Confrontation for Sissies
What's that? You say you love confrontation, that you may even be a little too eager to open up a can of weapons-grade whup-ass—but that, come to think of it, these big blow-ups are getting you approximately nowhere? Have we got a plan for you.
And it's the same one. Developed by corporate coach Esther Jeles, this fresh approach to conflict resolution has been road-tested by hundreds of participants in the workshops she holds for businesses interested in improving communication and increasing productivity. "Confrontation isn't about telling someone off or setting them straight," says Jeles, founder and CEO of Aylet, a Chicago-based consulting firm. "Confrontation is looking at issues and solving problems." You can participate, or you can let things happen to you, Jeles notes. "You can only affect the outcome directly if you speak up," she says. "Nothing ever changes for the better unless opposing parties come together and discuss the situation and solutions." Most important, a healthy confrontation can be a chance for you to help people feel better about themselves, she says. "And to be proud of your own behavior."
Confrontation? A mental health tool, a community builder, a force for kindness? The word definitely has a bad rep, even though it emerged from the mildest of roots, the Latin for "together" and "forehead"; initially it meant simply "to come face-to-face." Jeles urges a return to the collaborative image conjured by the word's origins—putting our heads together to reach a common goal.
The term she uses for this kind of encounter is carefrontation. Reframing the definition creates an instant attitude shift in her clients, Jeles says, especially after she helps them realize that they're already champs at healthy confrontations. "We've all had hundreds of them!" Jeles says. "But we tend to remember only the confrontations that got ugly, and to call the successful ones something else."
What did we intuitively do right in the non-ugly encounters? Some version, Jeles says, of the three core steps that she recommends:
1. Prepare with care.
Before you confront another person, have a long talk with yourself and try the following.
- Define the problem, separating the practical issues ("I stayed up all night finishing a report because a colleague didn't turn in her share of the research") from the emotions they evoke ("I'm furious with her for sticking me with extra work!").
- Engage in what Jeles calls self-witnessing. "That means asking yourself: 'What does this situation remind me of? How have I handled such issues in the past? What's my pattern?'" For example, the woman stuck writing the report might realize that what she does, over and over, is bite her tongue even when she sees disaster looming, because she dreads conflict. "Maybe she'll notice that the situation reminds her of her relationship with her sister," Jeles says. "Maybe the family pattern was that she was always stuck holding the bag and cleaning up after her sister. When she sees the pattern, she can change it."
- Practice expressing the problem in a clear, calm way, without blaming the other person. "Don't throw in everything you've held in for a year," she says. "That wouldn't be a carefrontation; it would be an assault."