Friday, May 26, 2006

The Psychology of Confrontation

Have you ever noticed how frightened people are of confrontation--even if it just means the slightest bit of displeasure from another person? Normally, these non-confronters think of themselves as "very good and moral people" and believe the reason they do not confront is to save another's feelings. But in truth, they are so afraid of causing themselves a moment's displeasure, that they will do anything to get out of being direct with another person.

Case in point: one day our office secretary had to be fired. She had been given numerous warnings and told how to improve her performance, but to no avail. She continued to ignore requests to be in the office to answer the phones, call us when patients had important messages and well, you get the idea. Everyone in the office agreed that she needed to be let go, but would not fire her. Finally, I was asked to do the dirty work. As much as I did not like it, I knew that the secretary was bad for business and had to go. Yes, it was a scene. I was direct, told her why we were letting her go and told her I hoped she found other more suitable work. She burst into tears. Naturally, the others in the office had fled.

There have been a number of times in my life that friends, family or others have asked me to assist them in telling somebody no, or give someone information that was very difficult. In some cases, I have done it because no one else would. When my father was sick with cancer, none of my family wanted to tell him that we had hired a nurse to help us as he did not want a stranger in his home. I totally understood but there came a point where we needed medical assistance. No one had the nerve to tell my father and asked me to do it. I did, but not without a great deal of pain and difficulty. But the alternative of having no help was worse.

I sometimes wonder about the difference between people who will confront others in a direct manner and those who will not. I am frequently told that the former group is vicious or insensitive but I think it is just the opposite. It takes a great deal of bravery and self discipline or sometimes kindness to be direct with other people. I am not talking about the kind of confrontation that is just to get one's jollies, like telling someone off, but rather the type of confrontation that makes one unpopular, but is necessary to produce positive, constructive change in the long run. Those who wish to take the moral high ground and lie to themselves about their "superiority" and compassion by avoiding confrontation and having others do their dirty work know deep down what they are. Or they sublimate their feelings by posting anonymously on other people's blogs to say impolite things to people that they would be terrified to confront in the real world.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think this also extends into many of the antiwar crowd who want to avoid conflict at all costs.

Ritchey Ruff

3:02 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger BobH said...

It's called cost-benefit analysis. Welcome to the wonderful world of economics and economic psychology (which, Helen, you profess to have no interest in). As for the secretary, there was a non-zero probability that she would turn violent and/or try to injure the office members in some way. Same with breaking up with a boyfriend or girlfriend - he or she might try to retaliate, in the case of the girlfriend, perhaps by going to the police and accusing the her ex-boyfriend of rape. After a while, the knowledge of these risks becomes embedded in our emotional biases and we don't even think about it anymore.

I suppose that people who are being socially rejected in some way have to figure out some attributional scheme so that they are still "good" and "valuable" people. One way is to blame the bad situation on other people, thinking of them as "bad". And of course bad people deserve to be punished.

3:04 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


So what you are saying is that if I believed the secretary would have turned violent, I would not have fired her?

3:10 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Mercurior said...

sometimes you have to take a stand, i have told friends uncomfortable things, a few have become ex friends, but some realise that i had to do it. it was my own personal morals saying it.

right is right, wrong is wrong, all i do is state my own beleif in that regard and they can ignore it, or not. but i did my duty as decreed by my own beleif system.

3:13 PM, May 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's the difference between self-esteem and self-respect. Someone who values the former will shy away from a confrontation because both parties' self-esteem is usually damaged. Capitulating to a bully allows both the bully and victim to feel good about their actions. However, a responsible adult understands that she can't feel good about herself if she can't respect herself.

One of the false dilemmas I've been pondering ever since high school is, "Would you rather be well-liked or well-respected?" My point is that if you behave in a respectable manner, the important people in your life will like you, and everyone else can pound sand in their collective ass. For example, a high school teacher who's a complete pushover is well-liked, up until the point where the students start requiring the material they should have learned. Conversely, a hardass may not be well-liked, but if he's a good teacher, then his students will remember the material.

Incidentally, this is what I interpret Kim du Toit's "Pussification" essay to say. A MAN doesn't walk away from a confrontation, he settles it with sufficient and appropriate force, whether as innocuous as apologizing to a drunk for stepping on his toes, or shooting a home invader DEAD.

3:24 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger David Foster said...

Many years ago, a fellow manager at work complained constantly about his secretary. Then one day, following a reorg, she would up working in my organization.

Her performance appraisals showed no trace of his claimed dissatisfaction.

3:30 PM, May 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good observation. We all take the probability of the cost of a response into account when considering a confrontation. Each individual will make his own evaluation, and then act based on his own attitude towards risk.

Some people will see a high probability of a high cost in a confrontation, while others may see a lower probability and cost. Then their personal attitude towards risk determines how they act.

There really is no dividing line between those who will confront and those who will not. There is a sliding scale based on the situation and evaluation of risk.

As a society we train and employ special people to handle high risk confrontations. So, maybe we can ask why the rest of us avoid such confrontations.

While it's interesting to speculate on why people avoid risky confrontations, it's even more interesting to speculate on the people who think they don't make such calculations.

3:31 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger ronin1516 said...

I think the anti-war crowd, mostly pussies to a man, like to feel "better" or "superior" than either the soldiers in the field, or people who support the war, by being anti-war or anti Military, or pretending to be against "militarism".

I too have never been afraid of confrontation, and have had to take care of certain situation at work. Once we had a guy who threatned to come back and shoot up the place, so even the boss was afraid of what this guy might od, so, he made me do the firing!!!

5:08 PM, May 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I suspect your colleagues sense that you take satisfaction from confrontation and the idea that you are different. So, they just shift the task over to you and everybody wins. They use you; you use them.

5:39 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

Confrontation is like Tabasco sauce. Sometimes it's the right idea, but usually only in small doses.

