To Confront Or Not To Confront


By: Jack Goodner, Ed.D.


If the intent of confronting is to influence someone to change a behavior that is creating a problem, why is it so often avoided? The answer – most of us do not like to do it. Why do we avoid it? Because the few who enjoy confronting too much have left a trail of problems and ill feelings that permit the rest of us to rationalize that it does not have a positive use.  Consequently, confrontation is not treated as a productive part of the interaction in our work because we either procrastinate and avoid it or swing it like a sword and eventually draw blood, sometimes our own.


If the objective is truly to change behavior that is creating a problem, then there is ample reason to do it and to do it well.  You are likely surrounded by things, which in your opinion need to change.  Will they change if left alone?  Sometimes – but, more often than not, change in a positive direction on a timely basis will not occur.  So, for those who avoid it all together or those who brandish it like a sword, the following are offered as guidelines for getting to where you want through positive confrontation.


The steps for confronting are relatively straightforward.  The implementation is not.  Each individual must examine the steps and come up with their own effectiveness zone for confronting.  Avoiding it is not an option.


Step 1 – Identifying the problem that needs to be addressed.

At this point it is O.K. to take a broad look. Is it lack of discipline in the office? Is it poor morale? Is there an erosion of quality? Are customers unhappy? Or is there a very specific behavior such as violation of dress code, profanity, etc.?

Take the time to determine the problem you wish to solve.  How should things be?  How are they now?  What is the difference between these two?


Step 2 – Determine the motive for confronting.

Be honest with yourself. What is the motive for confronting? Is there a result that needs to be improved? Is there an activity or technique that is being done poorly? Is there a conflict brewing that needs to be defused? Any of the above and many more are reasonable motives for positive confrontation. A motive such as “Just getting it off my chest” is not. A confrontation based simply upon intimidation, flexing power muscles, or defining turf run the risk of being counterproductive with no useful result. Winning battles does not insure winning a war.


Step 3 – Identify the behavior to be confronted.

Be specific in identifying the behavior and the desired outcome to be achieved through confrontation. This includes the person(s) to be confronted. A staff meeting held to confront the behavior of one individual is a waste of time. Is office discipline weak because one person is always late? Is quality poor because of the frequent absences of one or more individuals? Is morale poor because of a lack of communication on the part of your supervisor? (Confronting can go up as well as down). Constructive confronting is aimed carefully, not broadcast widely.


Step 4 – Plan the confrontation.

It is well worth the time to plan the confronting statement. This will be equally important for those who are not comfortable with confronting as well as those who are all too comfortable. Use only as much confrontive energy as is required to achieve the desired change. Those who view themselves as very unassertive will confront when forced to but are frequently guilty of going from “A” to “Z” with no stops in between. Those who use confronting as a weapon tend to start at “Z”.


Plan incremental steps that can be used as needed. Be prepared to use these steps until the desired change is achieved. Some people respond to suggestion even though it is delivered with the weight of a feather while others will shake off the same level of suggestion like water off the proverbial duck’s back.


Know what you are going to say and then pick the time when you are going to say it.


Step 5 – Stage the confrontation.

The previous four steps mean nothing unless step five is successfully completed.  Please note what constructive confrontation is not.

  • It is not reactionary.  It is considered, weighted, and planned.
  • It is not “In your face”.  Standing close and pounding the finger on the other person’s chest sets the adversarial stage.
  • It is not conducted in a public forum.  Confrontation for the benefit of an audience can produce the opposite of a desired result.

Constructive confrontation requires that the confronter be calm and in control of his or her own emotions. It is not done in anger. Body language and voice tone set the stage no matter what the words are. If they communicate tension and an adversarial position, the recipient will not hear the words that follow. They will be far too preoccupied with the choice between fight or flight.


Have you seen and heard the same thing said by two different people but interpreted differently by the listener? If you have put money in the bank by forming a trust relationship with an individual, it is likely that they will be more accepting of positive confrontation than if this has not been done. While this isn’t always possible, it helps.


Keep the confrontation focused on the behavior to be changed, not the worth or character of the individual. It is O.K. to be accepting of the individual but not his or her behavior. Constructive confrontation is not intended to be a put down.


Avoid the use of mixed messages. Say what you mean. Low assertive, bright people often resort to sarcasm as a method for communicating a negative message. While this may be more comfortable for the sender, the receiver will likely misunderstand it. Don’t ramble. Keep to the point.


Step – 6 Agree on a solution.

Change doesn’t happen unless there is agreement that there is a problem. It isn’t enough for the confronter to agree. Both have to do so. Gain agreement both on the change that is required and the actions that will result in the change. Confronting in itself is meaningless unless closure is achieved.


Constructive confrontation skills may be the most misunderstood tool in the manager’s techniques. It is not bullying. It isn’t avoiding or procrastinating. It is an interacting between two or more people that can expedite needed change. It is a skill that can address the smallest to the largest change required.