8 bulletproof ways to help confrontations work for you and the person you're dealing with
She was intimidating - twenty years older than my 23 summers - but I had to confront her. I was her manager and her bullying of another female member of staff had to stop. Known for having her finger firmly attached to the workplace 'emotional temperature dial', she was apt to scream and shout, but also cunningly find and push any emotional buttons unwittingly presented to her. At least one colleague had been made tearful by this woman in the last week alone. I thought I had no particular fear of confrontation, but with her I wasn't so sure. So there we were.
She looked at me scornfully as if to say: "I may have to be here, but I don't have to listen. Careful what you say, Mister!"
I hated confronting her. Feeling like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the glamour, heroism, or glory, I'd been rehearsing what I was going to say all morning. I've always felt that undue emotion should be kept out of the workplace, just as we should refrain from pouring cement mix into a car fuel tank if we're actually trying to get somewhere.
"What's all this about then?" The growl was foreboding, like a warning rumble from a stumbled upon grizzly.
But having determined to stay calm, I surprised myself by suddenly feeling angry. Why the #@£! should I worry about upsetting her when she'd been bullying, manipulating, and caring not a jot how others felt?
"What it's about," I snarled, holding her petulant gaze, "is a grown woman acting like a kindergarten bully, throwing her weight around" - (she later tried to claim I'd been discriminatory because she was obese) - "being rude, lying, threatening, making personal comments to other members of staff. It's bullying and it's GOT TO STOP!"
The adult part of me was talking to the (extremely well-maintained) child in her. Stunned silence, dropped jaw (mine too), tears (not mine). There is an in-built mechanism within non-psychopathic males which has them immediately crumple into desperate capitulation the moment a woman starts to cry. To my shame, I backpedalled a little, tried to focus on her good points (even created a few that had never been evident) - all because the waterworks had switched on.
But she'd wrong-footed me, softened me up - and now she leapt back with a vengeance. She screamed, ranted, and raved. Millions of years of human evolution rolled back in a blink of an eye. When the toys were well and truly ejected from the pram, she flounced from the room. She wasn't the sort to generously give away the last word: "No one ever, EVER speaks to me like that!"
The dangers of unchecked high self-esteem, I mused as the door slammed.
Upshot? She did actually bully less, especially if I was around, and she never actually crossed me again. I could have handled it better, but it's hard to appeal to a better nature when it's so meticulously hidden. Most people you'll need to confront will be more reasonable; they may even be good friends to whom something just needs to be said. What is it about confrontation that can make us so uneasy?
Why do people fear confrontation?
Fear of confrontation prevents some folk from being straight and fighting their corner. A chronic fear of 'upsetting the applecart' may stem from a childhood spent trying to appease a fractious parent or from having lived in a family in which any disagreement felt like a huge deal. Undue fear of confrontation may stem from a fear of rejection. Wanting to 'be nice' all the time (regardless of how the other person behaves) is a fast-track route to repressed bitterness, and sends clear messages to the insensitive that "I can be treated poorly".
Always wanting to be 'nice' can backfire. If it does leak out that you're unhappy about something but you'd never mentioned it, you just seem two-faced. Or you might find that constantly bottling up what upsets you leads to an emotional explosion in which you do and say stuff out of proportion to the original problem, then end up feeling guilty.
Of course, some folk are addicted to the buzz of confrontation and this causes other types of problems. So, with this in mind, let's look at the first rule of good confrontation practice.
1) Decide whether confrontation is needed
Being good at handling confrontation doesn't mean needlessly shouting people out or creating problems where they didn't really exist. It's more to do with being clear in your own mind where the cut-off point lies before you say something. We can and should cut others some slack. Make your own rules, and then respect yourself enough to stick to them.
For example: "Okay, my neighbours have played loud music till late twice this week. They don't usually; I'll just see if they do it again before the weekend and if they do, then I'm going to talk to them!" It's up to you how many 'chances' you give somebody. Being clear in your own mind makes it easier to be clear with others when they cross that line.
2) Set some proper time aside
"Can we have a chat this morning, please? What time is good for us?" Treat it as non-emotional business. You don't need to wade in immediately unless they absolutely refuse to 'book a time with you'. If they ask: "What's it about?", you could say: "Okay, well, I was going to talk later, but since you ask: it's about..." If they feel intimidated by you setting a time, that's not necessarily a bad thing. There's nothing wrong with a bit of time for self-reflection (1).
