“O to be self-balanced for contingencies, To confront night, storms, hunger, ridicule, Accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.”
— Walt Whitman, “Leaves of Grass”
When we are very young, we do seem to confront realities as they come, like Whitman’s “trees and animals.” A six-month-old child, perhaps even a two-year-old will employ no dodges or delaying tactics when feeling a need to confront.
Then, for reasons we do not fully understand, the child begins to wrap protective layers around that honest awareness of an urge to confront. By adulthood, confrontation has become complicated. In organizations, nearly everyone recognizes the value of knowing how to confront others, to effectively go face-to-face with negative feedback, unwelcome news, uncomfortable questions. There are confrontation skills that can be learned and employed. However, all techniques might as well sit idly on the shelf if we don’t address the avoidance issue.
Avoiding truthful interaction, “soft-soaping” negative feedback, skirting issues, postponing critical decisions – these behaviors run rampant in the workplace, creating expensive problems.
Honest confrontation is missing at all levels. Subordinates often shy away from disagreeing with the boss or carrying bad news. The CEO may excel in many aspects of leadership yet do anything to avoid confrontation. Some CEOs even impose confrontation on others in the organization, others who aren’t at all involved in the issues. Suddenly they’re assigned to deliver bad news when they hardly know the facts and maybe not even the person.
The word “confront” stems from two Latin words, “com” (together) and “frons” (forehead).
At a baseball game you might see an umpire and manager forehead-to-forehead, intensely confronting each other without actually touching. They are arguing, but at least they are dealing directly with each other. In today’s work environment, confrontation will often be less direct, sometimes via email, telephone or text messaging. These indirect media will always be inferior to a face-to-face meeting.
This chain of events happens often, more often than that early, honest and respectful face-to-face confrontation. An event occurs. It may be something heard directly, overheard or “passed along.” It may be something seen, a facial expression or sloppy work. It may be something unseen such as an overdue report. It may even be thinking, a mental scenario that changes the atmosphere between co-workers. The air is no longer clear between two people, two teams or two entire departments.
This “smog” reduces the quality of communications, creates negative feelings within both parties and generates further resentment. Obviously, productivity is decreased. The smog is contagious as well. While avoiding direct confrontation, people often build a case, gathering others in the organization to their side of the issue. The entire system can be affected.
Only fear can create this much avoidance. And, how natural to perceive threat as part of a confrontation! When we confront, we may lose something. We may create more distance. We may even get slugged.
Most of these possibilities are imagined scenarios. Still the body and psyche believe them and create internal tension. Attending to the existence of that internal tension is the first step in reducing the fear. Acknowledging the fear and “unwrapping” it will usually expose our imagination at work. Yet, sometimes the threat is realistic and we can acknowledge our fears during the confrontation. “I find myself procrastinating in bringing this up because I’m afraid of the consequences.”
If we honor the internal tension and do our best to understand it, we can develop a plan to effectively confront before the tension gets to the volcanic stage. By then we’ll probably just come across as unhinged during the confrontation.
In “unwrapping” your fear, all those protective layers, the question to ask yourself is, “What do I think will happen if…?” Don’t expect much from your first answer. It will likely be mild and rational. Go on from there. Let’s say you know you need to confront one of your team members about a late report. When you ask yourself, “What do I think will happen if I confront her?” your mind might say, “The whole team will be angry with me.”
Take that answer, whatever it is, and go through the same process. “If the whole team gets mad at me, what will happen?” Keep going until you feel you have completely exposed your fear. If you play along with this technique, as irrational as it may seem, you will nearly always find that you have created a life-or-death threat out of the situation. No wonder your heartbeat increased and your stomach tightened!
This process is just as helpful in personal relationships as in professional ones. By sticking with the process and exposing the threat, you collapse its power. Usually, you learn how you have created an irrational scenario. Sometimes the answers to your questions will elicit a good-natured laugh at your ability to be irrational.
Don’t expect to get it right every time. Just practice. The successful experience of taming your fears will bring you relief. Interpersonal relationships are bound to improve.
And, with the threat element dismantled and in the open, solid communication techniques can be implemented to build confidence in confronting “night, storms, hunger, ridicule, accidents, rebuffs, as the trees and animals do.”