6:42 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

As for the war in Iraq, 60% of Americans now think that that was a mistake, according to the polls. Are 60% of Americans "pussies to a man"? Do that many Americans detest confrontation? Do you they feel superior to the other 40%? No, the explanation lies elsewhere. I think that most of these 60% do respect the troops and don't feel superior to anyone in particular. They think that the war in Iraq is illogical, and unwinnable because it is illogical. And I am one of those people.

6:56 PM, May 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Is it accurate to say 60% is anti-war?

8:04 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Melissa Clouthier said...

When it comes to confrontation there seems to be three factors 1)personality 2)morality and 3)wisdom. Some people are very blunt in their every day interaction. It takes no more courage for them to confront than it takes most people to brush their teeth. Some people shun confrontation--they are indirect personalities. Their communication is always indirect. Even when they view themselves as confronting a situation, the other person might not come out sure of their opinion.

Second, you have people who have an almost true North moral compass. The best judges have this trait--an ability to see through the arguments to the right and wrong of the circumstance without getting distracted by non-issues.

Finally, you have people who see the right and wrong of a situation but lack wisdom in applying their judgement. They might know what and why, but they don't know when, where, or how.

Those who handle confrontation best know how to modulate their inborn personality trait (soften their approach, strengthen their approach), clearly see the right or wrong and what must be done to correct it, and wisely use the knowledge to attempt the best outcome with the least peripheral damage.

Finally, there are those who simply can't bear being the "bad guy". It's an ego thing. They desire so much to be liked that they will do anything to obtain favor and not fall from graces--and that might hurt themselves or others in the long-run but they don't care. This trait demonstrates weakness and lack of character more than anything.

Ross Perot's runningmate James Stockdale was a POW and he said the #1 mistake guys made was wanting to be liked by their captors. He said the turncoat POWs all made an active choice--they preferred being liked, to doing right. He said it was the biggest mistake of leadership.

After a fair number of hirings, firings, and delivering difficult news to patients and family members, I think he was right.

8:20 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Greg Kuperberg said...

That depends. If anti-war means anti the war in Iraq, then yes, it's 60% of the voters. If it means anti war in general, or maybe just anti the United States fighting wars, then it's far fewer people. Supporters of the war in Iraq tend to lump all of these cases together.

60% of the voters at present, that is. It could be 80% by the time that Bush leaves office.

8:27 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger TigerHawk said...

I look at this a bit differently. If you will forgive my amateur classification scheme, may I suggest that there are a bunch of interpersonal skills that people have talent for, or not, and enjoy, or don't. I'm not sure what the correct taxonomy is, but it seems that they include the "skills" of (i) introduction, (ii) superficial conversation, (iii) speaking before an audience informally, (iv) speaking before an audience formally, (v) salesmanship, (vi) deceit (skill in lying), (vii) romantic attraction and sexual assertiveness, (viii) the giving of orders, instruction or criticism, (ix) the taking of orders, instruction or criticism,(x) the giving of a compliment, (xi) the taking of a compliment, (xii) the giving of bad news outside of a power relationship (such as a doctor to next of kin), (xiii) the giving of bad news inside a power relationship (such as firing an employee), and (xiv) assertiveness in negotiations or commercial transactions (bargaining with car dealers, sending back bad wine or asking for a refund). I'm sure there are other such skills, and if I were a psychologist I could spell them out! But let's run with my taxonomy for a minute...

I think that like most such things, people are "born with" various levels of effectiveness at these enumerated interpersonal skills, meaning that they have some talent for the type of interaction that dates from childhood or before. Now, just because somebody is initially good at some of these (say, seduction and salesmanship) doesn't mean he or she is good at another (say, delivering bad news to an employee or a friend). All is not lost, however. People can learn how to fire people effectively and humanely, stand up for themselves in commercial transactions, or win the affections of their crush.

I still remember the first time I had to fire somebody. I had become the "accidental CEO" of a public company that was losing a lot of money, and I knew that we had to shrink the business to survive. We did a big layoff, and I took it upon myself to terminate a couple of the people personally. I was absolutely terrified, heart pounding, sweating up a storm. I learned over time, though, how to do it effectively and humanely, and now take time in my current company to counsel other managers who have to do it for the first time.

Now, on the particular topic of confrontation in business or commercial settings, I think that most people who shy away from it do so because they are inexperienced at it and feel incapable of handling it. Dr. Helen, how many of the people in your office who were unwilling to fire that secretary had actually ever fired somebody before? "The first time" in the matter of terminations is almost as scary as sex (and for some people -- but not me -- probably a good deal scarier!).

10:31 PM, May 26, 2006  
Blogger Bob's Blog said...

This is another great topic. Thanks! I was glad you made the statement about those who post anonymously, because I have been quite surprised at how much vitriol has been anonymously posted on your site.

10:43 PM, May 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Interesting comment about anonymous posters. What's your last name?

12:17 AM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger Barbados Butterfly said...

A fantastic post, Helen. I couldn't agree more.

And I sincerely hope the last anonymous poster is aiming for subtle irony and simply missing the mark.


3:48 AM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger jw said...

I dislike confrontation and yet seem to spend a goodly portion of my life contronting problems and attitudes. For me, I take a few breaths and then dive in: Afterwards, I need to chill out and that takes a lot of time for me. Every confontation hurts ...

My wife on the other hand is a tigress. She enjoys confontation. It's strange too, she is a very small and quiet woman.

Last year we had a very bad tenant, real nasty and violent. I doubt he knew just how close he came to a bad ending when he took at swing at my dearest. Lucky for him a cop broke in and arrested him ...

The whole thing is strange to me. There must be something in one's personality which governs how one handles the nastier confrontations of life.

