Fight, flee, freeze, or …?

When confronted by significant differences of opinion with others, aggressive communication or manipulative forms of behaviour, particularly from those in more senior positions, many employees are overwhelmed and overcome — they either fight (respond aggressively or sarcastically), flee (get out of the situation as quickly as possible) or freeze (absolutely dumbstruck, they become speechless, or maybe burst into tears). The humiliation experienced evokes a variety of intense emotions, rendering logic powerless and the ability to respond appropriately weakened. Disrespectful “attacks”, like those mentioned above, unseat one’s sense of personal value and dignity — one feels minimised and “put down”. A persistent culture of disrespect, blaming and put-downs lowers morale and makes for a toxic work environment, resulting in:

  • High absenteeism, as people stay at home instead of speaking up
  • High staff turnover, as employees would rather resign and look for alternative employment
  • Pent-up emotions, leading to stress and underperformance
  • Emotional reactions, even hostile or violent responses

All employees have the right to feel respected in the workplace, to be treated fairly and honestly so that dignity within relationships is upheld. Standing one’s ground as an employee is not easy to do calmly and respectfully, but the skill of assertiveness puts the employee in the position where criticism, put-downs and aggression can be dealt with effectively. I offer some suggestions and a recipe to assist with the development of assertive communication:


  1. Create space — giving yourself time for emotions to subside creates space for logic to kick in. You need time to think, so you could say: “I would like to talk to you about this matter, but I need time to think it through. Could we meet later to explore this?”
  2. Only stand your ground on principle or value issues, but be open to be influenced on speculative issues, opinions or ideas. None of us have all the right answers, so we should be open to different thinking.
  3. Work through your emotions, calm down and realise that your intrinsic value doesn’t lie in others’ opinions of you. Ask: “What am I feeling right now? Why am I feeling this way? Is what I am feeling really true?”
  4. Take stock of things that you potentially can change towards improvement.

The assertiveness recipe:

  1. I see/I understand/I hear — attempt to understand why the other person is behaving or talking in a certain way and convey this to him or her, e.g. “I am sensing that you are irritated by…” or “I understand you to be saying that …”
  2. When you … — state the problem behaviour (action/inaction) and communicate specifically when doing so. Do not make assumptions or refer to attitude or perceived motives, but keep it problem-centred and not personal.
  3. I feel … — describe how this makes you feel. Keep this brief and professional and avoid using high voltage terms (like furious, totally mad, devastated, etc.). Rather use lower voltage words (like frustrated, anxious, confused, nervous, etc.)
  4. Because … — state the consequence of the action or inaction for you, the business or both. In the business context, this is usually a quality, productivity or relationship problem caused or risked by the behaviour, e.g. “this may demoralise the team” or “this may have negative repercussions on productivity levels”.
  5. I require/I need/I expect — negotiate ways to address the problem. Start with an asking approach. If that does not have the desired results, state what you want to see changed or what you want to be done about the situation, e.g. “I would appreciate you discussing this with the team before shouting at the team in front of the customer”.
  6. Or … — state the consequences if the problem is not addressed. Be specific and realistic. Do not make threats, but suggest possible outcomes, e.g. “the team may resist any instruction coming from management and ignore production expectations”.

The skill of assertive communication is essential if one is going to influence others in a self-confident manner, exercise leadership and effectively deal with criticism and resistance. Employees can express their needs, opinions, beliefs and concerns, but they should do so calmly, directly and honestly. Shakti Gawain notes: “Assertiveness is not what you do, it’s who you are”.

Originally published at on November 17, 2019.




Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.

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Jonathan Mills

Jonathan Mills

Jonathan has spent over 30 years focusing his efforts on developing people throughout the world. He believes that people have the most impact when stretched.

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