Confrontation and You: Steps to Success

This post is a review of Michael Hyatt’s podcast from Season 2, Episode 5: How to confront someone who offends you (or others) without ruining your relationship.  I strongly encourage you to go listen to this podcast, it’s fantastic!  Everyone struggles with confrontation, but I think men have a particularly hard time with confronting without causing damage.  Hopefully this article will give you some new techniques to improve your confrontation skills in any relationship.

Michael presents 6 steps to handling confrontation.  As you read through these, I want you to picture confrontations you’ve had in different important relationships.  Perhaps you recently had a disagreement with your wife or children.  Perhaps you’ve disagreed with a parent or in-law.  Remember what happened, and now ask yourself “what could I have done differently?”  I’ve added some of my own discussion to each step below:

1. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt.  It’s a good thing this one is first, because without this step you won’t get anywhere.  I personally have found that this one step can solve probably half of the arguments I have whether at home or at work.  There are so many times I have responded poorly to a comment from my wife when I assumed the worst.  Many harsh words later, the truth of her real intention was uncovered, but it was too late.  Words are like arrows: once loosed, they can never be recalled.

There’s a second part to this step: you don’t have to confront every minor injustice you encounter.  Michael gives a great story in his podcast that just touched my heart.  A passenger on a commuter train is riding home one evening when a man and several children get on the train.  The children are poorly behaved and bouncing all over the train.  The man seems aloof and distant.  After a certain amount of time, the first passenger decides to confront the man about their behavior.  The man responds “Oh, I’m so sorry, they just lost their mother and we’re all pretty broken up about it.”

We never understand what’s going on in another person’s head, and rarely know all that’s going on in their life.  It’s so easy, so human, to just assume the worst.  Give them the benefit of the doubt.  When you’re in that situation, you will definitely appreciate those who give it to you.

There’s one final part of this step I want to talk about: I believe there are times we are called to accept injustice (especially when done to ourselves) with a Christ-like mindset that welcomes suffering.  In Colossians 1:24, Paul says ” I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.”  Responding well to another’s injustice comes through grace.  Open up and allow that grace to come from Our Lord.

2. Purpose that you’re going to speak directly to the person responsible.  There are times when you, out of Christian love, believe you must confront another.  In those times, it is super critical to talk only to the person directly.  There are several critical reasons why this is so important:

First, if you gossip with another first and the offender finds out, it’s over.  Many a friendship has been ruined this way.  In Matthew 18:15, Jesus says ““If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.”  Isn’t this also just common sense?  Would you rather someone bring an offense directly to you, or to gossip behind your back?  Extend the same courtesy, and preserve your relationship.

Second, this negative behavior says something of your character to the other people.  When we gossip, we define who we are.  The others who listen to us then (rightly) assume that we’re likely to gossip about them too.  Do you want to be known as a gossiper?  This behavior can damage relationships beyond the initial offense.  Don’t be that guy.

One final note: there are times where legally or morally you are obligated to get another involved (HR, for example).  In those cases, act quickly and keep the matter as private as possible.  Even in those cases, where possible, try to confront the person directly as soon as all legal and safety issues have been resolved.

3. Affirm your commitment to the relationship.  This is a hard step that I quite often forget, but it is so important.  I find it particularly important when confronting my wife.  She is particularly sensitive to my admittedly harsh mode of confrontation.  It can sometimes be perceived not only as an attack, but that I do not value her.  It is so important to soothe that fear.

I also sometimes struggle with this when a conversation starts out pleasant, but slowly turns confrontational.  There’s no clear point sometimes about “we are now fighting!”  In those cases, even if you’ve gone further than you mean, it’s a good idea to stop and say “Honey, I know I may sound upset, but I want you to know that I am committed to your happiness no matter what.  We are in this together and we will make it.”

You know it’s true.  You might forget it in the moment, and so might the other person.  So say it!  It builds up the strength of the relationship, allowing it to bear the load of this confrontation.

4. Outline the issue as objectively as possible.  Don’t exaggerate.  Don’t make things up.  It’s really simple: either they see the problem or they don’t.  In the former, exaggeration distracts them from the truth, and the in the latter it sounds like an attack.  I recommend preparing what you want to say beforehand.  It might be a good idea to write down some bullet points that you think are important.  It sounds silly, but it’s so easy to drift.

The second part to this I believe is to not respond to exaggeration.  Often when confronted, people respond with “Well, that’s only because you always do …”  Don’t respond to the “always” part.  No, it’s not true – but that’s not essential to what you want to talk about.  Focus on the issues, and stay objective.  It takes two to escalate and build.

Remember they don’t have to agree with you – either in whole or in part.  The goal is not to persuade them by dramatic recount of the events.  Your confrontation will be much more effective if you stay objective.  Give them time to think it over.

5. Be clear about what you expect and what you want.  I think this particular step is what benefits the most from early planning.  It suffers the most from exaggerations and misrepresentations.  I find that many of my arguments came about not because we disagreed about the issue, but instead that we misunderstood what the other was actually asking for.

I remember a simple story: there’s two elderly women living in a house who both suddenly decide they want an orange; but there’s only one left.  After a great deal of bickering and arguing, they agree to split it 50-50.  The first lady peels off the skin, throws it away, and eats the flesh.  The second lady peels off the skin, then throws the flesh away.  She uses the skin to create a zest, it’s all she wanted.  What a waste!  If only they had paused to clearly state what each one wanted!

This can happen in any disagreement.  Think carefully about what you want, what you expect to happen, then communicate it clearly.  Let them disagree with what you actually want, rather than fighting a phantom of misinterpretation.

6. Explain the consequences, both positively and negatively.  This might sound similar to the above step, but there is a critical difference.  What you expect and want is what might happen.  The consequences are what will happen.  It’s often the “next step” of what is wanted and expected  Let’s use some examples.

The other day my wife pulled me aside and gently told me that she thought I was being too hard on the children.  After explaining what she meant, she told me that she’d like to see less anger when I’m disciplining.  (This is what she wanted and expected.)  She then suggested that the consequence of not doing it would be a damaged long-term relationship.  The consequence of changing would obviously be a deeper and more meaningful relationship with them.

In my last review at work, my boss pointed out that I am sometimes a little bit late.  After expressing his desire that everyone be there promptly on time, he explained the consequences.  In this case, my tardiness was not so grievous that it would cost me my job.  Instead, the consequence was more subtle: my team felt like I wasn’t engaged and didn’t care about them.  This in turn was draining team moral.  It would be difficult to get a better review without a unified team.

It may sound silly – shouldn’t everyone know what the consequences are?  Not at all.  We cannot leave it to be assumed.  Spell it out!  Save yourself the chance of miscommunication.

So there you have it, these are Michael Hyatt’s 6 steps to healthy confrontation that will build relationships rather than damage them.  His podcast is filled with many more fantastic stories and examples, and I really encourage you to go listen to it!  Subscribe to the podcast, and you’ll appreciate it.

Question: What confrontations have you had that went particularly well, and what was the key to success?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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