5:31 AM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

anonymous 5:39:

You are mistaken that I take "satisfaction" in confrontation. I just care more about my business and that my messages from clients get through then I do about being uncomfortable for a few moments. I would think that any decent business person would feel this way--but apparently, many do not.

The alternative would have been to let the secretary keep working until she ruined our business or let her stay and pay for nothing since we would have to make up the work she did not do, or just sit back and let our patients suffer the consequences. I was not willing to do that.

There are some instances where it is better to act than it is to sit back and hope that things work out. Unfortunately, there are many people who prefer to do the latter in order to save themselves any immediate unpleasantness or consequences.

6:47 AM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DADvocate said...

Those who wish to take the moral high ground and lie to themselves about their "superiority" and compassion by avoiding confrontation and having others do their dirty work know deep down what they are.

I agree completely. I generally confront when needed but wish I was better at it. I do take satisfaction in confrontation when I feel I've done it properly and at a needed time. I once had a managerial job where I had to fire people several times. I actually got used to it.

If Anon 12:17 looked at your links, etc. he/she would know you last name, the name of your spouse, city of residence, etc. He/she is just proving your point regarding some anonymous posters.

8:13 AM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

Anonymous 12:17:

As Dadvocate indicated, you can look to the right at my links and see "Dr. Smith's Articles"--you can see very clearly my last name.

I do not mind people posting anonymously--however, the ones who make derogatory remarks about me seem to do it anonymously more frequently.

Bob 10:43:

In terms of the amount of vitriol by anonymous posters on this site, my guess is that some people find me through my husband's site, Instapundit, and since he does not have comments they see fit to come over here to childishly act out. The other possibility is that some posters can't stand the thought that anyone would hold women as reponsible for their behavior as they hold men. This infuriates some people since they prefer to have their cake and eat it too. These women (and men who support such antics) typically see women's actions as ineffective and deep down, view themselves like children who are not responsible for their actions. Yet, at the same time, they want to have not only full rights in sociey but "special status." Hey, who wouldn't want that? But we live in the real world where adults should be personally responsible for their actions and fairness in the court systems etc. should be a concern to everyone who cares about democracy and freedom.

9:17 AM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My husband is more conflict avoidant than I am, but I'm pretty certain it was his upbringing. What I've noticed, however, is that he's more likely to lose his temper when the inevitable time for conflict arrives because he's permitted it to simmer until the top of the pot blows off. I, also due to upbringing as my mother is this way, tend to say what needs to be said at the time and before I'm angry about it. I don't think it's necessary to be unkind or undiplomatic when confronting someone with the truth, and that you're more likely to handle it appropriately if you do so before you're completely fed up.

Think of it as an education opportunity. They won't have the opportunity to learn and improve themselves if they aren't truly made to understand that what they are doing is keeping them from achieving their potential. Sometimes these life lessons include consequences such as losing a job in before the lesson hits home.

I can well imagine your secretary was shocked. It's so rare in today's world for parents to be truly willing to do the hard work of teaching their children and preparing them for the real world. Disciplining children is a difficult job, but when parents haven't done this, the kids enter life completely unprepared for a boss who expects results, not excuses.

My husband ends up with quite a few employees to train who were recruited from colleges. He often complains that he feels like he's having to raise them.

9:43 AM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I avoid confronting strangers because I have seen so much of it turn into fights.

This is in Boston, where all the law abiding are disarmed. Most confrontations in traffic end up in fights. And I mean fights where
the antagonists stop their cars in the flow of traffic, get out, and start hitting each other.

SO look at my options here. I can either be a "wuss" and avoid the confrontation. Or I can get into a fight, with the two following outcomes
possible: 1) I get beat up or killed. 2) I beat the other guy up and get conviced of assault. The thugs dont care about outcome 2 for them, and their brains see outcome 1 as sport.

Its like wresteling with pigs. I get dirty and the pig likes it.

10:23 AM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger The Medicine Man said...

Great post Helen. Your observation that many people seem to feel "above" confrontation because of misunderstood concepts of morality or compassion is exactly right. It's amazing how people can portray an ethical shortcoming into the illusion of a moral high ground.

Your post also prompted me to write about the fact that when confronting someone on behalf of others, you actually run the risk of being sandbagged by those you're representing!

My link is here.

11:06 AM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

True dat re the sandbagging. That's why I've trained my children to do their own confrontation with me backing them, whether a teacher or a neighborhood bully. If it's not worth standing up for yourself, then you have to choose to let it go and not think about it again. Almost inevitably, whomever you are confronting will initially respond defensively, or try manipulation if that tact has been successful in the past.

I think that sometimes in our confrontations we want to argue too long and see immediate fruit when the reality is that usually the epiphany comes at some point later when they aren't angry or defensive, or when they have screwed up again and start recognizing a pattern.

(not a doctor, just a mom who has a very wise mom as a mentor)

11:17 AM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

Boston Realist,

There are certainly times when one has to weigh safety issues when determining whether or not to confront. I tend not to get involved in petty road incidents such as being cut off--they are just not worth it.

One way of dealing with someone who is really acting out on the road is to call 911 and report the car to the police. One day a man got out of his car with a peice of steel as if to hit me over my having a broken brake light and stopping rather suddenly at a stoplight. I understand that he was annoyed but really, to take that aggressive action was downright outrageous. I sped off and called 911 to report this guy--who knows what he might do to the next person? If someone is truly unstable or a true menace on the road (like weaving, trying to hit other cars etc.), I think law enforcement is in the best position to take care of this if one can get away.

11:29 AM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Barbados Butterfly,

Helen's comments about anonymous posters are interesting. You are an anonymous poster. Do you agree with her?

12:38 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your comments don't reveal your last name. That makes them anonymous. The fact that one can search out your last name says nothing about the anonymity of the comment. And you have said impolite things about people in your comments.

