To Confront...or to Cathart...That Is the Question
Posted on April 13, 2010 by Tom Patterson, One of Thousands of Leadership Coaches on Noomii.
Confrontation doesn't have to be as scary as we think!
If you ask me, having a difficult yet constructive conversation with someone over a festering, longstanding issue is one of the most challenging things we do in any relationship we care about. I imagine that many of us put it off as long as we possibly can until we either decide to never say anything at all, or to let it all out in one volcanic eruption. Saying nothing often just means that we are left with unresolved stuff that churns away at our insides, but doing a verbal “smackdown” often leaves the recipient a pile of Jello on the floor. We might feel better for having “catharted,” but it’s quite likely the other does not. Nor is it likely that any real learning or growth has taken place with anyone involved. Have you ever experienced being on the dispensing or the receiving end of such a moment? What was it like, and what was the outcome?
In families, organizations, or any relational group we’re part of, the ability to have meaningful, truthful, and graceful conversations largely determines the experience we have together. We all know that there are times when we need to just cut loose and be shallow and goofy, and other times when we need to get real, challenging, and intentionally collaborative. Doing so requires openness, courage, teach-ability, clarity, and taking personal responsibility. This is especially true when we have an issue we need to face with someone else.
In her book Fierce Conversations, author Susan Scott highlights the one factor that the words “conversation” and “confrontation” share: the prefix “con.” This prefix means “with” (from the Latin: con). Conversations are about talking “with” another, not “at” (we’ve certainly all experienced both!). Confrontations, then, are not about blasting “at” someone, but “standing side by side, looking at an issue together.” As Scott puts it, “All confrontation is a search for the truth. Who owns the truth? Each of us owns a piece of it, and nobody owns all of it.”
It isn’t “rocket surgery” to understand that one of the biggest challenges to taking a “con” approach to confrontation is that it demands that we step back, reflect on the breadth of the issue, and be honest with ourselves about the part we may have been playing in it. Only then can we stand non-anxiously next to the other, and help them con-sider their part in it as well. This is not to suggest, however, that confrontation shouldn’t be direct, timely, clear and succinct. The seven step process Scott recommends is this:
1. Name the issue;
2. Select a specific example that illustrates the behavior or situation you believe needs to be addressed;
3. Describe your emotions about this issue;
4. Clarify what is at stake;
5. Identify your own contribution to this problem;
6. Indicate your wish to resolve the issue;
7. Invite your partner to respond.
All of this, she suggests, should be done in a well thought out 60 second statement. For a full treatment of this process, I’d suggest getting hold of her book. It will have been worth the investment.
I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on the quality of your conversations and confrontations. Where do you see them going well? How do you understand the link between the two? Where have you seen them help you and others succeed, and where have they tended to trip you up? I’m willing to bet you already know intuitively that this stuff really matters.
So here’s to meaningful, truthful, and graceful conversations, and the ability to have con-frontations of the same quality!