Confrontation Is An Act Of Respect: Why Leaders Should Encourage More Of It

“Gosh, couldn’t we have avoided that confrontation? I thought we got along better than that. Did it really have to come to that?” Most of us think of confrontation as a bad thing. Someone gets hurt. So, we tend to treat confrontation as something that should be avoided. But, if done right and with the right intentions, a confrontation is really an act of respect.

There are two definitions of “confront” in the dictionary: 1 – To face especially in challenge. 2- to cause to meet: bring face-to-face. Neither of these definitions sounds especially ominous. How many of us would cower at the prospect of facing the facts or being challenged? Yet, when I ask participants in leadership training that I teach, what they think of when I say the word “confront,” they reply, “fight, hurt, damage, provoke, attack” and so on. But, if confronting really means to “face with the facts,” they agree that is how it should be. I will then ask, “How many of you like to confront?” In most of the leadership workshops, not one person will raise his or her hand.

Once in a while, one or two participants will tentatively put a hand up. One exception occurred in a training workshop a couple of years ago. When I posed that question, one man eagerly raised his hand right away. I approached him during break thinking, “He must have had some similar training in the past to view confrontation as something so positive.” But no! As we talked I discovered that his prior job was to repossess cars. O.K. So, much for confrontation as an act of respect, at least for this man.

Intellectually, most people accept the idea that confrontation can and should be a good thing, a constructive rather than a destructive act. I pose this question. “If you were doing something that interfered with a team member’s ability to do their work, accomplish an important objective, would you want them to tell you about it?” The answer is, of course, always “yes.” That is a form of confrontation. They are facing you with the facts. That is a universal.

People in leadership roles understand that feedback of that sort is critically important. You won’t survive long without knowing the consequences of your own behavior. Nor can you be successful as a leader if you are unwilling to give that kind of feedback to team members when their behavior interferes with your goals or the goals and objectives of the team. Why then, is there such a stigma attached to confrontation? It is, of course, because of our history with confrontation, our past experiences.

Many of the confrontations that we have lived through were hurtful, destructive and caused permanent damage to the relationship

So, it must be the way we go about it. There are, I believe, two basic kinds of errors that we make when confronting: we add things that are not factual or we leave out important facts. Let’s look at each of these separately.

So, what is it that we tend to add? Often, rather than “facing with the facts,” we often begin confrontations with inferences or judgments. Inferences are conclusions that we draw from our observations, not descriptions of actions that we have experienced directly. In a confrontation, inferences are typically assumptions about the other person’s intentions or motives. There are few more certain ways to guarantee a defensive response from another person than to start the conversation by accusing them of deliberately interfering with your objectives or of being negligent.

No matter how intelligent, sensitive, empathic, or awesomely analytical we are, we cannot see into the mind of another human being

We do not have direct access to what’s going on inside the head of another person. So statements like, “since you didn’t take the time…,” or “since you don’t care about…,” or “just because you don’t think this is important…,” all contain assumptions about the other person’s intentions and motives. All of these statements contain guesses about things that we cannot know for certain. They are inferences. They are not direct observation. The person may not return my e-mail (direct observation), but any statement that I may make about their reasons for not doing so (inferences) are speculation.

We may also add judgments. “You shouldn’t have waited so long to get started…,” or “If you were a good team player…,” or “you shouldn’t use that tone…,” are all judgments. In other words, the confronter has put him or herself in the position of being the authority of what is right or wrong. These kinds of statements all carry the not-so-subtle message that the other person is wrong, or in extreme cases, bad. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture a response from the other person that goes like this. “What gives you the right to say that I’m not a team player? I can’t manage my time? Who do you think you are to be talking about my ‘tone’?” and so on.

There are also more subtle ways of adding judgments to a confrontation such as “sugar-coating” and joking which are also judgmental. Both are apt to contain an underlying belief that the other person is weak. Like the Jack Nicholson character said in “A Few Good Men,” “You can’t handle the truth.” So, I am going to soften my message so that you won’t fall apart. Pretty insulting stuff when you think about it! So, stick to the facts.

What, then, are the facts? What is it that we tend to leave out? One thing that I have discovered about confrontation is that it is a form of feedback. You are giving another person information about how their actions impact the world.