But, there's nothing wrong with being anonymous. Welcome to the club.

Of course, you could always sign your comments with your full name. Remember, "I sometimes wonder about the difference between people who will confront others in a direct manner and those who will not."

12:47 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Dr. Helen, I wholeheartedly agree with your post. Obviously it's not right to use frank talk as an excuse to hurt or be cruel to another person. However, for me, it's a question of honesty, respect and common sense.

First, people appreciate honesty even if it might initially be hard to swallow. Who among us hasn't felt the sting of pain that comes from realizing you've been lied to, even if it was a "little white lie"?

Second, I respect other people enough to believe that they can handle the truth. It would be incredibly arrogant of me to think that only I can judge whether other people are able to handle the truth.

Third, common sense tells me that life is easier when you tell the truth and complicated when you don't. When I speak directly to people, I don't have to "keep my story straight" or remember my fabrications and manipulations. When I tell the truth to everyone, no matter how awkward it may feel, I don't get caught up in a soap opera lifestyle. Fortunately, the more I practice, the better I get (I think) at combining direct talk with a gentle delivery.

12:56 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Anonymous @ 12:47:

Can you clarify, please? Are you saying that Dr. Helen posts anonymously when her blog specifically lists her full name and location?

12:59 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Yes. The comments just say "helen." They don't provide a last name. Therefore, they are anonymous. The initial post doesn't list a last name for "helen," either. There is no last name listed anywhere on the main page of the blog. One may be able to figure out who "helen" is by linking to other parts of the site, but the comment, initial post, and entire main page remain anonymous.

We might contrast this to the approach used at Instapundit. That blogger signs "Glenn Reynolds" to each of his posts. They are not anonymous.

Your comments are also anonymous since they are under "drj." Helen might "wonder about the difference between people who will confront others in a direct manner and those who will not."

1:42 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Okay, I agree I'm anonymous (by choice) but I still don't see how Dr. Helen is. It's easy to find her identifying information and her use of her first name seems welcoming to me. Like we're on a first name basis.

1:55 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another interesting post, Dr. Helen. I have some experience in this area, as I was a human resources manager for over 30 years, most of them spent in labor relations with Fortune 500 companies. As a point of reference, I personally fired over 500 people during that period, and was involved in many more terminations as an advisor or "witness". Several of the commentors have made statements that are born out by my experience. Most people would agree that firing an employee, especially someone that you've worked with for a length of time, is an unpleasant experience. If you've never or rarely done it, it can be frightening, and thankfully, most people simply don't do enough of it to get any experience. After you've fired a few people, as noted by tigerhawk in his spot-on post, you get better at it. Some people (and I can see that you're one of them) do not have a problem with doing the deed if they know that the person has been given an opportunity to improve and have failed to do so, or their behavior has been such that the firing is clearly justified. Others simply don't like confrontation of any kind. I think that there are many people who would continue to put up with unacceptable performance or behavior indefinitely rather than discipline or terminate an employee. But here is a very common situation that I constantly ran into: An employee has a performance or behavior problem of some kind that the supervisor tolerates for a long time, but says little or nothing to the employee about, even (as a poster noted) giving the employee accepable or good evaluations. The supervisor will complain to other employees, other managers, his wife, anyone who'll listen, but will avoid confronting the employee directly. Then comes a problem that really embarasses the supervisor or is simply too flagrant to ignore. NOW the supervisor wants the employee fired. The supervisor's refusal to address the problems in the beginning, and maybe correct them, lead to a demand to fire the employee (we wouldn't do it where I worked). This is why confronting problems, rather than avoiding them, is the best course. Ignoring problems because they're unpleasant helps no one in the end, only makes life a little smoother until the inevitable happens. Personally, I don't think international relations are much different.

Mike Doughty

3:19 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


Yes, I use my first name because it is less distancing then signing my whole name or "Dr. Smith." I am addressed that way at work. This is my personal blog. Anyone who wishes to know more about me can easily click on the Helen in my posts and learn more about me if they wish.

3:42 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...


I bet you are great to work for because you put so much thought into what makes people tick.

I'm afraid this will sound like quibbling - perhaps it is - but it seems to me that few if any of us have all the interpersonal skills you describe, especially when we are starting our careers. Of course, I don't think you suggest that anyone does, but I think ability with one skill set carries over to another. In essence, I'm suggesting that interpersonal skills are synergistic rather than cumulative. For example, if as a college student I learned to deal directly and calmly with my parents, chances are I can use those skills to assertively handle commercial transactions (such as returning a product to the store) and to maturely handle interpersonal relationships with coworkers and supervisors. In addition, the skills and confidence I learned in those experiences carries over in other areas, such as learning how to deal with dissatisfied customers or terminating a problem employee.

Certainly practice and experience with specific situations would make me better at all of these tasks. A doctor who specializes in geriatric medicine is probably good at discussing mortality. As an experienced human resources manager, I'm sure you are highly skilled in helping people deal with the termination of their employment. While I feel sure that some people find it easier to confront issues directly, I think it is a learned skill that can start as early as childhood and is definitely a choice in later years. Simply put, some people confront life as it is and some don't.

By the way, I have 2 springers. What a great breed.

3:45 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

I'm sorry, I posted before correcting a mistake in my last comment. I know that Tigerhawk and Mike are different people but since my comment relates to both their posts, I generally directed my thoughts to both.

3:51 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...

Mike Doughty,

Thanks for your input. You are completely correct that it is best to act immediately at times. I think for me this comes easily because I have seen firsthand what happens when you take no action when people are behaving poorly. I have seen violent employees escalate to murder because no one would challenge their behavior and let them know it was unacceptable, kids who are out of hand because a parent did not want to appear as a "meanie" and discipline them, or kids who act out violently at school because no one wanted to confront the pack of kids who was bullying them. I agree that international relations works much the same way. Somehow, many pacifists (at least those who are pacifists when it comes to defending the US or Israel, not certain other countries, of course!) in this country think that inaction or appeasement will make everyone like us or leave us alone. In reality, it often gives an enemy the sense that they can get away with anything.

