Handling difficult conversations and confrontations

Have you ever done these?

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:

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:

Let's run through a scenario:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. What expectations are not being met? There is an unspoken expectation that people should be in the office for a full day's work.
  4. Are expectations clear? No
  5. How many times has this happened? Regularly for over a week.
  6. What are the priorities? To ensure the team member is productive, content, and not abusing the flexibility. And to align company policy with reality.
  7. 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:

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:

Solving ability issues

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:

Once in session:

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!

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We live on, and benefit from, the colonised lands of the Arakwal and the Minjungbal peoples of the Bundjalung nation, and those of the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin nation. We acknowledge the Traditional Owners of these lands and recognise their enduring connection to land, waters, and culture. We pay our respects to their elders, past and present.