3) Stick absolutely, completely, and utterly to the facts
Stick to facts to avoid messiness: "I've noticed you have been playing your music loudly until 1am." This is very different from knocking on the door and shouting: "What do you think you're doing? Who do you think you are? Where do you get off?"
What?! None of that stuff actually means anything. Yes, I know it means you're angry, but when you're confronting someone, they need to know immediately why you might be angry. Confrontation needs utter clarity.
4) Leave the insults in the playground
When I likened that woman to a "kindergarten bully", it felt satisfying. But it also gave her ammunition. She could sling my 'insults' back at me (especially as I was working within a professional capacity).
Like sticking to facts, binning the insults means you don't get sidetracked. Sure you're angry they've been thoughtless, but now they are 'allowed' to be angry because you've just insulted them. Now that becomes the issue diverting focus from what you wanted to discuss.
Cursing and insulting might discharge your frustrations in the short-term, but not as much as actually getting them to change their ways will do in the long-term.
5) The all-important "I" statement
Want to know how to make someone defensive? Start a sentence with the word "you". "You never...!" or "You always..." The word "you" actually stops people listening because all their focus now becomes directed at defending themselves.
But "I" statements will give them less to challenge: "I've noticed that you..." is a gentler start up and is unarguable. They can argue with "You...", but not with "I..."; if you tell someone you feel let down, they can't actually argue with how you feel (even if they think you shouldn't feel like that).
- "I want to talk..."
- "I've been noticing that..."
- "I have been hearing loud noise coming from your room in the wee small hours..."
6) Be sure to communicate why it's a problem
Once they know what the problem is (because you've stuck to the facts and started with "I" statements to keep them listening), don't assume they'll know why this is a problem for you. Tell them. Never, ever expect someone to be a mind reader. Some people feel that they shouldn't have to ask people to behave reasonably; because people should 'just know'.
But automatically assuming other people have your standards and values is a mistake: "Any decent person wouldn't do that..." So tell them to be decent! Make yourself clear.
- "The reason that loud music at 1am is a problem for me is that I have to rise at 7am to get the kids ready for school."
- "The reason that shouting at other staff members in front of clients is problematic is that it makes us all appear unprofessional and may lose us business." (And if they can't see why that's a problem, recommend they take a year-long sabbatical to some place far away.)
- "The reason never doing your own washing up is a problem is that it creates resentment in the house."
7) Tell them what change you expect and tell them the benefit (threats are a very last resort)
If you were dealing with an ultra-considerate and sensitive person, then you could be much more subtle but, again, spell out what changes you want to see, and tell them why these changes will benefit you both:
"Okay, in future can we please agree that if you have something to say to another staff member, you will talk to them in the office where clients can't hear and refrain from shouting?"
Seek agreement (if possible, in front of another 'witness'). If you need to confront them again, remind them of their agreement (this is where the witness may be useful). If they refuse to agree, only then resort to threats such as: "Okay, well it's a shame, but I'll obviously have to inform the police about this late night noise." If at all possible, though, avoid threats until all other recourses have been exhausted.
8) Above all, keep calm
Losing it lets them know that you are mad at them, but may confuse them as to:
- Exactly why you are mad at them.
- What you want them to do differently.
If you've lost your cool with someone, they may (not completely unreasonably) refuse to have any discussion with you in future. They may even feel the fact you became so aggressive is a worse misdemeanour than what you'd been angry with them about. But how do you stay calm?
The best way to keep calm is to rehearse not just what you're going to say, but also how you're going to feel. The best way to do this is through positive mental rehearsal or self-hypnosis. Fear of confrontation almost always arises from the expectation of an angry encounter.
Before you see them, close your eyes, slow your breathing, and just imagine yourself confronting them. See yourself looking so calm, being so clear, firm but fair; one clear message. Click on the audio link below to get a taste of how to do this. This creates a clear behavioural 'blueprint' for your mind.
All those years ago when I confronted my colleague, I lost my cool and handed her enough 'counter-accusation' material - such as, "he was aggressive, insulting" - to (almost) ruin my own case. Handling conflict effectively is a key life skill.