3:55 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

drj, you are correct, I believe that these are skills that can be taught to the majority of people, but the earlier the better and at the lowest level of responsibilty possible. Some people will never learn, however, because they don't really want to, or because their "personality" (for want of a better term) won't allow them to. These are the same people who will enable an alcoholic friend or relative because they don't want to "be heartless". They hide their own selfishness or fear behind a facade of "concern for others' feelings".

Another problem, in big organizations especially, is that often the wrong people get promoted to supervisory and managerial positions. I worked for years in a process industry company that was dependent on the technical expertise of chemical engineers. The people promoted to supervisory positions were the most technically competent engineers, and managers were chosen from their ranks. Not to over-generalize (because we did get many good managers via thia system), but this didn't always put the people with the BEST superviory/managerial skills into positions of authority. Their attitude towards learning these skills sometimes was "I got where I am with the skills (or lack thereof) that I know, so why should I change". They could be a challange.

Mike Doughty

4:12 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Mike, thank you for your response. I'll say again - I bet you're a good guy to work for and with. I especially agree with you and Dr. Helen that people who dislike confrontation may be more concerned with their own discomfort than the problems at hand. It often seems easier to avoid problems than to deal with them.

4:51 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Since you have repeatedly chosen not to confront your commenter, Chris Key, regarding his numerous statements to the effect that men as a gender are more intelligent than women, I must assume then that you agree with him. Particularly since, far from confronting him, you have been quite cordial to him, thanking him for his remarks.

Way to go! Way to forge understanding between the sexes. Way to show women how to act. Way to draw women into a united fight against discrimination against either sex. Way to draw women into the fight against gender stereotypes and bring attention to the problem of male stereotyping. Way to foster respect between the sexes.

Did you learn all these great skills at school?

5:24 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


A comment is anonymous if it is not signed with a full name. The comment remains anonymous even if one can do further work to find out who is the author. In that case, one would be uncovering the name of the anonymous commenter.

5:51 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


You may be addressed as "helen" at work just as someone else may be addressed as "Glenn" at work. However, comments which are not signed with a full name remain anonymous, and we have to "wonder about the difference between people who will confront others in a direct manner and those who will not."

The fact that one can ferret out the identity of an anonymous poster does not change the anonymity of the posting itself.

Signing a post or comment as "Glenn Reynolds" confronts others in a direct manner. Signing a post of comment as "helen" avoids the direct manner. So, perhaps we can ask why Glenn Reynolds has the courage to confront people in a direct manner, while "helen' does not.

5:56 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate to engage in "discussions" (since they're rarely discussions at all) with pedantic people, but I can't resist pointing out that anyone who frequents this blog (even infrequently) knows who "Helen" is. Find something else to pontificate about. Gheez, enough already!

Mike Doughty

6:15 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

(a new anonymous poster)

Anonymity is liked - and, IMHO, an asset to the internet - because it removes, or greatly mitigates, the biggest drawback faced when speaking openly and honestly: obsessive jackasses. People will shy away from even reasonable and neccessary confrontations simply because of the off chance of the person they're confronting deciding they've been dissed and engaging in petty (or not so petty) harassment and venegance. It's best not to give such egotists whose inflated self-esteem has suffered a blow a return address.

On the internet, the inner self is a bit closer to the surface. Sometimes this results in jerks who revel in the ability to exercise their inner jackass, but usually the conversation is better (or at least more interesting) as a consequence. Personally, I'd vote for more anonymity and pseudonymity on the internet.

7:21 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

One of the reasons I like anonymous comments is that it forces the reader to focus on the merit of the idea presented. Sometimes good ideas can come from questionable sources, while even intelligent and highly regarded people can have a stinker of an idea. Anonymous comments makes it easier to focus on the content rather than the person.

8:10 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DADvocate said...

Anonymous who is worried about anonymity - Grow up. You can click on DrHelen's name at the beginning of each or her post and it will go to her profile. You seem to have serious passive-aggressive problems.

If statements stand on solid logic and facts does is matter who said them? If it does you need to work on your reasoning skills. A logically sound argument is a logically sound argument no matter who makes it.

I remain anonymous because some of my opinions may disagree with those of my superiors at work. I avoid work related issues because I deal with that at work. But my boss did tell me he likes my blog. He accidentally stumbled across it doing a Google search and figured out who I was from my profile which most people who know me well could do.

8:27 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Anonymous @ 5:51:

I'm don't want to argue with you about Dr. Helen's comments. It seems like such a non-issue to me that, frankly, I'm suspicious you are testing some personal theory about anonymous comments and how easy it is to get people agitated. Still, even if I were to agree that it takes some effort to ascertain Dr. Helen's identity, I can't agree that it's so difficult you have to ferret it out. And if that's your standard, how do we know that Glenn Reynolds is really Glenn Reynolds? Or that the New York Times is actually online? (Maybe that's a bad example.)

Perhaps the internet is the ultimate example of Descartes "I think therefore I am."

9:50 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are people who are too confrontational, and there are people who are simply not worth confronting, but there's a much larger contingent of people who are non-confrontational. Where would life be without them?

Take the feudal era for instance. If all the peasants simply rose up and confronted the knights all the time, what would our civilisation have advanced to?

If every single layman confronted the church elders' hypocrisy back in the day, where would we be?

If we threw all lawyers into the sea and all psychologists into the sun, what then?

Being confrontational is only for the select, with the innate talent to meld others to our will, and forge them into something greater.

Maybe in the future land of Falafariloufalanilalay it will be different, clever humans.

