We hate confrontational people...well, if not exactly hate, then we at least try to avoid them, because frankly, they’re unpleasant when they're angry: up in your face, neck veins bulging, and temperature rising. Even if they’re not losing their temper, steely-eyed confrontations with authority figures create fear, and we will forever loathe the next conversation with them. We begrudgingly admit that sometimes, confrontation is necessary. It’s uncomfortable and ugly, but we’ve gotta do it.
Confrontation has gotten a bad rap. Here, now, I want to declare that confrontation is a good thing, and it is one of the most important skills you need as a leader. Leaders need to respond thoughtfully and immediately to issues that arise and that may impact business results: interpersonal conflict, performance issues, stalled team processes, poor ethics, breaches in customer service, etc. Candor and honesty are the important currency of good leadership; the art is in the delivery.
Candor and honesty are the currency of good leadership; the art is in the delivery.
Confrontation: A New Definition
If effective confrontation is a respectful request for a new behavior or behavior change, then we can confront situations and issues that arise in our organizations with candor and transparency. Often, we hesitate to confront someone because we fear to do so will make the relationship worse. We may think that the person’s reaction will be emotional or angry, and we may go to great lengths to avoid the person. Often, the real reason we don’t confront is that we don’t feel confident that we can pull it off well.
Confrontation does not have to involve conflict, and we can prepare to have a conversation that confronts undesirable behavior in a way that feels respectful to the person and to ourselves.
Preparing for a Successful Confrontation
You can set the stage for a productive confrontation conversation by considering the elements below:
In person, in private: If at all possible, meet with the person one-on-one in a private setting. If your office is not conducive to a private conversation, go somewhere else! Imagine how you would like someone else to have an important conversation with you—probably not out in the open or in front of others.
Positive nonverbals: Your facial expression, tone of voice, and mannerisms all communicate something to the other person. Even though there are some cultural differences with regards to nonverbal communication, we generally believe that making eye contact means we are focused, engaged, and respectful. Behaviors such as a slight incline forward of the body and an open facial expression also help to demonstrate respect.
No excess emotional baggage: To maintain control in a confrontational conversation, you want to keep calm and focused on the specific issue at hand. If this is a challenging relationship, don’t bring up everything this person has ever done that has been disappointing or upsetting to you. Preparing for the conversation will help reduce the potential for becoming overly emotional or getting your buttons pushed.
Using “I” messages: Own your thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Use “I” statements to help the person understand what “I” want and what “I” need, rather than using generalizations.
Focus on desirable behaviors: An effective confrontation focuses on what you want rather than what you don’t want, and gives examples of the desired behavior so that they know exactly what you are asking for.
Focus on positive consequences and results: This appeals to the person’s self-interest or common vision by introducing the “what’s in it for me?” factor. People generally want to believe that if they make a change as a result of your confrontation, something will improve about the situation and things will be better.
Not dealing with issues, dealing with them poorly, or letting things go on too long are all symptoms of organizational drag, which has a lasting impact on your bottom line. Confronting well—respectfully, directly and specifically—will differentiate you among leaders.
Libby Wagner is one of only a handful of published poets regularly welcomed into the boardroom. The author of The Influencing Option: The Art of Building a Profit Culture in Business (Global Professional Publishing), she has been labeled "The Culture Coach" by her clients. Her expertise in leadership, strategy, management, and executive team development helps organizations create environments where clarity and increased trust lead to unrivaled results, shaping such Fortune 500 cultures as Boeing, Nike, Philips, and Costco. Find out more at www.libbywagner.com. Follow Libby on Twitter @boardroompoet.