Learning to confront can improve your mental health


A Delaware Wave reader writes, 

Dear Dr. Hurd,

Our vacation home in Bethany Beach would not be complete without a copy of The Delaware Wave opened to your column! I appreciate your advice and insight.

We live in a small community in New Jersey where everybody works to keep up the appearance of their homes. My next-door neighbor, however, freely allows her two dogs to do their ‘business’ on my lawn and my driveway—where it remains until WE clean it up. We have dogs too, and we make a point of collecting their leavings from our neighbors’ property. She is quite friendly, but I feel uncomfortable addressing her about it directly. I guess I just hate confrontation. She’s as oblivious to her rudeness as I am inhibited about confronting her. What can I do?


Dear Reader,

The main issue here is your dislike of confrontation. Part of the problem is the word itself. ‘Confrontation’ sounds like a war is about to start—but there’s no need for a war over dog droppings. If a war does develop over such a thing, then it was inevitable because you were dealing with a war-like person all along. Under normal circumstances, YOU have the power to make the interaction go as well as you want it to go. (‘Interaction’ sounds so much warmer and fuzzier, don’t you think?)

For example, is there a rule, or even a sign, in your community stating the requirement to clean up after dogs? You might point to it, with a smile, after giving her a nice greeting. Or, even better, just make a friendly request. For example, ‘I know this is kind of awkward and I’m not a rule freak, but do you mind cleaning up when the dogs do their business? It’s kind of hard on the lawn.’ The key here is to choose your OWN words before interacting with her on the subject.

A lot of people who fear confrontation aren’t good at ‘thinking on their feet.’ But that’s not a problem. Since this is an ongoing issue, you have plenty of time to decide what you want to say and how to say it. Don’t memorize or over-rehearse. Just plan a rough sketch of what you want to say. Then, do as they told me back when I did my radio broadcast: Talk with a smile in your voice.

We know two things about your neighbor. One, she is oblivious to her rudeness about the dogs. Two, she’s generally quite friendly, but inconsiderate about this particular subject. It’s also just as likely she doesn’t know any better. For example, have you ever noticed that someone with a cold might sneeze into their hand—and then, with a big, damp grin, expect you to shake that hand? Others, however, would say, ‘Stay away from me. Don’t catch what I have!’ It’s clearly more polite and respectful to do the second, but some people just don’t know enough to do it. Your job? To gently educate them—for your own sake. Notice that we now have two words to replace ‘confrontation.’ One is ‘interact’ and the other is ‘educate.’

There’s always the possibility that this lady might not be so nice after all. Perhaps her friendliness is a front and she’s just provoking you. Even so, what’s the worst that can happen? It won’t go well, she’ll stalk away in a snit and the dogs will keep pooping on your lawn. So are you any worse off than before? And besides, the worst usually doesn’t happen in these situations. In fact, most people who are huffy at first often come around once they simmer down. If your neighbor is so unreasonable that she makes this a federal case, then that was a problem all along—you didn’t create it.

By the way, you also need to give yourself some credit here. If your neighbor is as friendly as you say, then it stands to reason that she would want to maintain a friendship —or at least a neighborly relationship— with you. In that case, it’s in her own self-interest to show you some consideration, lest she lose you as a friend. Again: If that’s not the case, you’re no worse off than when you started.

Some people are very much afraid of confrontation. In these extreme cases, the issue is not just conflict, but actually a fear of people. In these situations, some form of inward-looking psychotherapy might help a person figure out where this fear comes from, and how to develop strategies to reduce it.

In any case involving a fear of something, it’s always a matter of desensitizing yourself. The more you do something without suffering dire consequences, the less fearful you become. You might not ever truly like it, but, as it becomes part of your routine, you won’t fear it so much. For most people, conflict and disagreement are not everyday things, so reframing occasional confrontation as ‘interaction and education’ helps make it feel less threatening.

You asked, ‘What can I do?’ I suspect you already knew what to do. Now I’ve told you why and how to do it. The alternative is to pretend nothing’s wrong—but you’ll know that it is. Every day, day in and day out, you’ll be annoyed (and a little irritated with yourself) every time your neighbor and her well-fed dogs visit your property. Believe me, feeling that way all the time is much worse than anything you could fear from confronting her.