11:31 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 6:15,

I agree those who frequent this blog enough to be familiar with helen would know who is really behind her anonymous posts and comments.

11:46 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anonymous 7:21 and drj,

You make good points about the value on anonymity on the internet. However, helen would "wonder about the difference between people who will confront others in a direct manner and those who will not."

11:48 PM, May 27, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Thanks for the anonymous comment. However, a review of his thread will show that helen initiated the topic of anonymity.

I have no problem with anonymous posters. Apparently you don't either, but helen does. She says "they sublimate their feelings by posting anonymously on other people's blogs to say impolite things to people that they would be terrified to confront in the real world." I wonder if she is talking about you?

11:53 PM, May 27, 2006  
Blogger Kim du Toit said...

I don't have a problem with confrontation. In fact, in a work environment, I'm frequently confrontational, because if someone proposes something, they should be prepared to defend it. And rather the confrontation should come from someone in the office than from a client or (worse) the market.

The problem is that people take such confrontation personally, when it's anything but. Unfortunately, the worst offenders in this regard are women, and I've had several harassment complaints filed against me -- anonymously, of course -- because God forbid one should have the opportunity of confronting one's accuser (ie. a right allowed by law, but ignored by regulation).

Incidentally, whenever I've had the sexual harassment charges filed against me, and the manager delivering the news refuses to tell me who filed the claim, I stand up, and say, "Then we have nothing more to talk about. If I don't know who or what the instance was, then I can't answer or defend myself. So I'm going to ignore this conversation and pretend that it never took place. Was there anything else?"

No one has ever taken it any further, other than to make feeble noises about it "being on my file."

Like I ever cared about that.

Oh, and I have no problem confronting strangers. I prefer to act like predator, not prey.

My wife calls it my "hitman" look. Never had a problem, even with a street gang in New York.

12:09 AM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger jw said...

anonymous 5:24

I wish people in general would take a few moments to learn some basic statistics, that goes for all.

If we take the two groups:

- the 2% who are most intelligent
- the 2% who are least intelligent

There are more males than females in both groups. Interesting ... and that's about all. Even more interestingly, of the three people suspected of being the most intelligent on the planet, two of them are female, (The writer, Marilyn Vos Savant, is generally considered the smartest in the world). Weird, but true ...

Even more interestingly, my ex is one of those two out of three, (we'll leave her name out as she is very jealous of her privacy). Yet, this in credibly smart person is the same woman who put a loaf of garlic bread in the toaster oven piled with FAR too much cheese and could not figure out why it caught fire. This is the same woman who put half a pound of unground Kona coffee beans in the coffee pot and could not figure out why the coffee tasted weird. (Needless to say, I did all the cooking ...)

Intelligence is ONE WEIRD thing!

Also, I once told the coffee story from above using the word "my" for the Kona beans (I love them and use my personal pocket money to buy them). I was soundly and mightily roasted by the women for daring to say "my Kona beans." This is a problem in gender in that it is for all practical intents and purposes impossible to talk about gender without sexism from BOTH sexes and without a great many people, of both sexes, deamnding that only the misogyny being countered leaving the misandry ignored.

There's not much can be said one way or the other ...

5:00 AM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger BobH said...

To Kim du toit

First, confrontation is almost always personal. I agree that people should be prepared to defend their opinions but there are ways of doing this that aren't confrontational. (Try telling the meeting that you don't understand the basis for the other person's opinion/statement and ask him/her to explain. Ask lots of probing question.) You sound as if you are just telling the other people that they are incorrect and/or stupid. Is that correct? There is significant social and employment value in being considered correct most of the time.

Second. you've had "several" harrassment complaints filed against you!? You must be a highly valuable employee, but even the most valuable employee can cause such disruption that he/she has to be let go. Were they sexual harrassment or just general harrassment charges? Were the complaints at the same company or a succession of companies? You don't say.

8:50 AM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger DADvocate said...

say impolite things to people that they would be terrified to confront in the real world

I believe this may be the part that DrHelen had the most trouble with. If DrHelen was talking about me, she was at least partially wrong. I'm rarely terrified.

8:53 AM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger Helen said...


Of course I am not talking about you. You may disagree with others but do it in a reasonable fashion with good questions and analysis. I respect that. You do not seem like the type of person who avoids confrontation--quite the contrary, I imagine in "real life," you are kind, but upfront, direct and honest. I appreciate your input on my blog and enjoy reading your blog also.

11:00 AM, May 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Good to hear from you. When are you going to start signing your comments with your full name rather than the anonymous "helen?"

1:23 PM, May 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've confronted people occasionally, and let things slide occasionally. There have been mixed results in both cases, leaving me cautious. If a strategic retreat is possible, that's usually better than either of the above. It's true you cannot run away from your problems -- that arouses their predatory instincts. But you can walk away from them in a relatively dignified manner. And that lets you save the all-around stress of confrontation for situations where you cannot easily leave.

Dr. Ellengcubsjdy

2:03 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger TMink said...

I generally tell my oatients that I am paid to tell the truth, that I am kind for free. It is my job as a therapist to tell the truth. I choose to be kind, but I HAVE to be honest.

In my personal life, this goes a long way. It was a journey to get there as I was raised a good southern boy. If you can't say something kind etc.

I have found that it has drawn wonderful people of good character as my friends and dropped off the drama kings and queens like dandruff. That is a god thing. Honestly, it took courage to develop the habit, but now I would not go back to civility before honesty ever.


3:02 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

The anonymous commenter who is so concerned about Dr. Helen's "anonymity" would have us believe that the important part of Dr. Helen's original post was the last sentence and especially the bolded words: "Or they sublimate their feelings by posting anonymously on other people's blogs to say impolite things to people that they would be terrified to confront in the real world." There was far more to Dr. Helen's post than the last sentence, but if that is the issue then I think Anonymous is focusing on the wrong part of that sentence. In my view, the crucial part of the sentence is: "Or they sublimate their feelings by posting anonymously on other people's blogs to say impolite things to people that they would be terrified to confront in the real world."

