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Ask Conflict Res: How to deal with an aggressively opinionated classmate

Dear Conflict Resolution,

I don’t know how to talk with a classmate about something she said. She is very aggressive in her opinions and won’t accept others’ — even when I have research to back up my point. I was so upset after our last class that I was shaking. How do I make the situation/class less stressful?

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— Stressed Out

Dear Stressed Out,

Thanks for writing!  Being part of the CSU community exposes one to great diversity of perspectives, beliefs and opinions — and communication styles.  While this can be a wonderful opportunity to learn, it can also be incredibly difficult at times.

The first thing to do is to ask yourself: What values of mine are being challenged?  If you find yourself physically shaking, it seems clear that some part of you feels “under attack.”  Maybe you value critical thinking, open-mindedness, acceptance, etc.  Pinpointing exactly why you feel so upset can actually help you feel better and deal with the situation.

Take time to validate your feelings.  The values you identified are important to you, and it feels like they are not being respected.  It makes total sense that you’re upset.

Next, clarify your goal.  Make sure it’s specific and realistic.  Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, so it’s unlikely you’ll completely change your classmate’s way of thinking.  So what is a reasonable goal?  Maybe it’s to be composed when she triggers you.  Maybe it’s to change the way you communicate with each other when you disagree.  Maybe you want to prevent yourself from being shut down in conversation.  Once you have a clear goal, you can start developing a strategy to move forward.

You may want to have a conversation with this person.  If so, find a comfortable place outside of class — maybe a coffee shop. Be friendly, and show an interest in her — creating a connection with her can make communication easier.  If possible, bring up something you actually do like about her (“I was really impressed by your presentation on …”).  When you feel ready, calmly bring up your concerns.  You might start by saying, “I’d like to talk to you about something that has been bothering me …” or “I want to share my feelings about …” Avoid making negative judgments about her (“You’re so aggressive!”).  Ask for what you want and seek her input about how you could work together to achieve that.  Be prepared to listen to her side of the story.

If that doesn’t help, try talking to your professor about your concerns.  They might be willing to establish some ground rules to promote more constructive discussions.

Hope that’s helpful!  If you would like additional assistance, call our office at (970) 491-7165.  We offer free and confidential conflict coaching to all CSU students.

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About: Ask Conflict Res is a monthly article by CSU Conflict Resolution staff.  We’d love to hear your questions regarding conflicts with roommates, professors, advisors, classmates, co-workers — you name it.  Email your questions to Brooke.Wichmann@colostate.edu.  All names will be kept anonymous.

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