The Art of Supportive Confrontation

For most of us, the idea of “confrontation” automatically creates a sense of unease. In fact, one of the definitions from Merriam-Webster of “confront” is “to oppose or challenge (someone) in a direct and forceful way.” In this mode, it is understandable why we would be concerned about the reaction of the recipient, and perhaps doubtful as to whether or not we have the skills to move through this in order to obtain a good outcome.

However, one of the other definitions to this same word is “to deal with (something) in an honest and direct way.” This is what so often gets lost in organizational life. When we don’t deal with things in “an honest and direct way” a host of unintended consequences occur – emotional reactivity, low risk-taking, inconsistent accountability – and I could add another half-dozen elements to this list.

I have defined “supportive” confrontation as initiating a conversation that is focused on the values, principles, or standards that we’re committed to, rather than on personal frustration, allegations, or blame. When we are willing to take the appropriate risk to step into what may (or may not) be a difficult conversation, we often get better results that by avoidance, complaining, or triangulation.

Part of what we need to balance is being sensitive to others, yet not being hamstrung by the possibility of negative emotional reactions. One thing I learned about working with folks who are in the emergency medicine field is that you simply cannot let your own feelings get triggered – whether it is because of sadness about the traumatic situation, or anger because of a non-compliant patient. The goal is to simply be of service. Yes, there are times when additional support or “downloading” is useful, for we don’t want or expect those professionals to be robots. It is how we channel our energies in our defined professional roles.

Here are some tips for the “art of supportive confrontation.”

  • ·Before you start, see if you can separate the “business conversation” from the “feelings conversation.” You may have to have both at some point, but if negative emotions leak or are projected into the business conversation it is doubtful you will achieve positive results.
  • If you will be talking to someone who is defensive or an “interrupter,” ask at the beginning if you can contract for an uninterrupted space of several minutes to get out what you have to say. Then, you will give them the same gift of your full attention.
  • Remember that none of us respond well when someone – even with good intentions – tells us what we need to do. Speak from your own experience, and invite the other person to understand your perspective.
  • Balance advocacy – making declarative statements – with inquiry, or the ability to ask the questions that will open up the dialog.
  • Logic and reason are useful tools, however without empathy and flexibility they can set up a defensive response, as the other person will come back with their counter-argument.
  • Try to avoid falling into what my all-time favorite book title describes – “We’d Have a Great Relationship If it Weren’t for You.” See if you can share your contributions to the situation, which sets the table for the other to do the same.

Think of Luke Skywalker being trained by Obi-Wan Kenobi to use the light saber. When Luke was complaining about the floating orb that was zapping him, the wise elder instructed him that his frustration would keep him from using “The Force.” The use of the Force is not to inflict injury or seek revenge, it is a universal guiding principle of integrity, courage, and justice. Can you find your own balanced way of stepping into the difficult conversations? It’s not always easy, however without this useful technique we have less options for meaning, fulfillment, and results.