguments, or social activities isn’t at near constant war with the extreme urge to get the hell out of there.

    1. bruce on 04.12.2014 at 15:46 (Reply)

      Shaun,

      Thanks for the post….for the longest time, I felt I was the only one on this planet in the situation you describe….and wanting to get the hell out of this place !

      I have been searching for an answer all my life, and stumbled onto this blog today…thank you JESUS !!

      I am old now but at least in my final years I have ‘closure’ if you will.

      Thank you too Susan….GOD bless all you good, sensitive, kind hearted souls !

  18. Antony on 29.11.2014 at 22:58 (Reply)

    This is a huge area of struggle for me. I’m sensitive, hate conflict but end up not getting what I want or need because I’m not assertive. Knowing what to deal with or let go is tricky. I don’t want to be seen as overly critical or too harsh so I say nothing and let it run rings around my head.

  19. Maxine on 30.11.2014 at 15:18 (Reply)

    I find this correlation fascinating, because I am highly introverted, sensitive to bright light and noise, and never knew that these could be related. I have a strong dislike of confrontation, and am not competitive. Not only I but others recognize my sensitive nature. Thank you for sharing this.

  20. Craig on 17.12.2014 at 20:58 (Reply)

    My boss once thought if he sent me to Assertiveness Training, that I would be a more effective worker. I got really pummped at the training, came back to work and told my boss, “I quit”. I felt wonderful !

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