Confrontation is difficult, sometimes almost debilitating. It’s usually easier to pick a fight with our spouse rather than simply sit down and say, calmly, “You are being disrespectful and that is unacceptable.”
Even when we do gather up our courage and confront someone, it can horribly wrong. You have the best intentions in the world, but your confrontation turned into a bitter argument without resolution.
And that’s the real problem: the lack of resolution. If we knew that our confrontation would end with a solution, it would be a little easier to start the discussion. Knowing that there’s a good chance your efforts will result in a fight and negative feelings, what’s the point in even trying?
While many of us would just like to ignore problems life is not so accommodating. People do stupid things, even cruel things. People make mistakes. Relationships change and expectations need to be adjusted. Problems must be resolved. So how can we navigate the stormy waters of confrontation without falling into a fight? Here are my top three tactics. When you approach a disagreement with these techniques, you bring peace and harmony with you, which increases the odds of resolution.
We make lots of assumptions in conversations, and that’s not always a bad thing. Effective conversation requires interpretation some assumptions. But these shortcuts can be stumbling blocks. I mean, what man wants to hear “We need to talk” from his wife? He automatically assumes he’s in trouble! But maybe she just wants to talk about her boss at work, or ask a logistics question. It doesn’t matter, because the man is starting the conversation from a place of defensiveness and anxiety. He won’t be able to listen as fully and may try to avoid the conversation entirely.
When you need to confront someone about an issue, there are always assumptions underlying your concern. These assumptions are what makes the prospect of the confrontation so frightening. In order to cut right through that fear, use the question to clarify your assumptions.
Here’s an easy formula to use:
- When you said (or did) ____, I assumed you meant X and became afraid/angry/nervous/defensive
- What did you really mean by ____?
For example, maybe you’ve been invited to a financial presentation and you assume the person inviting you thinks you’re incompetent. Otherwise, why would she invite you to attend a financial presentation? You feel angry and insecure. Ask a question! Say, “Hey, I know this sounds silly, but did you invite me to this presentation because you think I’m bad with money?”
Be Cheerful and Stupid
I can’t take credit for this tip from Dr. Joy Browne, but I certainly use it! This is useful when you have extra information that is unconfirmed. We all hear gossip, make accidental discoveries, and overhear snippets of conversation. This can lead to an assumption that seems like a confirmed fact. But until we hear the words from the other person’s mouth, it’s not confirmed. (I know people lie, but that’s another blog post). Being cheerful and stupid brings lightness to the discussion and allows you to ask questions without being accusatory. It can also open your mind to a new point of view.
Maybe you invited a new friend, Mabel, to lunch with friends and didn’t hear back. But then, you showed up for lunch and Mabel was there, chatting up your friends. You might feel angry that Mabel didn’t have the courtesy to reply. You might feel insecure that Mabel likes your friends better than she likes you. If you start talking to Mabel from either of these emotional states, it’s possible that the conversation will end badly. Instead, start by being cheerful and stupid. You’re cheerful that Mabel came to the lunch and you’re stupid in that you don’t know what happened to her email. This leads to a natural question, “Hey, did you get my email?” with a pleasant tone.
Give the Benefit of the Doubt
This is the most powerful way to bring peace into confrontation. When you assume the person in question acted in good faith, your mind will automatically be more open to a resolution. In addition, you are freed from anger and other relationship blocking emotions. The classic example is when someone stands you up for an appointment. You can be angry at her selfishness, chronic lateness, absentmindedness, etc. Or you can assume that something prevented her from arriving and be concerned. Regardless of why she actually didn’t show, when you confront her with concern for her health and safety, the entire conversation will move from argument into affirmation.