When we hear the word “confrontation,” a lot of us probably think of a scenario involving:
High levels of anxiety and tension
People communicating aggressively, passively, or passive-aggressively
Fight, flight, or freeze behaviors
Some kind of battle or power struggle
A winner and a loser
In other words, for many of us, “confrontation” equals “conflict,” and conflict (except for those personalities who seem not only to tolerate but even enjoy conflict) is uncomfortable, scary, and even painful. Typically, any “resolution” achieved through conflict-style confrontation is temporary.
When I use the term “confrontation,” however, I have a specific definition in mind. A confrontation is:
a respectful conversation between two powerful people . . .
that addresses a specific issue that is hurting connection . . .
for the purpose of achieving mutual understanding of the issue and building a plan to adjust to behavior to better meet the needs of the relationship . . .
which ultimately results in restoring and strengthening the relationship.
Let’s look closer at these 4 things so we can understand what belongs in a successful confrontation.
1. A Respectful Conversation Between Two Powerful People
Let’s be real. When there is an issue to be confronted in a relationship, whether it’s with a spouse, a child, a coworker, or even a leader, there are most likely going to be some painful emotions involved. Classically, people are going to be experiencing some mix of “hurt, scared, angry, and powerless.”
Powerless people allow these painful emotions to drive them toward behavior that exacerbates the issue that is hurting the connection—disrespect, retaliation, isolation, etc. Powerful people, however, have self-control and emotional and relational intelligence. Instead of caving into the instinct to self-protect, they choose to protect the connection by demonstrating emotional honesty and vulnerability.
Every respectful conversation requires two powerful people on either side of the communication exchange. Whoever is speaking must be powerful in showing the other person the truth about how the issue is affecting them. The listener must be powerful in actively seeking to understand what the speaker is showing them. The moment one person tries to overpower the other or disappears, respect has vanished.
2. That Addresses a Specific Issue
A relational issue is usually some kind of behavior or set of behaviors that are creating a painful experience for someone in the relationship. It could be anything from a certain personality or behavior style to something unhealthy and dysfunctional. Quite often (in fact, most of the time), there is no harmful intention on either side, so that’s a helpful assumption for both people to bring to the conversation.
In healthy relationships, confrontation happens quickly following a painful experience, and stays focused on dealing the specific incident or behavior. In unhealthy relationships where issues go un-confronted or unresolved, there is a temptation for the speaker to bring up a whole history of past hurts when a confrontation (usually conflict-style) finally happens, which betrays that there are bigger problems in the relationship.
3. For the Purpose of Understanding, Adjusting, and Meeting Needs
At the most basic level, there are two pieces of information that need to be communicated and understood in a confrontation—the current experience that the problematic behavior is creating in the relationship, and the experience that needs to be created in order to restore safety and connection.
We are champions of the “I message” because it is so brilliant at helping people formulate these pieces of information when they are on the speaking end of a confrontation. Once again, the “I message” is:
I feel ____________________ (emotion)
when ____________________ (behavior) happens.
I need to feel _______________________ (emotion) in this relationship.
Notice that the “I message” requires the speaker to be vulnerable with their emotions, assertive in expressing their needs, and just as importantly, to refrain from telling the other person what they need to do to change! All of these send the message, “I value you and I value this relationship—enough to crack my heart open, let you know what I need, and trust you to care about meeting that need.”
If the other person is doing their job as the listener in this exchange, then they are postured to do two things. First, if they practice reflective listening, they can actually help the speaker clarify the message they’re sending while simultaneously showing that they understand that message. Second, with this understanding, they have the valuable information they need to create a strategy to adjust their behavior and meet the person’s needs.
4. Resulting in a Stronger Relationship
A successful confrontation will restore and strengthen relationship in multiple ways.
Gaining increased understanding of one another helps to lower anxiety and build intimacy.
Discovering one another’s needs and growing in our ability to meet them heals pain, deepens connection and trust, and prevents disconnection in the future.
And experiencing one another make the powerful choice to push past the painful emotions and say, “I choose you, I choose our relationship, and I’m fighting for restoration” is actually an incredible experience of sacrificial love that binds people together.
One of my dreams is to help people become powerful in creating relationships and relational cultures where successful confrontation is the norm! Yes, there are emotional and relational skills involved that we must learn. But they are all the skills we need to grow in being powerful people and building powerful relationships.
It’s not just worth it for us to master successful confrontation—it’s essential!
P.S. Coming soon to Life Academy! Our new eCourse, Successful Confrontation, launches this August!