Three Strategies for Dealing With Difficult Conversations

If you were at CollabSpace yesterday, you may have had the chance to participate in my workshop, Handle Difficult Conversations Like a Spy, Not at $%#! We covered several strategies for handling those conversations that leave us feeling backed into corners and powerless.

In the practice of self defence, you will rapidly learn that hands-and-feet skills are only part of the equation. Self defence is an attitude and a mindset based on the belief that you are worth defending. Not all threats to your safety will be physical. Some forms of abusive behaviour – emotional and verbal – can leave people feeling powerless and trapped for their entire lives.

It’s important to understand how to decisively stand up for yourself against all forms of aggression without inciting more aggression. When it comes to adult bullies, sexual harassment or subtle undermining, here are three ways that can help you assert your worth and deter people from using you as a figurative punching bag:

Know Your Worth

Self-confidence begins with mindset. In any interaction, you are a partner in and party to the conversation. Therefore, you have a stake in it and are not required to simply absorb someone else’s perceived superiority, just because they say you should. Even the Queen of England takes feedback from her underlings, provided that they present it with tact, confidence and proper manners. That meathead in the Senior VP chair can handle it if you can.

Always cultivate the mindset that you are a person whose input matters, who deserves to be treated with respect, and who has the confidence to act in your best interest if treated disrespectfully. This is not about being combative; It’s about not being a pushover who wishes others would stop stepping all over them.

Finding your worth can be complicated if you’re currently living through or after a struggle that has depersonalized you or put you in an abusive situation. Although you can do a great deal of self-development through resources such as reading, online workshops, audio programs and meditation, it’s sometimes (often!) best to seek out a teacher, mentor or coach to help get you through the scary stuff.


Set Your Boundaries

There are two kinds of psychological boundaries: Internal and External (generally speaking, and remembering that I speak from personal and anecdotal experience, not from the perspective of a qualified psychologist). Internal boundaries are those which define what you will let influence your internal state. For example, if I call you a “raving lunatic”, your internal boundary may be simply “I don’t accept unqualified and low-brow criticism from anyone,” making that phrase just a bunch of words which you quickly discountenance. If your internal boundary is weak, you may feel hurt or insulted by that. Take a good look at what your internal boundaries are, and then reset them if need be.

External boundaries are those which you set for others. For example, if a friend of mine is joking around with me and says “You’re retarded,” I might say, “Jack, I’m not cool with using that word as an insult because it’s hurtful to people with disabilities. If you want to call me names, that’s fine, but at least come up with something a little more clever. Dummy works for me.” Just because some people lack “Sending” boundaries doesn’t mean you have to be on “Receive” 100% of the time. Notice, by the way, that boundary setting is not the same as censoring people, telling them to shut up, refusing to converse with them or acting offended. It’s about firmly establishing your notion of being treated with respect.


Communicate With Forcefulness, Not with Force

On that note, there’s a difference between assertiveness and aggression. In declaring your boundaries and standing up for yourself, you will often need to be assertive. It’s the difference between telling an unwanted visitor, “Thank you for dropping by, but I can’t accommodate you at the moment. Good evening” and slamming the door in his face.

Assertiveness requires confidence, tact, composure and the ability to not only select the right words for the interaction, but also the tone, facial expression and body language that accompany the words.


Here’s an example of aggressiveness:

Male Coworker: “Hey Jessie, you don’t have to try so hard to impress the boss. You’re gonna get by on your looks anyways, so you don’t have be so pushy.”

Jessie: “Mike, don’t talk to me like that. You should shut your mouth before you find out how pushy I can get. Ass.”

Jessie’s well within her rights to push back against Mike, but the response will probably get her laughed off and garner more of the same behaviour, reinforcing Mike's stereotypical sexist attitude. If she (and this goes doubly for men, as the last thing you need is to be known in turn as a bully, meathead, or someone lacking a sense of humour) uses tact and confidence assertively, chances are this will be the last time this guy talks to her like that.

Jessie: “Listen Mike, I appreciate what you’re trying to say, as well as the compliment. The thing is, I’m more than a just pretty face, and I’m sure a guy like you can handle a little competition from me… can’t you?”

This show of confidence not only disarms Mike, but puts him back on his heels, as he now has to consider and re-prove his own worth without looking like a bigger jerk, and without looking like a pushover. The only way out of this for him is to smile and acknowledge that she’s out-clevered him.

Bear in mind, these are concepts; the “what” of the situation. To learn the “how”, you must commit to a learning process, which is exactly what we provide through our hand-to-hand and self-defense programs at Ronin Training. We’re so much more than just fighting off bad guys – we teach you how to cultivate your inner strength and confidence.

When you are ready to move from “why” and “what” to “how,” you are most welcome to join us at an Urban Combat Systems class at Collabspace:

70 Bongard Ave., Back Entrance

Tuesday 7:00-8:15 PM

Sunday Noon-1:15 PM


@RoninTrng & @UCSOttawa