Confrontation. Doesn’t the word send chills down your spine? When you contemplate talking to a friend, family member or romantic partner about something they did to upset you or something you need them to do differently, does it fill you with dread?
You might imagine the other person becoming upset or angry — even rejecting you. You might imagine saying the wrong thing and inadvertently causing offense.
There’s not a lot of information available these days about how to engage in constructive confrontation — the type that’s more likely to result in a good outcome than a bad one — but this is an essential skill as things are opening up, post-pandemic.
These days, when your interpersonal skills might be a bit rusty, it’s more important than ever to communicate your needs and feelings in the most constructive manner possible.
There are two criteria required for a successful confrontation:
- The person delivering the message has to be clear, concise, kind and respectful;
- The person receiving the message must be reasonable, vs. hostile, defensive, paranoid or crazy-making.
Constructive confrontation depends on both the person speaking and the person listening. If either one of you doesn’t meet the above criteria, the confrontation won’t be successful.
If you want to confront someone and you want it to go well, you need to take responsibility for how you deliver your message in order to maximize the other person’s ability to receive it, and you need to ask yourself how likely it is that the other person will respond appropriately.
People you shouldn’t confront:
If you sense that the other person is likely to react badly to confrontation, it’s better not to confront them at all, and you might want to reconsider being associated with someone who is incapable of receiving constructive confrontation in a reasonable manner.
This type of person will never be able to respond positively to your needs or feelings, and you’re likely to be constantly frustrated in your dealings with them.
A more extreme example of an unreasonable response to confrontation is someone who you’re concerned will become violent or vindictive.
If the thought of confronting a particular person makes you fear for your personal safety, or if you imagine the other person engaging in a vendetta against you to “punish” you for having “dared” to confront them, this is clearly a dangerous person from whom you should immediately distance yourself.
The silver lining of confrontation is that it’s a test of the other person’s ability to be an ally. When you foresee confrontation with them being unsafe, it means that they’ve failed the test and that most likely, they should be avoided.
What do you want out of the confrontation?
Once you’ve ascertained that there’s a good possibility of the other person being open to hearing what you have to say, it’s time to ask yourself what you want out of the confrontation.
People often tell me that what they want is for the other person to understand how they’d been hurtful; to feel bad for what they did, or to drastically change the way they behave.
The thing is, there are limits to confrontation. It can clarify where you’re coming from, but it can’t make the other person change how they feel, think, or behave.
This is up to them and you’ll only know the outcome of the confrontation by observing the other person’s behaviour, during the confrontation and moving forward.
Why do people fear confrontation?
I’m thinking that discomfort with confrontation comes from previous attempts that didn’t go well. Maybe you didn’t go about it properly; maybe the other person was unreasonable?
The good news is that even if confrontation was problematic for you in the past, it can become a good tool for relationship-building, now and in the future.
You don’t have to be so fearful of confrontation. You just need to know how to do it the right way, and how to identify those people who might not be willing to hear what you have to say.
The pitfalls of avoiding confrontation — anger and alienation:
When you avoid confrontation and hold back your feelings, they tend to accumulate internally, transforming into resentment and even anger.
Inevitably, the anger will leak out in the form of snide remarks or passive-aggressive behaviors. Sometimes, it can explode outward in a tirade against the other person.
Avoiding confrontation is meant to prevent conflict, but suppressing your feelings will almost always backfire. If you don’t leak anger or explode in frustration, the relationship could fall apart from a lack of honest communication.
Avoiding confrontation makes you emotionally disconnected from other people. When you aren’t being authentic about what’s bothering you, it creates an invisible wall, ultimately leading to alienation.
The key is learning the skill of constructive confrontation, but this easier said than done. First, you’ll have to overcome your discomfort with saying something the other person might not want to hear and risking possible rejection.
The fear of rejection:
You should know that as long as you’re doing it right, a caring, reasonable person won’t abandon you for confronting them about an issue.
If someone truly cares about you and is more or less emotionally intelligent, they’ll be responsive to constructive confrontation. Anyone who gives you a hard time has just shown you that they’re incapable of meeting your needs.
The benefits of constructive confrontation:
Constructive confrontation can foster greater intimacy and trust. Sharing your needs and feelings can deepen your connections and when confrontation results in a good outcome, it deepens the trust between people.
Five tips for successful confrontation:
1. Start by being affirming. Let the other person know how much you value the relationship, and that this is why you’re sharing your concerns.
2. Don’t be accusatory. Make “I” statements like, “When you did such-and-such, I felt uncomfortable (or unhappy, or upset, or angry).”
3. Avoid absolutes: Don’t say, “You always do X,” or, “You never do Y.” It puts the other person on the defensive. Instead, say, “I didn’t like it when you did X,” or, “I’d really like you to do Y.”
4. Choose an appropriate time and place. Do it somewhere quiet and private, to avoid embarrassment, and hold off if the other person is not up to receiving feedback in the moment.
5. Pay attention to the other person’s reaction. They need to accept your feedback and then change their behaviour. Ask yourself if they’ve passed or failed the test.
Time to hone those emotional intelligence skills:
Things are opening up and we’re all getting back in touch with the people in our lives. That means you’ll be negotiating your needs with friends, family and loved ones. Confrontation can be a daunting proposition but like anything else, the more you do it, the easier it will become.
After a few successful attempts at talking to people about the things that are important to you, your confidence will grow and constructive confrontation will become second nature to you.
The people in your life will get to know you better, and you’ll be able to see who you can trust, and who you need to leave behind.
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