The Modern Survival Guide #7
This is the Modern Survival Guide, a guidebook I’m writing for things I think people need to know about living in the modern world. The views expressed here are mine, and mine alone. If you’ve got a problem with that, well, we can talk. And today we’re going to be talking about confrontation. Specifically, constructive confrontation — arguing toward a purpose.
Constructive confrontations are some of the most important events in most people’s lives. To confront another human being can be among the most stressful, but also the most cathartic, and very often the most necessary of things you can do. Some people would rather jump off a cliff rather than have a face-to-face confrontation; others actively seek out confrontation as validation of their worldview.
A successful constructive confrontation is all about correcting a perceived wrong — physical, emotional, monetary, professional, or philosophical. For the purposes of this entry, in all cases the person who initiates a confrontation views themselves as an aggrieved party.
A successful constructive confrontation is not about making enemies. Making enemies is this whole other thing. Confrontation in this sense is about redressing a wrong inflicted by a person with whom you want to continue to interact, either in your professional or your personal life.
Constructive confrontation is also fairly essential to a successful, happy life in the modern age. Without good confrontation skills, you will get trapped in situations where you feel resentment or anger towards others, and this will not stop. If you can’t find a constructive way to correct other people, you just end up bitter, tired, and isolated.
Without further ado, let’s go have a confrontation.
Step 1: Identify Your Grievance
People always screw this up. Identifying a grievance is almost never a simple matter, because usually what someone is doing to piss you off is just the tip of your mental iceberg. It’s a function of past interactions, your health or lack thereof, whether you’re stressed, whether someone cut you off in traffic, and any other externalities that affect your personal interactions on any given day. Sometimes the most minor thing will push you over the edge and make you want to murder someone. You need to figure out whether or not it’s really worth confronting them.
So step 1 is to sit down and have a think. Try to figure out one single thing that you want to address. Just one. Not two. Nor yet three. Zero is right out. One. Trying to address all your problems at once is a good way to get in over your head, get off subject, and/or put the other person firmly on the defensive. You don’t want them on the defensive. You want them engaged. So don’t overload them, and don’t make it seem like everything they do sucks. Just pick a thing you’d like to change.
Step 2: Plan Your Attack
“Attack” is probably a bad word here, but it looks baller in the header, so I’m keeping it. What you’re doing here is planning out your phrasing and identifying key points you want to raise regarding your grievance. You want to do a couple of things in this step.
First, take what you decided about your grievance in Step 1 and break it down into the simplest phrasing you can muster. A surprisingly large volume of workplace complaints boil down to “we need to talk about your eating habits,” for example.
Once you have your grievance stripped down to its most basic form, you need to figure out how to raise the issue politely and what you want the resolution to be. Ideally, you want to phrase the issue in such a way that the offending party understands that you respect them and are sensitive to their needs, but nonetheless they have pissed you off.
For example, to return to the prior example, I once had a coworker say to me “Allen, I really enjoy sitting next to you, and I like working with you, but the way you eat M&Ms drives me insane.” That’s a good confrontation. The coworker acknowledged me as a person and led with the statement that they mostly liked me, but raised a specific thing I was doing that was maddening to them.¹ That’s what you’re shooting for, and if you don’t plan it in advance it won’t come out right. Our mouths betray us in moments of stress.
Step 3: Pick Your Battles
There are ideal and non-ideal times to have a constructive confrontation with someone. Ideal times are when neither of you are particularly stressed or busy. Non-ideal times are when one of you is either over-stressed or too busy to talk.
For example, my coworker talked to me about my M&Ms problem on a Tuesday after lunch, in between my afternoon meetings. She picked a time when I had a nice 30-minute block of free time, and when my previous meetings hadn’t inspired any eye-twitchy reactions. As a result we had a productive conversation.
