It’s natural for toddlers to test the waters with their parents and defy authority. In fact, their defiant behavior actually provides an opportunity for adults to teach them valuable social skills.
But what happens to the children who don’t learn those valuable skills and, therefore, don’t outgrow their oppositional tendencies? Well, you guessed it—they become adults with oppositional tendencies toward authority figures and even toward peers, whom they frequently perceive as “bossy.” Make any kind of suggestion to these people, and you can almost hear the little voice inside their heads saying, “Don’t tell me what to do!”
If you are this kind of person, you might get frustrated or angry when talking with others and even feel sad afterward if you don’t get your way. Or if you have to deal with a person like this on a regular basis, you might feel similarly, because every conversation inevitably turns into a battle (or a stalemate).
The good news is that I learned some tricks that will put a stop to those exhausting clashes when I spoke with Deborah Serani, PsyD, a psychologist in private practice in Smithtown, New York, who has had lots of experience counseling oppositional people and the people who have to deal with them. Check out her useful strategies…
DEALING WITH AN ABOMINABLE “NO-MAN”
When you’re talking with someone who is oppositional, try at least one—if not all—of these approaches from Dr. Serani. You may not be able to change the person, but you almost certainly will find that your conversations with him or her go more smoothly and are less stressfull…
Understand the reflexive behavior. Remain calm when the person objects to what you are saying or confronts you, and don’t take this defiance personally. Instead of biting back right away, stay silent for a few moments and breathe deeply. Remember that this person’s response probably has nothing to do with what you said, specifically, and everything to do with how his mind works. His personality encourages you to get drawn into a tug of war. You don’t have to play, though.
Go against the grain (reverse psychology). Try suggesting the opposite of what you really want. For example, if one of your coworkers is an oppositional type and you think that he should send a certain e-mail, try saying, “You probably don’t want to e-mail Jane, so can you call her tomorrow?” If your coworker is truly oppositional, his first response will be, “No, I’m going to e-mail Jane.”
Give choices. Let’s say that you’re willing to have Mexican, Greek or Italian food for dinner, but you know that your dining companion will reject whatever type of food you present as your first choice. Solution: Don’t give a first choice. Instead, suggest two or three options that would be OK with you and then let your companion choose one of those. This way, the other person will not feel that he was “told” where to eat dinner…and you’ll dine at a place acceptable to both of you.
Drop and wait. When you have a feeling that your idea will get shot down, simply plant the seed in a wishy-washy, nonauthoritative way and then drop it. For instance, say, “I was thinking we could go to Washington for the long weekend, but I’m not sure.” Then walk away or, if you’re on the phone, say, “I have to go” and hang up. The oppositional person will be flustered, not knowing how to respond, since your statement was open-ended. This tactic also doesn’t give the oppositional person the opportunity to provide an instant and impulsive reply—it forces the person to slow down and take some time to think about what you said. It’s best to not even follow up with the person at all—let the oppositional person bring it up later on, and, at that point, after the cooling off period, he is likely to be more amenable to your idea.
IF YOU’RE MARY, MARY, QUITE CONTRARY
Dr. Serani also offered some tips for people who are resistant and tend to perceive statements from others as commands—even when they’re not. Nor sure if you’re oppositional? Think about your friends, family members and boss(es). Do you find all or most of them to be bossy? Is your first impulse to disagree with them no matter what? Do all or most conversations leave you feeling angry, frustrated or sad? If the answer to these questions is “yes,” then it may not be everyone else who has problems—this may be hard to swallow, but it may be you who has the problem. Every conversation doesn’t have to be a debate that leaves you feeling awful. Believe it or not, it’s possible to have a civil, pleasant conversation with someone! Here’s what you can try…
Keep a diary. At the end of each day or week, in a journal or on your smartphone, write a brief synopsis of the times when you were oppositional and what caused you to react. This may help you realize whether you have certain specific triggers. For example, do you react this way only to certain people? Or only at certain times of the day—perhaps when you are tired or hungry? Or do you act this way only when you’ve drunk extra caffeine or alcohol or smoked (or not smoked) a cigarette? If you notice any patterns, this will help you figure out how to correct the problem.
See an MD regularly. Make sure that you’re seeing a general physician at least once a year to make sure that your oppositional tendencies aren’t a side effect of a physical condition, such as an overactive thyroid or low blood sugar (both of which can make people more irritable).
Count to five. In any conversation, pause before responding and give any impulsive urges you might have a chance to dissipate before you open your mouth. Look at the person you’re speaking to and really listen to what she’s saying before you shoot her down. You might actually find that, sometimes, you agree!
Give yourself an out. If you have a hard time waiting five seconds before speaking and you do blurt out something that is antagonistic, it’s never too late to retract your statement. Come back with, “On second thought, that is a good idea. I’ll do it.” Never be afraid to admit that you were wrong.
Try saying “Yes!” Spend one day saying “yes” to everything that people say to you or ask of you—just as an experiment, whether you truly believe in the “yes” or not. When you try this out, you might find that you feel a whole lot better. And the experiment may inspire you to say “yes” more often.
Consider counseling. Some people are simply oppositional by nature (they’re essentially born that way), but others become oppositional later in life for a different reason, such as depression or another serious mental health problem. If none of these tips help you become less oppositional, it never hurts to see a counselor for talk therapy—whether it’s a social worker, a psychologist or a psychiatrist—to try to get to the root cause of what’s bothering you and to learn even more coping mechanisms.