Up until my early teen years, I dealt with confrontation by not dealing with it. My reasons for staying away from it were confirmed one day after school, when some friends urged me to “confront” another friend about a string of issues. To say it was disaster will be putting it mildly. Nothing much was accomplished beyond yelling, name calling, accusations and character assassination. I walked away without a resolution and even more convinced that confrontations are a total waste of time.
Like many people, my response to confrontation became “it makes me uncomfortable”. For many years I avoided confrontations at all cost, often sweeping things under the rug. This did not change until my sophomore year in college and an encounter with a social psychology professor who changed my perspective on confrontation.
Disagreements and conflicts are going to occur in the home, in relationships and in the work place. Wherever human relationships exist there will be the need for confrontation. Many of us do not have the necessary tools to deal with difficult conversations, and as such most of us avoid confrontation. Because of how confrontation often plays out, it has earned a negative reputation. However, confrontation doesn’t have to be destructive – it can actually be constructive when done the right way.
In Latin, confrontation means “to turn your face toward, to look at frontally”. Nothing about this meaning connotes negativity, rather is signifies courage, the courage to face any thing, situation or person squarely.
It is important that we change our perception of confrontation. Learning how to ‘confront’ constructively will teach us how to speak up in all situations and also avoid the breakdown of our relationships. In work environments specifically, avoided confrontations or badly handled confrontations can affect the overall atmosphere, make teamwork ineffective and eventually lead to reduced productivity.
As a psychologist, I help people confront various issues, hurts and pain in their life. A central part of this often involves having difficult conversations with family members, friends and co-workers. I facilitate these conversations often with the goal of conflict resolution and I have seen the healing power of confrontation when it is done right.
While a third party might help ease the process of having difficult conversations or confronting our loved ones, friends and colleagues, a professional mediator is not always needed for these difficult conversations. I’ve learned a thing or two after working for six years to help people embrace confrontation. Here are some steps you can take to make these difficult conversations a little more bearable. These steps can be thought of as three stages: Preparation, Conversation and Closure.
Preparing for confrontation
• Timing is everything.
Do not attempt to have a confrontation in the heat of the moment. This is because emotions are heightened and it is hard to carry out constructive conversations drenched in emotions. Give both parties some time to cool off.
• Do not wait too long
However, it is also important not to wait too long to confront. This is for two main reasons. Human beings by nature tend to brood over things and so are likely to turn events over and over in our minds and stir up more emotions. Secondly, we are more likely to discuss it with people who we know will have a bias towards us and will further stir up our emotions.
• Pick a time and location that both parties are comfortable with.
This might seem trivial, however this is necessary in order to confront on an even playing field and not give anyone the perceived upper hand.
• Decide if you need a mediator.
It is important that this person is neutral and someone that both parties trust.
• Be clear on the purpose of the conversation.
Both parties should be clear on what they hope to gain from the conversation. In a work place setting the supervisor who may mediate the conversation may make it clear to both parties that the goal is to allow a cordial effective working relationship to exist. This is important because as with most things if you do not determine what you are trying to achieve you end up getting lost along the way.
• Do it in private
You do not need an audience for this type of conversation.
Having a difficult conversation
• Clearly state your experience.
Each party should speak on their experience of whatever led to the confrontation. However it is important to only speak on your thoughts and feelings. Do not speak on or make assumptions about what the other person’s intentions and motives were.
• No personal attacks.
Avoid making personal attacks on each other’s character. Stay focused on each other’s actions. For example phrasing your thoughts like “I felt like your actions were inconsiderate” will be better received than “I feel you are an inconsiderate person” . The former statement will also be less likely to make the other person defensive.
• Find the balance between grace and truth
As you speak try to find a balance between being truthful and graceful. This often lies in our delivery of the truth. You goal should be to speak your truth and not to hurt the other person.
• Make sure you understand clearly what you are each saying.
In communication a lot of things get lost in translation because people do not always hear what you intended to communicate. Practicing this may make the conversation a little longer but is well worth the time. After you make a statement, ask the other person to repeat back to you what they heard you say. This gives you a chance to clarify any misunderstanding.
• Stay on task: Stay on the issue under discussion. Try not to stray to other connected issues or issues from the past that have been resolved. Do not even use them as examples to buttress a point you are making.
• Own up to your mistakes: Take ownership of the role you played in the disagreement or conflict. Clearly state what you did wrong
• Do not be afraid to apologize: It is a sign of maturity. However do not apologize if you are not ready to and the apology will not be genuine. It is okay to state that you need time to process the conversation and will make an apology when you are ready. An insincere apology ultimately does more harm than no apology.
• State what you have learned and will do differently: Conflicts are often wasted opportunities for growth. If we pay attention there is so much we can learn from conflicts. State what you have learned and what you could have and will do differently going forward.
• Agree to stop talking about it: After a constructive conversation has been had do not keep bringing it up especially to others.
In Latin, confrontation means “to turn your face toward, to look at frontally”. Nothing about this meaning connotes negativity, rather is signifies courage, the courage to face any thing, situation or person squarely. This is especially important for supervisors and managers dealing with conflict in the workplace and/or between employees. Our unwillingness to confront others is often an indication of our unwillingness to confront ourselves and this can be a major hindrance in our self-growth. Like every other skill, we get better at it with practice. Start practicing constructive confrontation today.
Dr. Carol Mathias-O’chez (Ph.D.) is an educational psychologist passionate about helping people thrive in all areas of their life. Currently the in-house psychologist at SOS-Hermann Gmeiner College, she has a Doctorate and Masters in Educational Psychology and a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology. Connect with her on Instagram.