Shortly before I got married, my self-centered and abrasive boss took me aside and shared her delight with having a boyfriend who was a “pleaser” like me. She mentioned how wonderful it was to have someone who always tried to make things right between them, even when “it wasn’t his fault.” She implied that my husband would also be as lucky as her because I was a pleaser. At the time, I considered her comments a somewhat back-handed compliment, but also a warning. Since that conversation, I have pondered on what’s pleasing and not so pleasing about pleasing others, especially in conflict.
From an early age, I learned the art of pleasing to try to get what I wanted with the least amount of conflict possible. Whether at home, church, school, or work, I relied upon a very limited repertoire of conflict strategies, mostly avoiding and accommodating, to try to meet my needs in conflict situations. Somehow, I believed that if I could just be pleasing enough, I would get what I wanted in life: friends, security, love, intimacy, academic or professional success, and even the dishes that I like.
Dishes, Co-workers, and Integrity
Fourteen years ago, to accommodate my new husband, I agreed upon plates that I didn’t really like, but did care about considerably. After capitulating during our rather normal negotiation over plates, I resented my weakness for not representing my own interests enough. Day after day, those plates, though petty in the grand scheme of things, reminded me of my pleasing nature that was not always getting me what I wanted. While I could have taken the time to collaborate with my husband years ago, I had opted for the more familiar, quick, and seemingly less risky approach of pleasing that caused a minor chasm rather than a stronger connection in an important relationship in my life.
During this same period of my life, when my same abrasive boss criticized my co-worker for her poor writing skills during a staff meeting, I didn’t say anything forthright to defend my co-worker. I held back from defending my capable co-worker because I didn’t want to stir the pot as a new employee. Yet, by withholding a natural comment to defend and encourage my co-worker in front of our boss, I built up my own continued resentment for my boss. I also lost an opportunity to secure the full camaraderie of my co-worker. Later, while I did privately confront my boss about her critical comments towards my co-worker, I realized that I had missed the central moment with all of us together to build unity and cooperation among us.
In seeking to please my boss during the staff meeting, I severely displeased my own sense of integrity and goodwill. This resentment built up over time after multiple frustrating episodes with my boss leading to my eventual resignation. Finally, before leaving the company, I met with the CEO to discuss what needed to change in my department: mainly, my boss who bullied her employees into meeting her needs rather than building a team. Both at work and at home, I began to realize that my over-reliance on pleasing or accommodation secured my immediate peace, but often created deep caverns of resentment and unmet needs within me.
Do you ever agree to something even as small as a change in the budget or a staff meeting schedule that really matters to you? Are you accommodating when you really need to take the time to work out differences with important people in your personal or professional lives through collaboration?
Finally, in my forties, I have come to realize that by using only one or two approaches to conflict, I am severely restricting my potential for meeting my own needs and goals. Relying solely on accommodating (and often avoiding) to deal with conflict has not necessarily helped me find the love, approval, security, intimacy, or success that I seek. As a result, I am learning to expand my conflict tool-belt beyond pleasing or accommodating others.
Understanding Pleasing as a Conflict Approach
We are each seeking enough personal power and autonomy to realize our needs, wants, and goals. We bump up against others who may disagree, disbelieve, or simply appear to stand in the way of our achieving certain goals and desires. Yet, too often, when we encounter conflict, we think that either we must be the masters or the servants in our social relationships. With a narrow lens, we may only see two types of responses to conflict: I will dominate or I will be subservient. Fortunately, in the human world, we actually have several more responses for effectively handling conflict, depending upon the situation at hand.
When we attempt to please others in conflict, we are accommodating and, perhaps, avoiding and compromising, too. When we try to please or accommodate others, we are either ignoring our own interests, giving up something that we want, or giving up part of what we want so another person can get something he or she wants. While certain individuals may focus exclusively on accommodating others in conflict, whole societies and cultures, such as the Japanese, are founded on the principles of accommodation in order to preserve individual dignity, group cohesion, and social stability.
