Many autistic adults get told they don’t seem autistic. This is because they have lived their lives learning, copying and masking communication differences to fit into a predominantly neurotypical world.
Communication happens when one person sends a message to another person. This can be verbally or non-verbally. Interaction happens when two people respond to one another – a two-way communication.
Two-way communication between individuals who both speak different languages for example would obviously be difficult. To achieve two way communication, they would both need to make an effort. If, during the two-way communication, one participant felt strongly about a requirement, they might need to become more assertive.
Assertive communication is an ability to express positive and negative ideas and feelings in an open, honest and direct way.
Individuals who have an autistic brain may struggle with neurotypical styles of ‘assertiveness’ and communication can become very difficult.
There are generally six main characteristics of assertiveness identified in neurotypical communication. If you have an autistic or neurodiverse brain, you’re not neurotypical, you’ll think and communicate in a different way.
Here’s a simple – and by no means thorough or complete example – of the six characteristics of assertiveness for non-autistics (neurotypicals) and some differences experienced by autistics.
Most people on the autism spectrum have difficulty interacting with others. We may have difficulty with initiating interactions, responding to others, using interaction to show people things, or to be sociable.
To neurotypicals, adult autistics may appear to have a passive response in their communication as they don’t express wishes and feelings or communicate thoughts in the same way. To fit in, we often allow others to take responsibility, to lead and make decisions. For many people with autism, it seems as if non-autistic (neurotypical) people appear to know, intuitively, how to communicate and interact with each other.
A 2016 study found that neurotypical people often quickly develop a negative bias towards autistic people in face to face social situations. Misunderstandings can lead to confrontation.
This blog post offers ideas that can be learned and practised to help with facing and hopefully, overcoming problems with confrontation.
9 Keys to Handling Confrontation
We all encounter confrontation and hostility at some points in our lives. It could occur in a personal sphere or professional environment. You may feel an individual comes across as domineering, demanding, or even abusive. Confrontation can be frightening, it can escalate into violence it can be emotionally destructive and even life-altering.
Recognising certain approaches, practising styles of communication and by understanding how to assert your rights, you may find you can transform aggression into cooperation, and mistrust into mutual respect.
Regardless of the reason for conflict, you can choose how you respond.
1. Keep Safe
The most important priority in the face of confrontation and hostility is to protect yourself. If you don’t feel comfortable with a situation, leave. Seek help and support if necessary. Contact law enforcement if you have to.
Should you decide to deal with an aggressive individual, consider the following actions.
2. Keep Your Distance and Keep Your Options Open
Not all confrontational and hostile individuals need to be engaged with, remember, your happiness and well-being is important. Unless there’s something important at stake, you can choose NOT to grapple with someone. Whether you’re dealing with an angry driver, a pushy relative, or a domineering supervisor, keep a healthy distance and avoid engagement unless you absolutely have to.
There are times when you may feel like you’re “stuck” with a very difficult person, and there’s “no way out.” In these situations, consult with friends and advisors you trust about different courses of action. Keep your options open and your personal well-being as the number one priority.
3. Keep Your Cool and Avoid Escalation
One of the most common characteristics of confrontational and hostile people is that they appear to project aggression, push your buttons and keep you off balance. If you come across a person who is maliciously behaving this way, be aware that they are choosing to create an advantage from which they can exploit your weaknesses.
If you decide you want to deal with a difficult individual (at work for example), one of the most important rules is to keep your cool. The less reactive you are to provocations, the more you can use your better judgment to handle the situation.
When you feel upset with, or challenged by someone, before you say or do something you might later regret, take a deep breath and count slowly to ten. In many instances, by the time you reach ten, you would have regained composure and figured out a better response to the issue. Slowing down on the path to a confrontation can reduce, instead of exacerbate the problem. If you’re still upset after counting to ten, take time out if possible and revisit the issue after you calm down and can gather your thoughts. If necessary, use phrases such as “this is not a good time for me to talk…,” or “let’s deal with this after we cool off…”. By maintaining self-control, we can often contribute towards a peaceful outcome.