Many people post here anonymously who are not impolite. Dr. Helen has made it clear she has no problem with the former but she does have a problem with the latter, as do many thoughtful people who post on the internet. Of course, I still wonder if Anonymous has another agenda. Anonymous, I wish you would share your real concern with Dr. Helen or her website.

3:18 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...


I'm not a therapist but my job sometimes involves giving people bad news. Like you, I tell them I'm paid to be honest and I also try to be kind. In other words, I completely agree with your post.

3:24 PM, May 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There seems to be much discussion of external inhibitors of disagreement and confrontation. I believe that the external inhibitors pale in comparison to internal inhibitors. I have an over-ramped fight/flight reaction and cannot stand to disagree with anyone. This has cost me any chance of marital happiness, because I provide no checks and balances to my wife.

3:36 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...


I am interested in your comment because I have relatives who are very averse to confrontation. They are easy-going and delightful to be around, but it seems like more bad things happen to them since they are reluctant to stand up for themselves. Can you help me understand this better?

3:59 PM, May 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


I can probably only help you understand at an abstract level, the same level at which I understand that it is often better to face unpleasantness immediately and squarely.
In a nutshell, for some people, the knowledge of possible bad consequences in a distant future cannot override the chance to avoid short-term ugly consequences.

4:38 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Thanks, Randy. My brother/sister-in-law and their children are wonderful people. You caouldn't ask for better people but they get upset at everyday problems. I've often wondered if this is due to their natural personalities (reinforced by being together), or if it's related to the fact that they seem to have more than the usual phobias (fear of flying and traffic), or maybe due to birth order (brother was the middle of 3 children and the peacemaker). I'm grateful for their easygoing natures but I have a feeling it's hard to be them.

5:02 PM, May 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Of course the initial post said more than one sentence. I have chosen to discuss the topic of anonymous commenters that helen introduced. Feel free to discuss any other aspect of that post.

6:16 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Hi Anonymous (@ 6:16):

I apologize if my comment (@ 3:18) suggested your hadn't read Dr. Helen's post but I would appreciate it if you could respond to the substance of my comment. Specifically, I think Dr. Helen's last sentence was primarily concerned with the fact that the internet empowers people to be impolite when they might not act that way in real life. Anonymity is a part of that concept but is not the main point. What do you think?

8:50 PM, May 28, 2006  
Blogger DADvocate said...


Thank you for the flattery. :-)

I enjoy your blog because it delves into the psychological aspects of so many issues. I believe psychology plays a much bigger role in the events of the world than most realize.

9:20 PM, May 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

People often know when they're dealing with someone who hates confrontation, and will attempt to make it as costly, emotionally (or otherwise), as possible. And they tend to subtly or not broadcast the potential cost beforehand.

That is emotional blackmail. I guess some of us are more susceptible to blackmail than others. I'm not susceptible. I consider blackmail to be the most venal of crimes. It intends to inflict humiliation, submission and/or terror.

Maybe some people were dealt with too harshly when they went through the 'terrible twos', and never succeeded in saying 'no' and getting that respected. Or maybe parents endlessly explained why THEY had to say no, modeling their own need to get approval for a 'no'. Whatever. Inability to say 'no' critically diminishes us as well as the person we should be confronting.

10:23 PM, May 28, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Meanwhile, back on the subject. Much excellent writing is available on the "how to fire someone" issue. We all know the basics, "don't go into detail, be firm but not rude, fire on a Friday afternoon . . .".

To that I would add "don't fire out of the blue." Give the person adequate warning that their work is not acceptable, tell them they are on "probation" ,etc.

12:39 AM, May 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Vos Savant is allegedly "one of the three most intelligent people in the world"?

I've read her column and I can't say I would agree. Maybe it doesn't come through in her column, but a lot of her advice and solutions haven't seemed particularly bright.

6:15 AM, May 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am often referred to as a bully.
I don't enjoy the confrontations I "cause", but I feel they are necessary. In my job, I prevent people from breaking computer systems by releasing code they haven't tested. I have to confront these people and tell them "no". And my bosses always support me - they say "no" as well.

I think there are certain jobs and professions where conflict is inherent to the role. And I think the people who can manage that are drawn to those jobs. Law enforcement is an example (setting aside the "ego" issue of some cops). Most jobs have some form of conflict resolution.

Consider the exemplified receptionist. Part of her expected duties is to manage appointments. I am certain that people called and asked for appointments at a time when there already was an appointment. Or on a day that the requested doctor was not available. That receptionist had to say "no". That's a conflict management skill.

Clearly, some people are better at it than others. Statistically, about 50%.

The ones that concern me are those that enjoy conflict and seek it out. The stories I could tell....

12:12 PM, May 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anyone noticed that of the 73 comments in this thread 69 are anonymous?

2:08 PM, May 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Sunday 2:14 EDT:

There is a link on the main page of the blog that says, "About me." It is inactive.

There is a link on the main page of the blog that says, "Helen." It is inactive.

There is a link on the main page of the blog that says, "My complete profile." It says nothing about you.

Now, this may be a function of my computer, so perhaps some other folks can try to pierce the veil of anonymity?

2:16 PM, May 29, 2006  
Blogger Jonathan said...

So if I telephone my mom and don't introduce myself formally when she answers the phone, that means I am calling anonymously? That seems to be one of the implications of Anonymous's assertion. I would ask Anonymous why it is important to him that Helen (and other participants in this thread?) accept his idiosyncratic definition of anonymity. Seems like a control issue. Am I mistaken?

3:48 PM, May 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Is helen calling her mother?