A bad time to have a constructive confrontation would be, for example, as a person is walking into their office or home after an awful commute, or just after their favorite sports team has lost, or just before they’re about to sign a mortgage, or three hours after they’ve been mugged. These are all periods of high stress where the person is feeling more defensive than normal.
Defensiveness makes people closed-minded and snappy. You don’t want to deal with closed-minded, snappy people when you’re trying to get them to see why they’re pissing you off. The conversation will not be constructive for either of you. So pick your battles wisely.
Step 4: Have the Talk
Once you’ve isolated a grievance, planned what you have to say, and identified a good time to say it, you need to actually confront the other party. Depending on the personality involved, you may or may not want to tell them that you’re going to do this beforehand. If you aren’t sure which way to go on this, my suggestion is to surprise them. Giving people time to plan ahead also gives them time to stew, and they may be on the defensive more than they would be if you just blindside them. It’s a bit of a gamble either way.
When confronting someone, it is ALWAYS better to do so one-on-one. Praise in public, criticize in private. You don’t want them to feel outnumbered or embarrassed. You want them to talk to you.
Once you have someone cornered, it’s best to lead with good things, then work into your grievance, then end on something good (in management terms this is called a “shit sandwich” — bread on either side, shit in the middle). This lets people know that you value them, and presents the issue in a constructive light. If this sounds petty and trite, it is. So often it would be nice to just say your piece and move on. But people are often petty and trite. Play to your audience.
While going through your grievance script, keep track of your voice and posture. Avoid aggression, sarcasm, intimidation, and condescension. Sometimes this can be really hard. Do it anyway. Hit the high points in your script, and don’t worry if the other person presses back a little bit. We’re all a bit defensive by nature. That’s OK.
Finally, and this is key, make sure you tell the other person what they need to change. Telling someone you’re pissed might feel good, but it does NOT provide a path to resolution. Telling someone you’re pissed, and here’s what they can do to prevent that, is a much better approach. People are not (usually, as far as I know) psychic. Don’t expect them to be.
Step 5: Keep It Short
Time is not on your side once you start a confrontation. You want to keep it short — specifically, you want to keep it to an appropriate length, and not go over that length. You don’t need to talk at someone for half an hour if you just want them to stop picking their teeth when they talk to you. Like thirty seconds is about right for that.
A conversation about someone xeroxing their balls on the office copier, on the other hand, might take awhile. And involve lawyers.
The point is, try to judge the severity of the grievance and time out your script accordingly. What you want to avoid is making the other person feel like you’re making a mountain out of a molehill. They should feel that you have devoted the exact amount of time necessary for you to make your point and hear their response. That’s usually between thirty seconds and five minutes for little stuff; maybe up to half an hour for a serious talk.
Step 6: Leave the Room
This step shares some similarities with the advice for apologies (see entry #6). Confrontations are stressful and embarrassing at the best of times. You’ve just challenged some part of another person’s identity. They may not be happy with this. They may be entitled to be unhappy. They almost certainly need time to process without feeling like you’re judging them even more.
So leave. If you’re stuck in a small space with them, like an office, retreat to your corner and do some work with your earbuds in. If you’re in a public space, go home. If you’re already in your home, and the other person is your spouse, retreat to your corners (you know where they are) and pet the dog or something. Give them some space. Give them some time. See if the problem persists.
Step 7: Afterward
The goal of a constructive confrontation is to change behavior. If it works, great. No more issue. If the behavior that caused your initial grievance doesn’t change, that’s a problem. That means that the person you confronted either doesn’t understand your problem, doesn’t think it’s a big deal, or doesn’t value you as a person. You can fix the first two by rinsing and repeating the confrontation. You can’t do much about the last one. That last one is how you make enemies and end relationships. But that’s a separate discussion.
¹To be fair, I was eating M&Ms one at a time, slowly crunching through the hard sugar layer, and then munching them. I think it sounded kinda like “ccccccxxxxruchhhh cud cud cud.” And this lady was my cubemate. I’m just amazed she didn’t brain me with a keyboard.