Four Steps in Healthy Confrontations

healthy-confrontationsI’m not afraid of most confrontations. That doesn’t mean I like them. I don’t. They are draining and full of both negative and positive potential. Unlike the rest of our daily communication with our friends, coworkers and loved ones, confrontation has the most likely chance to end with hurt feelings and greater misunderstanding. So, I said I’m not afraid of the confrontation, and most of the time I’m not. What I do fear, though, is the results.

Like you, I’ve experienced my share of confrontations that didn’t go well. But I’ve also experienced some awesome confrontations that increased awareness and empowered both parties to grow together and get the things done they were called to do. Over the years I’ve discovered some steps we should take when it’s time to confront others. I’d like to share them in this post.

Please note: you’ll get a lot more out of this post if you also check out ‘Three Keys to Effective Confrontation‘ & ‘Confrontation 101: Maintain Safety At All Times‘.

The Four Steps to Healthy Confrontations

When somebody does or says something threatening or unexpected, our natural urge is to fight or flee. Scared people don’t always think clearly. Their judgement is limited. So it’s super important that both parties aren’t scared or feel threatened. Instead, they should know that you respect them and care about what’s important to them in the scenario. I talk a lot more about this in the aforementioned article: ‘Confrontation 101: Maintain Safety At All Times‘. I suggest you give it a gander.

The ‘Gap’ is the difference between your expectations and what actually happened. When a coworker is consistently late to a meeting, the gap includes those minutes between when you expected him to be there and when he showed up. When someone leaves the room dirty after their event, the gap includes the condition of the room as you expected to find it and how you actually found it. 

The ‘Gap’ can be very difficult to describe; especially when it’s about behaviors. There is always room for error and misunderstanding. And usually confrontations include heightened sensitivities and emotions. That’s why I’ve broken down the process of ‘Describing the Gap’ into five parts:

  1. What.
    First, describe ‘what’ happened. Focus on the facts as you understand them and stay away from feelings or interpretations. You should stay away from labeling statements like, “You were being a jerk.” For example, “Two weeks ago at church I asked if you could return the books I lent you. Last Friday I also mentioned it again and you said you’d get them to me right away.”


  2. How.
    Next, describe ‘how’ it makes you feel. Focus on your personal concerns and feelings regarding the situation. Keep away from statements like, “You made me feel stupid.” Instead, just describe how you felt. For example, “I know this sounds crazy, but I’m beginning to feel like you are not returning the books because you are angry with me about something. I’m also afraid that perhaps something has happened to them and you can’t find them.”


  3. Why.
    Explain why this is important to both you and the other party. This helps bring context to the situation, and will hopefully clarify why the gap is bigger than perhaps the other party realizes. For example, “This is really important to me. I don’t want us to have anything hidden in our friendship, and I believe you don’t either. Plus, I promised my boss I’d let him borrow one of those books and I haven’t been able to get it to him.”


  4. Admit.
    This is important. After you’ve outlined ‘What’, ‘How’ & ‘Why’, you should express your desire to understand the truth of the situation and ‘admit’ that you may be wrong in your understanding or impression of the situation. For example, “I suspect there might be something happening here that I’m not aware of. I know it’s possible you already returned them and I didn’t know.”


  5. Ask.
    Finally, you should always finish describing the gap with a question. This lets the other party know that you genuinely want input & feedback and opens the door for the third step in the process. For example, “Can you help me understand?” or “What happened?” or “Am I misunderstanding something?”

Up until now, all you’ve done is talk and share your perspective. Now is the time to mine for the truth of the situation. This is the place where the other party works towards getting understanding of your perspective and you do likewise with theirs. Here are a few pointers when digging for the truth:

  • Ask God to give you both discernment.
  • Listen closely to the other party and work hard at understanding.
  • Ask clarifying questions.
  • Repeat back what they’ve said in your own words (and encourage them to do the same with your words).
  • Tackle the problem as a team rather than as opponents.
  • Stop to establish safety whenever necessary.

At the end of this stage of the confrontation you should be able to summarize the problem as being the result of one or more of the following causes:

  • Confusion.
    One or both parties were confused about expectations.
  • Motivation.
    One of us isn’t or wasn’t motivated to do or behave a certain way.
  • Ability.
    One of us doesn’t have the tools or experience to do or behave as expected.

Finally, it’s time to end our conversation with a ‘next step.’ This ensures it won’t happen again and all parties have learned from the situation. Everyone involved should agree together on what should happen next or in similar scenarios in the future. Sometimes, you may have to agree to disagree and come up with your strategies keeping mutual disagreements in mind. 

Of course, what happens next will be greatly determined on if the problem lies in ‘Confusion’, ‘Motivation’, or ‘Ability’. Let’s look at each:

  • Confusion
    If someone doesn’t understand expectations, then your next action will likely focus on clearing up confusion. Confusion may include behaviors as well. For example, let’s say someone told me to ‘go take a hike’ and raised their voice while they did so. If we have determined that that person was confused and didn’t realize their behavior was offensive, my ‘next step’ may sound something like this, “Rather than saying, ‘Take a hike’ would you be willing to say, ‘I don’t like that idea very much?'” 
  • Motivation
    If the problem lies with motivation, then we have to tackle the source of ‘why’ the person is demotivated. Is it because they feel like it’s a waste of time? Does it seem demeaning to them? Is it possible they don’t understand the importance of the activity? Or is it because of something personal? Whatever the situation, it needs defined and a plan of action put in place. For example, let’s say someone is showing up late to a meeting because they feel like the first 10 minutes are a waste of time. The action steps might be changing what happens in the first 10 minutes, asking that person to lead the first 10 minutes, or explaining why the first 10 minutes aren’t action oriented.
  • Ability
    If the problem lies with an ability problem, then we need to address the problem by changing circumstances so they are within the realm of ‘possible’ for the other party. Perhaps someone is late because they can’t catch a ride until later in the morning. So you might move the meeting up a 1/2 hour or offer to give them a ride to work that morning. Maybe some training needs to happen to increase skill sets. There may even be ‘ability’ challenges in regards to how people respond in certain scenarios. For example, highly analytical people tend to have a very difficult time sitting through strategic ‘big picture’ conversations. It’s not a motivation problem for them, it’s an ability problem. They aren’t wired that way and trying to wire them for that isn’t worth the effort. The solution might be as simple as excusing them from the meeting and giving them a summary of what’s relevant to them afterwards.

Don’t forget to check out this article, which talks about preparing YOURSELF for the confrontation before it ever happens.

photo credit: bobsfever via photopin cc

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