We all know when there is a need to confront others, but many of us are afraid to do it. We may not have done it well in the past or we don’t like head-to-head confrontations. It is a disturbing thing to do. It takes us out of our comfort zone. It is always an emotional experience. However, if we don’t act, the problem could magnify; it could put our job in jeopardy; or the other person could blow up irrationally. We may be afraid that a confrontation could escalate the problem rather than resolve it. It could cause retaliation. We might hurt the feelings of the other person. It might cause unforeseen adverse consequences.
Nevertheless, it is better to act directly to address the problem, even if painful truths are unearthed and aired.
Indirect approaches usually unsuccessful
“How are you going?” “How do you feel you are doing in this job?” These harmless questions are often the type of verbal smokescreen that people use to start a confrontationist conversation. This may appear to be a tactful way to start a confrontation with a staff member, but they know instantly that something unpleasant is on the way. It is a hidden agenda, a smokescreen. It doesn’t lead anywhere useful.
Nor does the ‘sandwich’ or ‘biscuit’ lead in. Even though this is the approach recommended by the legendary Dale Carnegie, people are more sophisticated these days. The approach involves saying something positive first, then hitting with the bad news – the cream filling – before finishing with a more positive finale. This causes many people to start sweating as soon as they are paid a compliment – they are waiting for the kick to follow.
Another way is to give them a soft message in order to avoid hurting their feelings. But frequently the other person may not even realize you have given them a particular message.
Heavy-handed approach doesn’t work
The opposite of a tactful approach is the heavy artillery, To avoid unpleasant discussion, some people arrive, quickly fire the bullets and depart before someone becomes difficult. This is weak and inconclusive way to deal with problems, although it comes across as bullying. It is also known as the seagull technique: an executive arrives in town to do the confronting: they fly in, dump the unpleasantness on the recipient, and then fly out.
Confront in 3 stages
The best way is to go straight at the issue – get to the point and say it in one minute flat. Then you immediately ask the other person to respond.
Susan Scott, business coach and author of the book Fierce Conversations, advocates confrontations in three stages:
- Opening statement
Preparation of your opening statement is essential. Write down your opening statement and practice saying it out loud. If you don’t rehearse out loud, you will find yourself fumbling the words.
Susan Scott recommends 7 parts to your opening statement:
- Name the issue. Get to the core in a few words. If you can name it concisely, you can control the discussion.
- Decide on a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation you want to change. You lose credibility if you don’t have an example. Be concise.
- Describe your emotions about this issue. Say “I’m upset,” or “I’m angry” in low- key tones.
- Clarify what is at stake. State why this is important. Use the words “This is what is at stake.” Talk calmly and quietly.
- Identify your contribution to this problem. Be honest. For example, “I have contributed to this problem by…”
- Indicate your wish to resolve the issue. Saying, “This is what I want to resolve,” communicates your good intent.
- Invite your partner to respond. You have not attacked the other person. You have been respectful, clear and concise. You can say, “I want to understand what is happening from your point of view. Please tell me about what’s going on with…”
Do all this in one minute. Be sincere.
Your role is to extend the invitation. When the invitation is extended with grace and skill, it will be accepted even by those who are considered difficult.
Most people prefer being confronted like this rather than in an indirect, weak way.
Enquire into the other person’s views. Simply listen. Ask questions. Drill for deeper understanding. Paraphrase their points to confirm your understanding: “I understand from what you say that you do this because….” Don’t be satisfied with a superficial response, an attempt to stay guarded. Keep probing: “Tell me more about it…”
You are often tested severely in this phase. The other person may get angry or accusing. It can be emotionally draining. But try to focus on the other person’s reality and their filters. Don’t raise your voice.
When the other person knows that you fully understand and acknowledge their stance, move towards resolution, which includes an agreement on what is to happen next.
Ask, “What have we learned here?” “What is needed for resolution?” “How can we move forward from here, now that we have a better understanding of each other’s position?”
Make an agreement and determine how you will hold each other responsible for keeping it. Ask, “What’s the next thing you need to do?”
Scott says, “When we confront behavior with courage and skill, we are offering a gift.”
Try this formula for yourself. Write down exactly what you will say in your opening statement. Practice delivering it until the words come out as you want.
With courage and practice, your discomfort in confronting difficult, but important issues will lessen over time.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. His wide-ranging career includes roles as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer and business manager. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.