Since you have a relationship with the person, the consequence of their behavior on your ability to meet your objectives is important information. We get feedback about our behavior all the time. I flip a light switch and the light comes on. I sit in a chair and it supports my weight. I send an e-mail and I receive a reply. But this kind of feedback, the kind that points out the effect of a person’s behavior on another’s ability to meet a need, is unique in several ways.

Most participants in leadership training have had some prior education about giving and receiving feedback. It is an important topic in many leadership and team development workshops. One of the principles that we learn about feedback is that it is most effective when asked for. That is, as your team leader, if I come to you and say, “Tell me when I do something that causes you a problem,” you are more likely to do so and I am more likely to listen to you when you do (This is not always true of course, but that is a topic for another article.). The inherent problem with confrontation is that it is almost always unsolicited. It is unasked-for feedback.

Even though you may accept the idea of constructive confrontation and feedback, such messages often come with little warning. You didn’t get up this morning hoping that someone would come to you with some information about how your behavior is interfering with their ability to do their work. So, there are some special rules that apply to this situation. If I am to give you unsolicited feedback about your behavior, I believe that I have the obligation to answer these questions: 1. What is this about? 2. Why is this my business? 3. And how important is this?

As is often taught in leadership training and as mentioned is a couple of recent posts on Gordon Training International’s website, the I-Message does a good job of answering those questions. “What is this about?” is answered by the “non-blameful description of the behavior.” This is a statement that tells the other person exactly what it is that they did or said without any inferences, judgments, or assumptions. This is what I saw you do. This is what I heard you say. Period.

i-messages feelings emotions solving problemThe “Why is this my business?” question is answered in the I-Message by the “concrete and tangible effects.” This is what I cannot do or must do as a direct result of your actions. What is the connection between your actions and my ability to meet some important need of mine? The “How important is this?” question is answered in the I-Message by a word or short phrase that describes the sender’s feelings or emotions. That is the gauge of how big a stake you have in solving the problem. Is this just a minor matter or is it something I have been lying awake at night trying to sort out. Am I just a little frustrated or am I really scared about this?

If you leave out one of these components, it leaves the receiver of the message with an incomplete understanding. Without the description of the behavior, they will often wonder, “What exactly did I do (or not do)?” Without the statement of concrete and tangible effects, they may ask, “Why are you saying this to me?” No statement of feeling and the response may be, “So? What’s the big deal?”

If we leave out any one of these parts, it puts the receiver in the position of having to guess about the missing part. That, of course, increases the chances that they will guess wrong. They may think, “Oh, he is just a little annoyed. He’ll get over it,” when the sender is extremely upset or angry. Or, “This must be about what happened during the meeting,” when it was really about the lack of a reply to the e-mail. Or, “She is just looking for an excuse to leave early,” when it is really about not having the information she needs to complete her report. I believe that it is my responsibility to be thorough and complete when I am the one initiating the confrontation.

Sending a complete I-Message without the added assumptions and inferences is an act of respect. There is no such thing as a communication event with only a single message. There are always certain underlying messages implied in the nonverbal components of the statements. You cannot, of course, control how the other person will interpret your message, much less your intentions. But, you can take responsibility for eliminating the most egregious errors.

Excise your inferences and assumptions. Make sure your message is complete. By doing that, you reduce the likelihood that the other person will misinterpret your meaning. A clean I-Message still contains some assumptions but they are the kinds that tend to be constructive and helpful. A good I-Message says, “I think that you are the kind of person who, if you had done something that interferes with my ability to meet my objectives, would want to know about it. You would want to know exactly what it was that you did, how that impacted my needs, and how important it is to me. I also believe that you are the kind of person who, if you can, will try to accommodate me or, at least, be willing to join me in problem solving.”

Even though I am seldom eager to hear how I have caused someone else a problem, I appreciate being respected enough that the person is willing to come directly to me and face me with the facts. That’s lots better than avoiding me or attacking me or being vague. So, have at it. I can take it. In fact, the more you confront me the better. When you give me clear feedback about my actions, it allows me to learn and grow as a leader. Without that I can get stuck repeating the same mistakes over and over.


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