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Nice Girls Don't Do Conflict: Fight Fair and Get What's Yours
by Audrey Nelson, PhD

Generally, nice girls don’t cause conflict. Conflict is not feminine. Women are supposed to be the peacemakers, both at the office and at home. Women are taught to be cooperative and play the role of peacemaker. Their job supposedly is to not rock the boat; men get that role. A woman’s world revolves around connection and relationships, and they place a premium on interdependence so high, in fact, that women tend to avoid and accommodate others in conflict situations. They often say “yes” when they want to say “no.” They go along to get along. They sacrifice what is important to them and don’t get their needs met. The myth many women live by is “Harmony is normal.” If harmony is normal, conflict is abnormal.

Do any of these themes resonate with you?

Taking care of others

Taking a back seat

Acting dumb

Being the power behind the throne

Suffering silently

Waiting to be save

Playing nice

Being seen, not heard

Sacrificing yourself for others

Being a people pleaser

Not rocking the boat

Making peace

These themes become blueprints for how we handle conflict and the roles we play.

Using Playground Skills to Battle in the Cubicles

From childhood to adulthood, men are taught to be aggressive, competitive, and independent (they actually score notches on their macho belt for standing alone on an issue). Men are interested in power how to get it and use it. Women are taught not to hurt people’s feelings, so they will go along to get along.

Women Try to Get Over Anger Like They Have the Flu

In The Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, Harriet Rubin claims that “when the tension is overwhelming, women often withdraw, or react in anger, then regret the outburst.apostrophe Women try to shake off anger like a bad cold. Then they apologize or compromise. They go back to their cubicle and start undoing[md]they try to convince themselves that it really wasn’t that important; it just isn’t worth it. Look what they do with children: they cuddle the anger out of the child. Any tension women feel at work can paralyze them.

But anger is a natural human emotion that means you have boundaries. Anger is life affirming; it calls for change. Anger is a signal that something is wrong. If women hold back anger, they deprive themselves of dealing with issues within us and other people. Holding anger back does not make it go away.

Not only is the “nice girlapostrophe syndrome unhealthy, but it also earns women no respect from their coworkers by staying silent, acting hurt, crying, and playing the martyr. Instead, women store up a warehouse of anger.

So begins a self-perpetuating cycle that leads to other dysfunctional behaviors, like guilt. We are so concerned about being nice and “Queen for a Dayapostrophe that we will be popular at any costs. Women have a high need to please. In conflict, it is an adaptation. Girls and women are expected to comply with the “rulesapostrophe and socially controlled behavior far more rigidly than boys. When men break the rules in corporate America, they are mavericks. When women break the rules, they cross the line. Male behavior enjoys a larger latitude of acceptance: boys will be boys.

Women learn compliance as a primary method of coping because they need to please other people to feel okay. “Make everyone happyapostrophe becomes their mantra. Many women anxiously mold themselves to fit what they believe everyone wants them to be at work. Now we lose women’s objective opinions and the team suffers from their lack of input. They have no opinion because they don’t even know what it is anymore; they’ve spent so many years pleasing others and trying to say what they want to hear. Of course, this is a trap. No matter what a woman does, often it is never enough; she will never receive total approval from others.

Conflict is inevitable. It is a natural, normal part of life. Where there are relationships, there will be conflict. A component of successful relationships is the ability of women to handle conflict in the boardroom. In fact, a couple’s ability to handle conflict is often considered one of the keys to a successful marriage.

A strong measure of managers’ success is their ability to deal with workplace conflict, not act like it doesn’t exist. No workplace is without conflict. When women lack productive conflict-management tools and don’t understand gender differences, costly problems can result, such as retention problems, low morale, and poorly functioning teams. Women can learn more productive responses and help others resolve their disputes.

The Chinese character for conflict consists of two different symbols: one for “opportunityapostrophe and the other for “danger.apostrophe All conflicts have the potential to pull people apart or bring them closer together. Women have the opportunity to take the bull by the horns and express the ultimate talent of creating a bridge and bringing people together. That is what we do well.

About the author:

Audrey Nelson PhD is an international corporate communication consultant, trainer, key note speaker and author of You Don’t Say: Navigating Nonverbal Communication between the Sexes is in 6 languages and Code Switching: How to Talk so Men will Listen.