4. Depersonalise and Shift from Reactive to Proactive
Although hostility may be aimed at you, try not to take anything personally. What others say and do is an example of how they manage to live their lives. If we are able to separate from their actions, we may feel shocked and hurt, we may feel confused and question why this happened, however the ability to ‘not take it personally’ means you have been able to develop an understanding that hostility is a form of the other person’s communication.
Being aware of the nature and source of a confrontation can help by depersonalisation of a situation. This means you may need to practise appropriately expressing your needs and feelings by using “I” statements.
“I” statements indicate ownership, they do not attribute blame. “I” statements focus on behaviour, they identify the effect of behaviour. “I” behaviour is direct and honest. It contributes to the growth of your relationship with others. An example could be; “I feel frustrated when you are late for meetings. I don’t like having to repeat information.”
Another way to depersonalise – if you can – is to imagine what it could be like to be the other person, even for just a moment. By using the phrase; “It must not be easy…” at the beginning of a sentence, you may be able to think, for example:
“My friend is so aggressive. It must not be easy to come from an environment where everyone is forced to compete…”
“My manager is really overbearing. It must not be easy to deal with all these issues at work and in her personal life…”
“This customer representative is so rude. It must not be easy to handle people’s irritation all day long…”
Of course, applying empathetic statements don’t excuse aggressive behavior. The point is to remind ourselves that most chronically confrontational and hostile people suffer within. Being aware of the struggles of others can help us to detach from the “suffering” and create a more peaceful and agreeable outcome. It can involve keeping your cool. It definitely takes courage!
5. Know Your Fundamental Human Rights
To protect yourself in situations, know your rights, and recognise if, in fact, they are being violated.
As long as you do not harm others, you have the right to stand-up for yourself and defend your rights. On the other hand, if you bring harm to others, you may forfeit these rights. Here are some of our fundamental human rights:
- You have the right to be treated with respect.
- You have the right to express your feelings, opinions and wants.
- You have the right to set your own priorities.
- You have the right to say “no” without feeling guilty.
- You have the right to get what you pay for.
- You have the right to have opinions different than others.
- You have the right to take care of and protect yourself from being threatened physically, mentally or emotionally.
- You have the right to create your own happy and healthy life.
These Fundamental Human Rights are grounded in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, laws in many democratic nations protecting against abuse, exploitation and fraud.
These Fundamental Human Rights represent your boundaries.
At times we may encounter people or organisations who do not respect these rights. Confrontation and hostility can be very frightening and intimidating and can be deployed to deprive you of your rights. This type of aggression can be used to control and take advantage of you.
Developing the courage to declare that it is you (not the person or situation) who’s in charge of your life, you can rely on these rights and use them to maintain inner strength and dignity.
6. Understand and Use Assertive and Effective Communication
Always try to remember, you have a choice. You should not be forced to interact with aggressors. If you need to interact for any reason, learn what assertive communication skills are and practise how you could use them.
Assertive communication is the ability to express positive and negative ideas and feelings in an open, honest and direct way. It recognises our rights whilst still respecting the rights of others.
It allows us to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions without judging or blaming other people. And it allows us to constructively confront and find a mutually satisfying solution where conflict exists.
So why use assertive communication?
Assertiveness means standing up for your personal rights – expressing thoughts, feelings and beliefs in direct, honest and appropriate ways.
However, attempting to act assertively without respect for the thoughts, feelings and beliefs of other people can turn into aggression.
Behaviour Rehearsal: Which is literally practising how you want to look and sound. It is a very useful technique when you first want to use “I” statements, as it helps dissipate any emotion associated with an experience and allows you to accurately identify the behaviour you wish to confront.
Repeated Assertion: This assertiveness technique allows you to feel comfortable by ignoring manipulative verbal traps, argumentative baiting and irrelevant logic while sticking to your point. With this technique, stay calm, say what you do or don’t want and stay focused on the issue.
Them “I would like to show you some of our products”
You “No thank you, I’m not interested”
Them “I really have a great range to offer you”
You “That may be true, but I’m not interested at the moment”
Them “Is there someone else here who would be interested?”
You “I don’t want any of these products”
Them “Ok, would you take this brochure and think about it?”
