Confrontation: a necessary part of communication

Do you cringe at the thought of contradicting a co-worker? Do you run the other way rather than confront your boss? Maybe you prefer to sweep a troublesome issue under the rug and pretend it doesn’t exist, instead of dealing with it out in the open.

If you are shaking your head affirmatively, recognizing yourself in one of the above scenarios, you have plenty of company.

Few people are comfortable in the face of opposition. We don’t go looking for trouble but, in the normal course of events, differing opinions do arise and unresolved issues rankle, thwarting the progress of well-laid plans.

Confrontation is a necessary part of communication. However, you can relieve some of the pain of the experience by knowing when and how to confront.

When you need to confront:

Not every disagreement merits confrontation. But if the issue is important to you, and if your relationship with the other person is ongoing and valuable, take the time and energy to put things right.

Structure the event with a plan. Prepare yourself by focusing on exactly what you want to say. If history is relevant, be concise and to the point, don’t rant or lecture. Think how the other person is likely to respond and practice using neutral language.

Surprises put people off balance. Show your respect by allowing the other person to prepare, as well. Say: “There’s an important issue I’d like to talk with you about. When would be a good time to get together?” Suggest a secure environment for your discussion that will feel private and impartial. Ask, don’t tell: “How about the second floor conference room?”

When you get together, affirm your appreciation of the other person and your commitment to your relationship. Then get directly to the issue. Don’t be vague or leave the person guessing at this point. Speak for yourself with “I” statements: “I am angry (frustrated, disappointed, demeaned…).” “We are working together on this project and I don’t expect surprises at the staff meeting.” “I have been open and honest with you and you have taken advantage of me.”

Don’t be afraid to express the behavior change you need: “In the future, I expect you to…” “From now on, I prefer you…” When necessary, be clear on consequences: “If this situation continues, I will…”

Get comfortable with using confrontation as a communication tool. Don’t confront and then pretend it never happened.

When you are confronted:

When you are on the receiving end of a confrontation, keep your emotions in neutral gear. If you are surprised, be especially quiet until you are sure you understand what is being said. Use your active listening skills and carefully paraphrase: “Before I respond to what you have said, I want to be sure I understand you correctly. You are concerned that…is that right?” Listen again and ask, “Is there more to the picture?”

Make an effort to understand the issue from the other person’s perspective. This is not the time to justify yourself, but rather the time to show a generous regard for your relationship with the other person. We can learn more from the people with whom we disagree than from the people who think just like we do.

When confrontation does not resolve:

Interpersonal conflicts generate stress. While a small amount of stress is good in that it motivates people to seek resolution to their differences, mega-stress or distress occurs when stress is prolonged and not dealt with in a positive way. The physical and emotional state that results from distress can lead to illness, from headaches to heart attacks.

When disagreement becomes overwhelming, feelings can grow intense and unmanageable. A trained mediator will structure the communication process and provide a safe, controlled environment for dealing with divisive issues.

A mediator guides the parties toward their own solution by helping them to clearly define the issues and to understand each other’s interests. Business disputes submitted to professional mediation services usually enjoy a high settlement rate because the disputing parties have complete control over the process, costs and outcomes.

The benefits:

It takes a powerful strength of character to face confrontation with discipline and mental clarity, and to risk the vulnerability of opening ourselves to understanding and accepting an opposing point of view. The efforts, however, deliver substantial rewards, as evidenced in committed work teams, enhanced creativity, cooperative change, and trusting relationships.

Mary LaPlaca, MS, owns Vanguard Educational Services in Traverse City. She will be teaching a class on “Managing Differences” on April 22 from 6-9 p.m. Cost is $40. Call 922-1700 to sign up. Questions and comments on the column are welcome. E-mail BIZNEWS