A few years ago, back in my big-wig corporate days, I was taking part in an executive workshop on leadership skills that lasted several days. As part of this workshop, we had the opportunity to bring up some of our current real world challenges, discuss them with the group and even explore some possible solutions through role play. One of my colleagues presented an issue he was having with one of his employees. He felt that she had a personal problem with him, and was therefore not performing her duties to his satisfaction. He didn’t know how to approach the issue. This man was an HR director, the person in charge of teaching others in the company how to properly deal with people, how to resolve conflict, and judging by what I saw during the rest of the workshop, he was quite good at his job. But when it came to his own issue, he was stuck. Why? This man was skilled at resolving professional conflicts and even the personal problems of others. But the fact that he believed this employee to have a personal issue with him, hit too close to home. It triggered a fear that we all have to one degree or another – a fear of confrontation.
Just mentioning the word confrontation is enough to make a lot of people break out in a sweat (you may actually be sweating now). Why is that? This fear stems, in part, from a misunderstanding of what it actually means to confront someone, as well as the fact that many of us simply never learned how to successfully challenge someone else’s behavior or opinion. Well, fear no more my lovelies. Because today, we’re going to confront the fear of confrontation.
Let’s bust some myths about confrontation
Myth #1 – Confrontation has to be ugly. One of the main reasons that people fear confrontation, is because they assume it’s going to get ugly. There’s a belief that when you challenge someone, the relationship will always end up worse off than it was before. But this isn’t true. When confrontation is handled correctly, it actually strengthens the relationship by opening up lines of communication and removing obstacles to a deeper connection. If you’re thinking “Yeah, right, you haven’t met my boss/husband/aunt bitchydoo”, keep reading.
Myth #2 – “If I confront someone, they won’t like me anymore.” This one stems from the belief that our self-worth is determined by the approval of others. The problem with this belief is that we can’t control what others think of us, and so we’re always playing a losing game. And since we can’t control their opinions of us, it doesn’t make any sense to twist ourselves into knots and put up with being unhappy for the sake of trying to influence that opinion.
What exactly is confrontation anyway?
We tend to equate the act of confronting someone with fighting, aggression, defending ourselves, standing up for ourselves, etc. These are all images that result from the belief in Myth #1. The dictionary doesn’t help much either. It talks about defiance and hostility. But the act of confronting someone doesn’t have to be hostile. So, I’m going to offer a new definition here, something with a slightly higher vibration behind it:
Confrontation: the act of voicing a disagreement or discord, with the purpose of resolving (as in eliminating) the conflict, leaving the relationship between both parties in a new, better feeling place.
This isn’t some airy, fairy, wishful thinking definition. Everyone can learn to handle conflict resolution in a way that actually leaves both parties better off.
Why Confrontations Can Turn Ugly
Now obviously, a lot of confrontations do turn ugly. In order to understand how to avoid this, we’ll need to spend a couple of minutes exploring what actually happens when things go south.
Let’s say you want to confront your colleague at work about the fact that she never puts her dirty coffee cup away. Every day, she leaves the dirty cup in the sink, for someone else to place into the dishwasher. Now, you realize that this is a small thing, and you feel a little bit ridiculous saying something about it, so you don’t. But it still bothers you and every day, when you see that dirty cup in the sink, you get just a little more irritated until, finally one day you’ve had enough, and you can’t take it anymore. You take the dirty cup, stomp over to her desk and through gritted teeth inform her that you are not her mother and it’s not your job to clean up after her disrespectful ass. Her reaction is less than accommodating. Go figure.
The fact that this confrontation went bad is due to several underlying problems:
- You let the problem fester until you exploded. Every time you saw that dirty coffee cup in the sink, you took it as yet another sign of disrespect. It was as if she was offending you over and over again. Over time, her behavior was completely blown out of proportion in your mind – she might as well have been pooping in the sink. But you never said a peep until your resentment and anger quite literally exploded out of you. When we wait to confront issues, our emotional reaction to them can get completely out of hand.
- You tied the coffee cup to something else, something that has nothing to do with your colleague. Whenever we have a negative emotional reaction, it means that some underlying, limiting belief is being triggered. In this case, the clue was in the fact that a dirty coffee cup was able to trigger such anger. Clearly, there was more going on here, but it was easier to blame your colleague than to take responsibility for your reaction.
The key to a successful confrontation, one that matches my definition above, is to approach these situations authentically. As you may have guessed by now, this does mean doing a bit of work on yourself before you ever have that conversation.
