A Middle Path between Avoidance and Aggressiveness—The Art of Supportive Confrontation

I don’t know about you, but my old approach to conflict only had three options: (1) be really, really nice and hope things would get better, (2) run like hell (literally or internally) from the situation, or (3) get tired of holding that beach ball under the water and let them have it! What I didn’t know at the time is that there is a specific set of skills for both dealing with the issue and staying positive in relationships. Supportive confrontation is being in service of the principle or standard at hand, while being both courageous and compassionate.

Sample scenario #1: Betsy has the same experience at the staff meeting every week—George will inevitably interrupt her. She puts on a good face, but inside she is secretly fuming. She can fantasize several ways to “put him in his place,” but of course she knows that this will make things worse. Betsy thinks about carefully composing an e-mail to ask George to stop interrupting her, but she knows how easily tone can be misread in an e-mail, and it becomes part of the company record. She doesn’t know what to do.

Sample scenario #2: Chen is a new employee with tons of ideas—and some of them are good ones. However, he frequently interjects them without much sensitivity to the agenda, the practicality, or the impact. Angela, his supervisor, tells him that (1) she appreciates his energy and drive, (2) she invites him to understand the unintended impact of his spontaneous insertions, and (3) she will work will him on a regular basis to increase his awareness and to take responsibility for regulating his contributions.

Why will this help me at work? Getting a reasonable understanding and then demonstrating reasonable competency of this skill can be one of the most powerful tools for change, team alignment, and personal satisfaction. If we can move out of blaming (and its close cousin, triangulation), negativity, and ineffectiveness in having the conversations we need to have, then a great deal of untapped potential can be released for us and our teams.

Why is this so difficult at times? This is easy to answer—virtually none of us got any good training or modeling on the specifics of how to do this (I know I sure didn’t!). We hold back on initiating the challenging conversation for a number of reasons—we don’t want to be the cause of negative feelings in the other, we are uncertain about how to frame the dialogue and move through it, we are nervous about the outcome, and so on. This model takes practice (and often a coach) to implement well over time. It’s not quick or easy, but it is accessible and immensely valuable.

Your frank self-assessment:

  • What’s your Conflict Avoidance Score (CAS)? (Hint: I just made up the CAS, so use whatever method you want as long as it’s honest!)
  • How much is your emotional reactivity a factor in your inability to discuss what matters?
  • What happens internally for you when you can’t “hold your center” during a conversation that has some heat?

My tips:

  • The root of the word “courage” is the French word “coeur,” which means “heart.” Make your courageous conversations heart-filled.
  • Keep in mind that when our frustration boils over, we give the other person the perfect “evidence” that we are in fact the problem.
  • Think about a specific time where you have grown because someone gave you information that you initially didn’t want to hear.

Action for traction:

  • Find someone who you think moves through difficult situations well. Ask him if you can interview him (better yet, buy lunch) and take the reporter’s stance on gleaning information.
  • Ask one of your closest associates if you can practice giving each other feedback—real or imagined—that would be challenging to give or receive. Choose doing this in a safe setting to start.
  • Draw up a list of the qualities that you want to bring to your interactions with others, no matter how smooth or rough they may be. Where do you need to upgrade your competencies?

Baked-in benefits:

  • I can almost guarantee that you’ll experience less stress, for sure!
  • After some practice, you should have more efficiency in your daily efforts.
  • When we do this reasonably well, it deepens our connections.

Excerpt From: Flip Brown. “Balanced Effectiveness at Work. How to Enjoy the Fruits of Your Labor without Driving Yourself Nuts.”  Published by: Starr Farm Press