Handling difficult conversations and confrontations

Have you ever done these?

  • Asked questions to catch someone in a lie?
  • Put off a discussion to avoid a confrontation?
  • Dodged being the "bad person" by getting someone else to do the hard work?

I assume we are all guilty of at least one of these behaviours. Let's learn how to deal with those difficult conversations, and start by asking: should I have this confrontation at all?

It is recommended to address an issue if a promise has clearly been broken, when our conscience nags us to speak up and we cannot keep quiet, when we are bothered by a behaviour that we try to accept, or when we consciously choose to be silent rather than risking to speak up.

It is valuable to speak up when expectations are not met, and there is a gap between what we expect and reality. For example, you might expect autonomy and flexibility but instead feel like you are being micromanaged. It is also valuable to speak up when there are interpersonal problems, to maintain mutual respect, and to achieve a mutual purpose.

Clarity about expectations is important, or misalignment happens. By communicating our expectations clearly, we are setting a standard for acceptable behaviour. We should phrase our expectations positively to describe the behaviour we wish to see rather than the behaviour we do not like.

When we consider how to approach a confrontation, we need to understand the problem better. We can ask for the following questions:

  • How many times has this happened before?
  • What are the negative consequences of these unmet expectations?
  • How does that affect us? Our relationship? The task? The team?
  • What are our priorities with this relationship?

Knowing our priorities and what we want out of the relationship will guide how we approach the confrontation.

It is sometimes easy to blame a person rather than consider their circumstances or the overall system. Instead we should approach the confrontation with empathy in mind, and try to think of ideas why a reasonable and decent person might behave this way. Instead of coming with a blame mindset, we should ask ourselves to come up with five possible reasons for the behaviour (whys). For example:

  • When asking "how's the project going?" people are reluctant to say "not well" because they fear it is a reflection on them. It feels related to performance reviews.
  • There are other times and places to get regular project updates.
  • One:ones should be a personal space, rather than project specific space
  • Is it possible that there is a lack of trust that needs to be built up?

Let's run through a scenario:

  • Situation: A team member works flexible hours, split between home and the office, with time spent in the office ranging around five hours including a lunch break. Management says that people can work flexibly, but is uncomfortable with how little time this team member spends in the office.
  • Should we have a confrontation with the person or with management? The problem is misaligned expectations between what management wants, and the team member's behaviour.
  • What expectations are not being met? There is an unspoken expectation that people should be in the office for a full day's work.
  • Are expectations clear? No
  • How many times has this happened? Regularly for over a week.
  • What are the priorities? To ensure the team member is productive, content, and not abusing the flexibility. And to align company policy with reality.
  • Lead with empathy: can we think of why the situation is happening? It is happening because management is sending conflicting messages. We can assume that management has either had bad experience with people working from home or does not see the work that is being delivered.

Now, that we have our background context clear in our mind, we are ready to initiate an effective confrontation.

Handle difficult conversations

We already talked about the conditions that are paramount for a productive feedback session in Giving Feedback, for example, thinking "my version of the issue is not the only one."

Many problem behaviours can be a result of either a lack of motivation or a lack of ability. We should consider the reasons why the other person is not motivated to act how we expect or want them to. Alternatively, they might be lacking the necessary skills. Consider what might be the root of the problem:

  • Is it personal, i.e. the task is too hard? Or maybe it is too easy and not challenging enough? Are they lacking the appropriate skills?
  • Is it social, for example are we withholding relevant information?
  • Is is structural, like organisation-related policies?
  • Is it possible that our own behaviour is contributing to the problem? We should ask ourselves: "what is my role in contributing to this conflict?"

After reflection of what we think the underlying causes to the problem are, we can assess to decide whether ii is a motivation issue, an ability issue, or both.

Solving motivation issues

Instead of offering people extrinsic incentives to try the entice the behaviour we wish to see, or use our power and authority to tell them the way "things are done around here", try the following approaches:

  • Link to their values and their aspirations
  • Encourage long term benefits and thinking
  • Highlight the impact of their actions on others
  • Describe the impact on their reputation
  • Explain consequences

Solving ability issues

  • Create a safe space where they feel safe discussing their shortcomings
  • Ask permission to help solve things
  • Ask five "why"s
  • Solve it together
  • Help to remove barriers

Managing potentially volatile encounters

Some feedback recipients may be openly defensive when confronted with criticism. That defensiveness may stem from their desire to convey their understanding of the facts. When you encourage them to share their point of view, you should always be willing to acknowledge when you have the wrong facts.

More often than not, defensiveness surfaces because productive and honest communication is breaking down. Here are some suggestions to consider:

  • If they are already upset or angry, wait until they calm down.
  • Write down your feedback points in advance so you won't get distracted and forget them during the session.
  • Plan and rehearse how you will respond to outbursts before initiating the conversation.
  • Plan to keep your feedback simple and limit yourself to one or two main points. Volatile situations can be made worse when you catalogue a long list of grievances.
  • Elicit their point of view and actively listen to their response.
  • Soften their defensive posture with phrases to indicate they are being heard. Note points of agreement to establish common ground.
  • Remain composed, speak slowly, calmly, and clearly. Avoid phrasing that might be interpreted as judgmental, for example: "I have no idea what you mean."
  • Redirect their focus from the point of dissension. Work on building small agreements about basic details.

Start the conversation not by outlining the problem but by asking them to share their thoughts. This approach will signal them that you trust them, and appreciate their work. Always communicate in a neutral, nonjudgmental tone.

If they still become defensive, focus on objective details or facts that you both agree on, and try to establish a common ground.

If things still go wrong, and the other person becomes very defensive or upset, restate that you are trying to work towards a purpose that would mutually benefit both of you. If they become very angry, remove yourself from the situation, and suggest a pause and to resume the conversation once they have calmed down. If you get upset, once again take a pause to think about the issue in more detail, to consider how you interpret their argument, and how you should respond.

Going forward

Once we have decided how to best address the problem, we need to define and establish a new normal. This includes define what needs to be done very clearly, make a plan, decide on when and how to follow up, and then do not forget to actually follow up!

Would you like to know more?

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