What Your Confrontation Style and Criticism-Handling Tell Me About You

Your confrontation style is extremely telling, as is the way you respond to criticism. They throw light on important aspects of your psychology, for example, your self-esteem. They’re also a reliable predictor of your levels of success at work and in having healthy relationships. 

This post is about bringing your awareness to your confrontation style and criticism handling. I’ll also mention a few personal growth opportunities that can arise from improving your awareness of these things.

The confrontation styles

We don’t exactly lack opportunities to figure out our confrontation style! Daily life should offer you plenty.

Think about how you react on receipt of poor customer service. This just happened to me at a restaurant recently, and I felt my (generally) assertive confrontation style rising up, as I watched my more gentle dining companion shrink away. 

Let’s look the major styles.

Passive aggression

A passive aggressive confrontation style is marked by an unsuccessful attempt to mask truer feelings about things that others do which we don’t like. We are all a bit passive aggressive sometimes, and especially about those needs we feel vulnerable about communicating.

We are all passive aggressive about needs we feel vulnerable communicating Click To Tweet

For example, we might say ‘no, it’s fine, I don’t really want any fuss on my birthday’, but secretly do and wind up privately raging when people take us at our word. That’s being passive aggressive. There is usually a sense of some hostility bubbling underneath the surface.

So what does a predominantly passive aggressive confrontation style say about you?

Like any behaviour, your confrontation style is derived from a combination of nature and nature. Some personality types, for example Enneagram type ones, twos, and nines, are – very generally speaking – more likely to rely on passive aggression as a coping mechanism.

Or a passive aggressive response might be a learned behavior: you may have lifted it directly from one or both of your parents. Alternatively if they were highly volatile and you hated it, you might have adopted the alternative style as a strategy of living.

Assertive style

Apparently only around 20% of us handle our grievances in a direct and mature way. It might be best to assume you aren’t one of them, or at least that you aren’t as direct as you might think.

Those with an assertive style are clear about when someone has behaved badly towards them or is causing a problem. They aren’t happy about it, but their main aim is to find a solution. 

It seems to be deceivingly difficult to do. Here’s a few reasons why, and they are related to the same reasons I mentioned above:

  • We learned that it isn’t ‘appropriate’ to assert ourselves and say what we think.
  • We (misguidedly) think that we will hurt others more by being direct.
  • Being direct is too productive and therefore isn’t appealing (yes we can be that crazy!)

The others – passive and aggressive

Between the two extremes, there are two other possibilities for confrontation style:

Passive: Accepting things overly willingly. It’s not worth the upset. You might feel resentful, but life goes on. 

Aggressive: Getting angry and annoyed, and seeing no good reason to keep that a secret.

Be aware that you could use different strategies at different times. You may be passive-aggressive, passive and aggressive, depending on the circumstance. I definitely see myself flitting between all three. 

How can we adopt an assertive confrontation style?

So obviously, the assertive style is the clear winner.

If you’re ultra passive, I would be concerned that you are a doormat for other people. I would suggest that the main growth work is in building confidence and self-worth.

If you’re aggressive, then that can be dangerous for you and others and I would suggest that you work on bringing your awareness to the specific reasons you are quick to rage. If it were me (and it has been at times), I would look beyond the surface level reasons for the anger you feel.

As passive aggression is probably the most common confrontation style, the rest of this section is devoted to that.

Firstly, recognise that passive aggression is unlikely to be a successful approach to resolving confrontation. I personally find passive aggression, which I have been guilty of myself sometimes, extremely perplexing to deal with in my close relationships. You kind of wish people would just say what they really think.

A good book to read if you want to practice ‘hearing the need’ behind a passive aggressive statement or response is Non-Violent Communication, which also features on this list of my favorite personal growth books.

Figure out what is behind your passive aggressive confrontation style Click To Tweet

Secondly, I recommend asking yourself whether a you feel like you deserve to deliver a direct critique. If the answer is ‘no’, then consider developing your self-esteem (or looking at what in your life – or more to the point your thinking – that is causing you to experience low self-esteem).

Finally, consider the possibility that your self-esteem is okay and you’re just telling yourself a useless story about what being direct with people achieves.

Criticism handling

The way you handle criticism might not be related to your confrontation style, but if you have a passive aggressive confrontation style, then I would be surprised if you wasn’t also quite sensitive to criticism. I have a mostly assertive confrontation style, but I have historically been very sensitive to criticism from certain people, especially my parents. 

Unhealthy approaches to criticism take one of two variations:

  • Pure defensiveness: we assume whoever attacked us has no validity. 
  • We don’t question criticism enough, and make it mean we don’t deserve to exist.

It is great when you finally learn that a third possibility exists: that the criticism is correct and we are still good people, doing good things. This involves being able to localize criticism to the subject at hand instead of taking it as a character assassination. This is something that optimists are more naturally able to do.

I have found that taking this third response becomes more common as you grow your awareness levels. 

Handling criticism well boils down to being able to localize it Click To Tweet

To figure out your style, reflect on how you react when someone points out that a piece of your work is less than perfect!

How our response to criticism is formed 

No surprises here, but we learn to cope with criticism in childhood.

It is the task of all parents to communicate the bad news to us that our efforts have missed the mark. Obviously, there are different ways of going about this and your parents may have handled it poorly. The best sort of criticism leaves a child feeling that the criticism is local and that they remain loved, with the implicit view being that everyone makes mistakes.

But all parents get stretched. Even if your parents did mostly well, at some point you are likely to have received criticism in a manner which says ‘you are wrong’ as opposed to ‘what you did was wrong’. If it happened a lot, then as an adult, even the slightest critique may evoke in you an OTT response. 

I believe that it is essential to be aware of, but not helpful to over focus on, what you parents did not get right. Let’s look at something practical you can do to help you to handle criticism better.

How to change the way you handle hearing criticism

I know that for me, my own ability to handle criticism got better as I became more aware of the reasons why I’d overact to criticism sometimes (it would reactivate an old wound of shame). Practicing mindfulness has helped me to observe that.

Developing a growth mindset means you use criticism as fuel Click To Tweet

Another thing that helped was learning more about the different ego structures that exist, which improved my empathy for other people’s perspectives. Sometimes, when we are being criticized, it is more to do with the judge’s insecurities than our wrongdoing.

Finally, I think the best thing is to develop a growth mindset attitude. If you are very sensitive to criticism, it would indicate a fixed mindset. With a growth mindset, (constructive) criticism or getting negative results is converted into rocket fuel. Read Carol Dweck’s book Mindset for how to develop a more growth oriented mindset.

Summary

Confrontation style and criticism handling is a discreet little area of our personalities. But it is one that is very telling on lots of other aspects of ourselves.

Bringing awareness to our response to confrontation and criticism is what allows us to slowly convert over to more productive styles. The main takeaways:

  • Recognize that passive aggression is less successful as a confrontation style than assertiveness. Don’t criticize yourself. Have self-compassion and begin to practice being more assertive.
  • Everyone can transform their standard approach to receiving criticism. Developing your awareness levels and a growth attitude are key things that can help.

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