You “Yes, I will take a brochure”
Them “Thank you”
You “You’re welcome”
Fogging: This technique allows you to receive criticism comfortably, without getting anxious or defensive and without agreeing with criticism. To do this you need to acknowledge the criticism, agree that there may be something you need to acknowledge in what they say, but remain in a position where you can still reflect on your choice of action. An example of this could be, “I agree that there are probably times when I don’t give you answers to your questions.”
Negative enquiry: This assertiveness technique seeks out criticism about yourself in close relationships by prompting the expression of honest feelings to improve communication. To use it effectively you’ll need to listen for comments and clarify your understanding of those comments. An example of this assertiveness technique would be, “So you think/believe that I am not interested?”
It is important that both parties are sincere and not manipulative. For this type of enquiry, there needs to be an agreement to sensitively listen.
Negative assertion: This assertiveness technique lets you reflect more comfortably at negatives in your own behaviour or personality without feeling defensive or anxious, this also reduces your critics’ hostility. Tentatively and sympathetically agree with hostile criticism of your negative qualities. An example would be, “Yes, you’re right. I don’t always listen closely to what you have to say.”
Simply accept your mis-steps as facts. You can reflect on them if you choose to. You don’t need to apologise, however sometimes the discussion will develop. You may recognise you have done something that has caused a problem or unhappiness for the other person and then you may choose to apologise. It is up to you.
Workable compromise: You can always bargain for mutual goals. It’s another matter if that goal involves your self-worth, personal feelings of self-respect being negatively impacted. In this case, you may well decide THERE CAN BE NO COMPROMISE
For example, if a mutual goal is that you both want to talk about something important, the other party may demand to talk immediately. This might not be your own choice, you may be engaged in something that is important to you. An example of this assertiveness technique in this case would be, “I understand that you have a need to talk and I need to finish what I’m doing. So what about meeting in half an hour?”
7. Consider Intervention in Close Relationships
Often, an individual who is chronically confrontational and hostile simply isn’t being her or himself. Any number of reasons including life crisis, brain trauma (from auto accident, head injury, sports injury, prescription drug side-effects, etc.), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance abuse, and other factors may significantly affect one’s mood and behaviour.
Medical and/or mental health support may be needed to halt the individual from relational ruin and self-destruction. If the person in question is someone close and important to you, ask whether he or she is open to receiving professional help. Should you encounter resistance, consider asking someone whom the aggressor holds in high regard to assist you in an intervention.
8. Stand Up to Bullies (Safely)
The most important thing to keep in mind about bullies is that they pick on those whom they perceive to be weaker. When their victims begin to stand up for their rights, the bully will often back down. This is true in schoolyards, as well as in domestic and office environments.
On an empathetic note, studies show that many bullies are victims of violence themselves. This in no way excuses bullying behavior, but may help you consider the bully in a calmer way.
When standing up to bullies (in situations where something important is at stake), be sure to place yourself in a position where you can be safe, whether it’s standing tall on your own, having other people present to witness and support, or keeping a paper trail (emails, letters, notes) of the bully’s inappropriate behavior. In cases of physical, verbal, or emotional abuse, consult with counselling, legal, law enforcement, or administrative professionals on the matter.
9. Set Consequences to Compel Respect and Cooperation
Keep in mind your Human rights, it is NEVER OK to be abusive.
If you do not say “no” and set a limit, then you may inadvertently send a message that you are OK with abusive treatment. When a confrontational and hostile individual insists on violating your boundaries and doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer, you may need to set consequence.
You can refer to and attempt to use any of keys above and even use notes as prompts to calmly verbalise facts about behaviours that leave you alarmed, confused, hurt and worried.
The ability to identify and assert consequence(s) is important. Consequence gives pause to the individual you are addressing. It compels him or her to halt, shift and potentially reflect on their unwanted behaviour.
For example; you may say, “you have shouted at me a number of times and this is resulting in my feeling frightened to express an opinion. I have asked you not to shout at me. If you shout at me again I WILL report you to my supervisor.”
Understanding how to handle confrontation and hostility is part of communication. Learning and practising these skills may help you to experience less grief, greater confidence, better relationships and improved communication.