You may not be a regular pleaser yourself, but I bet you’re familiar with one. Based on the master-servant model, there are many pleasers and “pleased” among us. We all deal with conflict in different ways, but we do have five basic choices for constructively handling conflict that expands our repertoire beyond avoiding or accommodating. These five basic conflict styles are avoiding, accommodating, compromising, competing, and collaborating, which we can modify and adapt even as adults.
Conflict approaches are more based on learning and experience rather than mere personality or native temperament. Our preferred conflict styles and habits are heavily influenced by factors such as our family background, how we were raised, our confidence, our communication skills, our personal experiences, and our most intimate relationships. Some of us like to meet conflict head on and fight for our interests directly in a competitive manner. Others prefer to talk things through and bring the conflict out in the open collaboratively. Yet, still others, like me, may prefer or have the habit of the preventive approach: pleasing others to avoid potential conflicts.
Whether competitive, avoiding, or collaborative, each approach represents our efforts to satisfy personal and/or group interests. Some of our approaches to conflict are so habitual and familiar that they just seem like part of our personalities. For example, when someone flips Jack off on the freeway, Jack likes to drive ahead of “the flipper” and cut them off. Jack and his friends call him a “hot head,” but he’s developed these habits over time. Beyond a fixed personality trait, Jack has a choice in how he reacts to road rage.
Given this choice and the strong power of habit, I suggest we take the time for some self-reflection about our approaches to conflict to make sure that our approaches are really helping us achieve our goals, both personally and professionally. In this post, we now take a closer look at the benefits and drawbacks of the pleasing approach and figure out why some pleasers try to stop pleasing others so much.
The Benefits of Pleasing
Pleasing others may come with generous personal and social rewards. I have lived in cultures like in Japan that are founded on the principles of accommodation and avoidance. The benefits of pleasing others in conflict may include some of the following:
- People tend to rely on you
- People may tend to treat you with kindness in return
- You gain a reputation as a considerate, mild person
- You are complimented on your generosity and likeability
- You may build group unity by sacrificing your personal goals and desires for the benefit of the group
Why I Try to Please Others
While many writers and psychologists emphasize that fear and even co-dependency may underlie pleasers’ approaches to conflict, I believe pleasing and accommodation to involve more complex motivations. As you read through this list, consider that pleasing behavior may be motivated by fear, but also by love, concern, empathy, personal values, optimistic expectations, and family culture.
- I love and care about people
- I empathize with other people’s concerns and desires
- I fear being rejected
- I fear not being able to get what I want if I use a different strategy
- I hope that others will return the favor of accommodating
- I learned to please in my family, and this way of life feels most natural and familiar to me
- I can show respect for people in positions of authority in my life
- I want to demonstrate my goodwill towards others
- I want to set a precedent of generous behavior with others
The Downside of Pleasing Others
While pleasing behavior may be associated with many positive values, virtues, and outcomes, overutilizing this strategy in conflict may have several downsides for both the pleaser and the “pleased.”
- The pleaser may be taken advantage of by others who see pleasing behavior as weakness
- The pleaser may overuse this conflict approach and fail to please his or herself in essential relationships
- In over-utilizing the pleasing approach, the pleaser may generate resentment, which destroys feelings of intimacy and connection with others
- People may have a hard time getting to know the “real” person behind the pleasing behavior
- The pleaser may be condoning destructive or abusive behavior that not only hurts the pleaser, but also hurts the perpetrator of the “bad” behavior
- The pleaser may fail to prevent a group spiral into destructive paths that could benefit from boundaries facilitated by more assertive conflict approaches
Recognizing the Limited Conflict Toolbelt of Pleasing
Whether we’re in a conflict over who gets the last cookie, the best parking spot, the opportunity to go first, or what account to chase, we have many options for how to behave in conflict situations that go beyond pleasing.
If you are a pleaser or work closely with one, you can begin experimenting with new approaches such as compromising, competing, and collaborating to build stronger, more authentic relationships with others. In meeting conflicts with a full tool-belt of responses, you will find more personal satisfaction, but also more satisfaction from others who are better able to sense your real needs. See my December 2016 blog post for more information on the five basic conflict approaches.
Four Questions with Four Answers about Pleasing Others in Conflict
Why do we please others?