BEFORE you confront:
- Figure out what’s really bothering you. What belief is being triggered? Why do you care about the stupid coffee cup, for example? Perhaps you feel responsible for picking up everyone else’s slack. Why? Because you feel that if you don’t, the whole world will just fall apart (remember that beliefs are rarely rational). But is that true? Would that coffee cup actually trigger the end of civilization as you know it? If you find that you’re reacting to some underlying belief, release that belief before you confront the other person. On many occasions, the confrontation will become unnecessary (the behavior will stop bothering you.)
- Determine what it is that you really want the outcome to be. In the workshop example, the HR director thought that what he wanted was for his employee to admit that she had a personal problem with him. He wanted to clear the air and didn’t know how to go about doing that without the whole thing blowing up in his face. But after some discussion, we determined that what he really wanted was for this employee to perform certain tasks differently than she was currently doing. Clearing the air was simply what he thought he had to do in order to get what he actually wanted. Focus on the end goal, on what you truly want, not on the steps you think you need to take to get there.
- Focus on what you want the outcome to be, NOT on what you want to avoid. For example, instead of thinking, “I want her to stop defying my instructions”, go for “I want her to deliver the reports on time and in the format I requested.”
- Make sure you’re not making any assumptions that you have no proof of. They are not doing this to you on purpose. They probably have no idea that their behavior is bothering you. We often assign all kinds of evil characteristics to the other person when they’re doing something that bugs us, as if they could read our minds. They can’t. So take the approach that this is a misunderstanding. People generally have a perfectly good reason for everything they do. They are not all idiots whose sole purpose is to make your life difficult.
- Make sure that the outcome you’re focusing on is win-win. If you’re secretly just trying to be RIGHT, instead of actually trying to resolve a conflict, things aren’t going to turn out well.
- Expect a positive outcome. If you’re feeling apprehensive, you may well be focusing on what you’re afraid might happen if things go south. We tend to get what we expect, so clean that up before you have any kind of conversation with the other person.
How to successfully confront someone
Note: All of these steps presuppose that you’ve taken the time to prepare using the pointers above.
- Stay calm. There’s no reason to get upset, or to raise your voice. You’re not defending yourself against an attack, you’re just providing information. Again, assume that the other person did not mean to inconvenience you (or whatever), and has no idea how you feel.
- Ask questions and get the real story. They may have a perfectly valid reason for doing what they’re doing. For example, the HR director’s employee might’ve discovered that doing the reports differently was more efficient. So, before you ask them to make a change, find out why they’re doing it their way in the first place. Also, make sure your tone is inquisitive and not accusatory. “Why do you insist on leaving your stinky, dirty cup in the sink?” isn’t going to get you any information. Yes, you may have to do some serious work to get the bitchy tone out of your voice, but the fact that there’s a bitchy tone at all, is a clue that an underlying belief of yours is being triggered and your reaction has nothing to do with the cup.
- Don’t ask the other person to STOP something, but rather to START doing something different. For example, instead of asking his employee to stop screwing up the reports, he should request that she start doing them his way instead.
- Don’t attribute emotions or motives to them. When confronting your husband, “You obviously don’t care” is going to be less helpful than “when you do that, I feel like you don’t care.” These two statements are going to elicit very different responses. Focus on your feelings, not theirs, and own your responses.
The actual conversation part of the confrontation becomes much easier if you’ve taken the time to adopt the right mindset and clean up your vibration. In the case of the HR director, once he got clear on what he actually wanted and began to focus on that, stopped attributing all kinds of evil and defiant motives to her, considered the possibility that she might’ve had some really valid reasons for doing things the way she did and removed the triggers that were causing disproportionate emotional reactions, the conversation became easy.
The main problem that we have in confrontation is that what we’re actually confronting often has nothing to do with the words coming out of our mouths. When we get clear on what our own motivations are, on what we’re really trying to accomplish and allow ourselves to deal with others in a truly authentic way, we allow for much deeper connections with others. Conversations become less about assigning blame and responsibility and more about understanding and compromise. And this applies equally in professional as well as personal settings. Yes, it takes work. It means asking “Why is this bothering me?” over and over again until you get to the heart of what you really want. It means learning to give others the benefit of the doubt.
But it also means that you’ll no longer feel afraid to speak your mind. You’ll no longer assume that doing so will make people defensive. You’ll learn how to ask for what you want in a way that others will be happy to accommodate. You’ll begin to see others in a new light – not as rivals that you need to protect yourself from, but as other creators that you get to play with.