By: Toni Armstrong, Leadership Educator with Baltimore Leadership Guides and LEAD Sports Summit

It is day one of the long-course season.  You swam well last season, but your best friend swam better.  In fact, she beat you in your best and favorite event for the first time ever.  Although you are happy that she swam well, you’re upset that she swam faster than you.  To top it off, she doesn’t seem to be taking practice seriously and keeps goofing off and distracting you.   Your goal this season is to be more focused and dedicated, but your friend is making it difficult. What is your typical response to a situation like this?  Do you:

A. Ignore her.  When she asks if anything is wrong, you say no.  You grumble to yourself and roll your eyes when she is not looking.  You play little tricks on her to make her feel as irritated as you do.

B. Yell at her.  Tell her that her goofing off is affecting your training, that you’re a better swimmer, and that her win was just a fluke.

C. Have a calm sit-down meeting with her. Explain to her that you want to focus on your training a bit more this season and that her silliness during practice is distracting.  That you both want and need different things out of your training and that’s OK. You tell her that you value your friendship and that you are happy to goof off with her after practice. You then listen to her perspective and thoughts.

D. Do nothing.  Although your friend never seems to consider your feelings, your friendship is important and not something you want to ruin.  You would rather avoid the conflict.

Many variables go into how we respond to this situation including personality, level of irritation, experiences, the culture of the team, and goals.  Balancing friendships and competition is difficult and not an uncommon challenge in life; particularly for women. Let’s explore your dominant communication style:

A. If you respond by “ignoring her,” you are being passive-aggressive.

B. If you respond by “yelling at her,” you are being aggressive.

C. If you respond by “having a calm sit-down,” you are being assertive.

D. If you respond by “doing nothing,” you are being passive.

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Hopefully most of us recognize that C. Assertive is the best response, but why don’t we all respond that way?  Well, conflict is uncomfortable. It is contrary to our culture’s gender roles for females, and assertive women are typically viewed negatively.  This causes us to be afraid of conflict and approach it at the wrong time (when the problem has gained momentum and our emotions are too high). We need to learn how to approach conflict effectively because it is not going anywhere.

Modern psychological research on human behaviors indicates that conflict is unavoidable and actually a necessary step in the process towards success.  It is how we learn and grow, and assertive responses are the most successful. Being assertive and advocating for your needs is not selfish; it is necessary for your physical and mental health—it is a human right.   Being assertive will boost your self-esteem and help you be more successful in your personal goals and relationships.

Next time you approach a conflict, try to be more assertive by using these 5 tips:

  1. Communicate Face-to-Face – There is more to language than words.  Body language and tone all contribute to our communication and can help define our intentions.  Without them, communication is ambiguous.

  2. Use “I” – Stick with statements that include ‘I’ in them such as ‘I think’ or ‘I feel’.  Don’t use aggressive language such as ‘you always’ or ‘you never’ as it will trigger defensiveness.

  3. Agree to Disagree if Needed – Remember that having a different point of view doesn’t mean that you are right and the other person is wrong. Try to understand the other person’s point of view and don’t interrupt when they are explaining it to you.  Your realities can both be right while being different.

  4. Stay Calm – Breathe normally, look the person in the eye, keep your face relaxed and speak in a calm voice.

  5. Practice Assertiveness – Just like any other leadership skill, being assertive is something that we must intentionally think about and practice. Remember that you will sometimes do it better than other times, and that you can always learn from your mistakes.  A friend worth keeping around will appreciate your assertiveness even if it wasn’t executed perfectly.