Having been raised as a pleaser, we may be very familiar with the pleasing approach and understand the cues of this approach. We may have a certain confidence that pleasing others will get us where we want to go. Likely, we have had success in using this approach to our benefit in the past.
Even if we have not always been happy with our habit of pleasing others, we may not be familiar with other ways of dealing with conflict, or we believe that conflict approaches are unchangeable parts of our personalities. Finally, we may be socially rewarded or admired for our ability to use the pleasing approach in a variety of social settings depending upon our status, culture, and specific social roles.
Why may we want to stop pleasing others?
We may stop wanting to please others in conflict when we experience failures in using this approach. In our frustration or sincere distress, we may look for better answers to resolving the conflicts that we face. In short, we get tired of not getting what we want out of life. We may find that we have come up short and want better answers.
Perhaps, we have outgrown a certain overall approach to life and find that we need more fine-tuned or nuanced skills that relate to the grays of our social situations. We may observe and learn about more effective or alternative approaches that seem to work for others. When we have a small success trying a new approach, we may wonder if the particular approach will work better on a larger scale in our lives.
How do we stop trying to please all the time?
The first step in expanding our approaches to conflict beyond pleasing comes with self-reflection. Do we recognize our basic strategy or strategies in conflict and their related outcomes? When my boss directly called me a pleaser, I knew that something felt wrong about her label of my overall personality. In my mind, I thought, “I’m more than that. I can stand up for things I believe in without being cowed into submission by a stronger voice or personality.”
After recognition comes learning what other strategies are possible. Do I understand how to compromise, collaborate, and compete effectively? Am I familiar with the process of each approach and the ideal conditions for using each of the five main conflict approaches? To gain confidence and insight, I may need to read up on the research and talk with trusted friends about my particular patterns in conflict.
After learning the basics of the five general approaches, we then focus on practicing these approaches in real-life situations. Rather than saying yes to a request for a favor, I might reveal that I am too busy right now. Or, rather than avoiding talking about a raise with my boss, I might plan how to role play a conversation with my spouse so I don’t freeze in the moment. I pick specific situations to try out new approaches and use trial-and-error to learn.
Naturally, I plan for some discomfort and awkwardness as I adapt my natural conflict styles to new situations and strategies. I review my efforts and make small (and large) tweaks as needed. Perhaps, I even ask a trusted friend or confidant for feedback about my new communication approaches so that I can understand myself better from a wider perspective.
What happens when we expand our conflict approaches beyond pleasing?
As we grow into adulthood, we begin to see and experience the “grays” or the “nuances” in social interactions or conflicts with others. We usually are better able to see from others’ perspectives and understand that many conflicts are multifaceted and involve rights and wrongs at many different levels. While our more uncomplicated view of the world may have reinforced the need for “pleasing” or accommodating most differences with others, our continuing need for intimacy, authenticity, and self-actualization as full-grown adults may demand an enlarged toolbelt for living with differences.
In more recent years, I have realized that pleasing others continually is like trying to hold your breath underwater: you only have so much lung capacity until you need to come up for another deep breath before submerging yourself again. But, even with the occasional puffs of air from the top, you’re still mostly underwater. Perhaps, you have felt this “underwater” feeling when you’ve had difficult house guests for too long, or you have held your tongue in a staff meeting week after week only to find yourself exploding at the smallest provocation. When we expand our conflict repertoire, we not only breathe easier, but allow others to do the same.
I’m not saying that we should not accommodate others in a variety of conflict situations, but I am saying that accommodation reminds me of the “rude American” who tries to speak English wherever she goes no matter the nation or country she is visiting. The rude American strums one key when there are many others to be played in social interactions. On the flip side, the savvy traveler expects adaptations to new cultures, languages, and customs. She expects diversity, and is prepared to meet it with a variety of approaches to conflict, drawing from a large tool-belt of skills and perspectives.
Undoubtedly, changing our approaches to conflict will take time and effort, but the possible rewards of authentic collaboration, satisfying competition to back up important values and goals, and thoughtful compromise that reflects respect for both parties will build stronger, more productive relationships both at work and at home. Maybe dishes don’t matter to you, but a new job, higher pay, increased responsibilities, and more true negotiation and sharing of goals may produce improved, positive results in your personal and professional lives.