Tips on Successful Confrontation: Feedback Processes that Work

Posted by Dr. Holly Latty-Mann on

Let’s say you find yourself in an uncomfortable situation in which you need to tell someone that his or her performance or behavior is problematic – or some other bad news.  Furthermore, you can anticipate a reaction that will likely be a bit unpleasant.  What do you do?

This may sound too simplistic, but first and foremost, you need to just make up your mind to do it.  Go ahead and acknowledge that it feels just as stressful not doing it as it does doing it.  You already know what happens – or rather what doesn’t – when you do not confront a situation that is well within your rights.  So, choose the other “feel bad” position, and do it.  

Here are some tips to help you with that. Start off by giving yourself a “thought transplant” regarding the nature of confrontation before you even engage the other person.  Confrontation, which comes from the Greek language for “gather data,” is simply the sharing of either negative or discrepant information, and does not have to involve conflict or emotionality.  But if you believe that it does, then you will likely fail at it.  That is because such a belief will create a state of fear within you as you approach the target person(s). It is your “fear state” that they sense that puts them on the defensive.  Thus, they likely won’t hear your message but rather will react to what they sense as a threat coming from you. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, “What you are speaks so loudly, I cannot hear what you’re saying.”

 And forget being “forceful”.  In case you think that acting a bit aggressive in your delivery style will discourage them from introducing conflict, think again.  Any hint of anger on your part almost always invites resistance and diminishes your credibility.  Whether you are aware of it or not, anger tends to be a subtle cover-up for fearThat is why you are actually giving away your power every time you engage in angry expression.  Even if the other person seemingly acquiesces to your anger, they likely will not be embracing your message. Again, and to paraphrase Ralph Waldo Emerson, they are so focused on the essence of your delivery system that your words get lost in the emotionality of it.

So anger is not an option. You’ve now decided to proceed in calm fashion despite being aware of your discomfort (fear). This means that you are now ready to speak your peace. So how do you phrase it so that they can hear you without getting defensive?  Consider using introductory and qualifying statements along with “fact focus” as follows:

1) You’ll maximize your chances of inviting a receptive response by using introductory statements/inquiries such as asking them if they’d be open to receiving some feedback from you.  “Would this be a good time for me to share with you some observations I have concerning the status of the X Project?”

2) Then, employ qualifying statements such as the following to show you are coming from a spirit of support for them:  “Because I’m in your corner and want to see both you and the company win, I’d like to share with you some observations I’ve had regarding work performance challenges within Project X.”

3) Finally, focus on the facts and not the person.  This means that you are focusing on what is or is not working rather than who is right or wrong.  “Our figures show that your division is behind at a production rate of 12% when compared to all others.  Help me understand what challenges may be going on, so that I can look into finding ways to help you.”  These kinds of statements start a dialogue, one in which it becomes clear if the challenges are legitimate ones.

Should the problem be one that suggests this individual be replaced, again focus on the facts without emotionality yet with compassion by saying at the appropriate time that you would be happy to offer support in his or her search for a position more suitable to their skills, which may possibly mean employment elsewhere.

Otherwise, if the problem is one in which the person is allowed to improve his or her performance, end the session by having them agree to construct either a strategic/tactical plan or a personalized action plan (depending on the  nature of the problem at hand) that includes specific new behaviors/tactics/strategies along with feedback loops and feasible completion dates. By involving the target person(s) in this strategic planning process, they are more likely to exhibit ownership in the desired outcome behaviors and thus achieve them.

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