When You're Backed Into a Confrontation Corner

About nine years ago, I wrote a four-part BLArticle® miniseries dedicated to dealing with how to handle difficult behavior without direct confrontations.  There are a handful of ways to professionally avoid confrontations… but that doesn’t mean there’s never a need for a confrontation.  Sometimes, despite our best efforts to resolve and diffuse a situation using any number of professional techniques, a confrontation may be necessary.

I don’t want to encourage you to just be cautious, or tread lightly. I want to provide you with a well-thought-out process that will protect you.  I haven’t had to use it often, but I’ve always had a healthy level of confidence just knowing it’s there.  So, when all else fails and a confrontation is necessary, I’d suggest you lean on this six-step process that has served me well:

Step One: “I need your help…”  By beginning your discussion this way, you accomplish two tasks.  First, you have a simple transition to begin your conversation.  In addition, beginning this way will reduce the feeling of an aggressive confrontation to follow: You are beginning by setting the stage for a frank conversation.

Step Two: “The situation is…”  Perhaps the most important step of all, using these three words forces you to describe the situation, and encourages both parties to deal with the facts; not the feelings.  Clearly state the problem, and do your best to restrain yourself from using the word “you.”  This will help the individual you are confronting to look at the situation for what it is, and reduce the chances of an emotional response.

Step Three: “The results that causes are…”  Now you can begin to shift gears: Allow the individual you are confronting to see the results or consequences of his or her actions. Explain the problem these actions are creating.  Once again, avoid using the word “you” and stick to facts; not feelings.

Step Four: “I personally feel…”  This is an optional step, depending on the relationship you have with the person being confronted.  If it is an established relationship – such as a spouse or close friend, this step may be appropriate.  However, if you do not know this person well, or you are unclear whether to even use this step, avoid it.  Unfortunately, those who don’t know you well really won’t care how you feel personally. The conversation runs the risk of spiraling out of control because of this reference.

Step Five: “In the future…”  At this point, you can begin outlining the solution, recommendation, or suggestion you are presenting. This is the hopeful resolution of the problem, and the avoidance of the possible confrontation. Make it a fair and reasonable solution, and stick to it!

Step Six: Gain agreement  This final step allows you to see if the problem is solved for the person you’re confronting.  It also makes it more difficult for that person to create the problem again.  Don’t assume anything here.  If the person you are confronting agrees, push forward.  If this person cannot agree, spell out consequences.  In a corporate environment, make sure you clarify exactly what the consequences will be before any confrontation.  You don’t want to create a conflict between you and the company you are working for by stating consequences that were not agreed to.

At Xerox, the consequences were very clear for not being able to change disruptive behaviors, and the failure to have a person agree to change those behaviors.  Every instructor understood this before ever stepping in front of a classroom.  Those consequences were to rebook that student’s flight, and send that person home – immediately.  In my ten years at Xerox, I can remember the times I was unable to get someone to behave properly, and I actually needed to have a confrontation; twice.  I can also remember the number of times I could not gain agreement and needed to implement the consequences; zero.  I was able to clearly communicate what the consequences would be, and I knew I had the commitment of the company behind me.  This empowered me and gave me all the confidence I needed.

There are so many ways to correct the behavior of others without a full-fledged confrontation: Asking questions, listening to the answers, and having these conversations, in private, are just a few tactics you might use.  This technique should be used when other options have failed, because, when done properly, this should be the last conversation you have regarding this problem.

Related: The Danger Is at the End, Not the Beginning