Feel free to use another definition of anonymity. What's yours?

4:34 PM, May 29, 2006  
Blogger Jonathan said...

Why does it matter to you?

6:23 PM, May 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


It's simple intellectual curiosity. You mention my idiosyncratic definition of anonymity, so I wonder if there is a definition lacking my idiocyncracies. Do you have one?

10:12 PM, May 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Help me out. You said, "You can click on DrHelen's name at the beginning of each or her post and it will go to her profile. You seem to have serious passive-aggressive problems."

Where do I click to read that profile you mention? It's 10:39 EDT Monday and when I click on the "Helen" link at the top right of the main page, it doesn't provide a profile.

Neither does the "About Me" link, nor the "Helen" link, nor the "View my complete profile."

Perhaps this is a function of my passive-aggressive problems.

(Helen, Maybe you can fix this so Dad can say it ain't so?)

10:46 PM, May 29, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Shoo, troll. Shoo.
Icky old troll. Yuck.

2:13 PM, May 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Wonder what kind of tangents you'd get if you did a thread on anonymity?

Another tangent on the original topic...I found the book Difficult Conversations (Stone, Patton & Heen) to be very helpful in framing confrontation. Used the outline as part of a conflict management workshop and it was well-received. Just an FYI.


8:56 PM, May 30, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

DRJ speculated, "Perhaps the internet is the ultimate example of Descartes 'I think therefore I am.' "

Hmmm. Interesting point there DRJ, and upon further reflection you inspire me to suppose that the maxim of Bishop Berkeley, "esse is percipi" (to be is to be perceived) is even more spot on.

12:25 AM, May 31, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

After wishing that people in general would take a few moments to learn some basic statistics, jw stated (parenthetically) "The writer, Marilyn Vos Savant, is generally considered the smartest in the world."

Sigh. C'mon jw, do you really suppose that as far from the mean she tests out at, the margin of error for whatever standardized test she uses for her self-branding promotional claim is so small that the test can reliably discern the smartest person in the world from the second smartest, or the hundreth smartest?

12:38 AM, May 31, 2006  
Blogger DRJ said...

Well done, Michael I. Bishop Berkeley's focus on abstractions does fit nicely with the internet, especially when considered with Locke's doctrine that "abstract ideas explain how knowledge can be communicated and how it can be increased."

12:50 AM, May 31, 2006  
Blogger me said...

The worst example of this kind of thing is women living together. I had 3 roommates in college and no one would confront ANYONE. it was SOOO annoying. One roomie ALWAYS asked another one for a ride to avoid a walk of about 10 minutes, and instead of having the 5 minute discomfort of saying No that's ridiculous walk over there ONE TIME, another roomie had 4 semesters of almost daily inconvenience, which she whined to me about all the time. Just one of many examples. Or, different female roomate in law school would leave postit notes scattered around the house -- like, "Someone got something on my coffee table and I can't get it off and I am really upset about it." She was a California princess with no clue about practical things -- I went downstairs, saw the stain on the coffee table, thought for a moment, then spit on my hand and tried to wipe it off -- guess what it came RIGHT off. Nothing exasperates me more than passive agressive NON-confrontation. :)

9:42 AM, June 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well, I post as one who has benefited from my superiors' fear of confrontation. I do a perfectly miserable job but no one ever says anything. I know there's nothing in my file--no evals, no warnings. They're too busy, they put it off and then lose their mad and forget about it.

I haven't been shrunk in years but I do believe I'm being passive-aggressive. I haven't had a raise in 4 years either, but it is kinda fun to just sit back and realize people don't want to take me on. Cowards...probably the best thing that could happen to me now is to lose my job and have to hustle and find a new one, or start up my law practice again.

4:00 PM, June 01, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Do you work for the government? Perhaps you are really a star performer.

9:44 AM, June 02, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find your last paragraph funny.

You create stress for another person in cyber space, put them in a position to be harrassed without apology...but anonymous posters must be sublimating their feelings. If you aren't wrong, why are they?

I'm sure anyone who posts anonymously should be given the benefit of the doubt. If they refuse to step forward when asked, then yes, you might be on to something. But until you ask, it might be that they don't feel like being harrassed.


6:33 PM, June 20, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Could you please tell me: What is the Psychological condition called, when a person likes tom escalate a situation for fun? Lets say that someone complains about noice in the hall - this person will smal her door over and over and a lot just to get attention, until she is DIRECTLY handled by Management.

What is that condition called?

12:59 PM, August 05, 2007  
Blogger Umm said...

Well, I generally don't like people who like confrontations. They're usually egotistical and unfriendly. I think it's generally a good thing to avoid confronting others, and acting carefully in accordance to how others will feel is admirable, I think.

Contrary to liberal Freudian "release and relax" ideas, I think people who are attuned to the needs of other people and adjust accordingly are necessary for society's well-being. We non-confronters are the backbone of America! We can control our wants and even our needs when those same needs and wants of others exceed fair boundaries. Humans are self-interested and those among us who make our self-interests the happiness of ourselves and others deserve praise, not castigation!

Of course some degree of confrontation is necessary, whether with others and more importantly, with oneself. But in general, my point is that non-confronters (like myself!) get the bad rap as being to weak or timid to challenge things we disagree on. On the contrary, the fact that non-confronters are uncomfortable in the presence of social tension indicates that they are genuinely sensitive to the needs of other people, and are able to empathize with others. :)

3:09 AM, February 03, 2008  
Blogger JackCarter said...

I avoid situations where I might lose my temper. I lose friends when I lose my temper and I've been arrested after losing my temper .... so I avoid confrontation. Is this because I'm weak? Or if you prefer,"Afraid of causing myself a moment's displeasure"?

All my jobs in the last 19 years have been supervisory and management. Is this because I'm not assertive?

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3:18 AM, April 20, 2009  

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