Saturday 16 May 2015

The Dynamics of Confrontation

Have you ever had the experience where you have, gently, raised the same issue again and again, and then, eventually, lost your patience and shouted at someone about it? It is a fairly common pattern, and is explained by this model of the dynamics of confrontation, which I have adapted from John Heron's excellent book The Facilitator's Handbook. 

Confront, in this context, means to put something squarely in front of someone, so that they recognise the need to change: typically it is used to address destructive or inappropriate behaviour or patterns of thinking.

1 You identify the need to confront someone

Be clear about the purpose of confronting - to help the other person to change his or her behaviour. That implies that the individual needs to understand what change is required and why, and also that he or she needs to leave the discussion feeling motivated and able to change - not beaten up or shamed.

2 You experience anxiety

There is always some anxiety at the prospect of these difficult conversations: that may be worsened if you have a bad experience of confrontation in the past, either with this person or someone else. Recognising this anxiety is the first step to counter-acting it.

3a Anxiety distorts behaviour

It may be that your behaviour is distorted by your anxiety in one of two ways:

• Pussyfooting: you may be so concerned not to cause offence that you avoid dis- cussing the issue altogether, or you wrap up your message in such woolly or apologetic language that the message or its importance get lost. This will lead to no change in behaviour - and growing frustration in you. If you find yourself thinking “How many times do I have to tell him...?” it may be that you have been pussyfooting.

• Clobbering: you may be so concerned not to pussyfoot - or so frustrated with the problem behaviour - that you deliver your message too forcibly and are perceived as aggressive. This will leave the other person feeling beaten up - and while he or she may comply in the short term, you will leave a legacy of resentment and disempowerment. If you find yourself thinking “Why are they so defensive?” or “Why can’t they decide things for themselves...?” it may be that you have been clobbering.

3b Behaviour freed from anxiety

To detach yourself from your anxiety and other emotions (eg annoyance), use any personal strategies you have for detachment, and focus on steering the middle course: telling the truth as you see it without compromise and with compassion. 

Without compromise means no apologising, no ‘praise sandwiches,’ and short, direct and factual statements.

With compassion means no anger, no blame, and a sincere intention to help the other person to learn and change his or her behaviour.

4 Learning for other person

When you get it right, you are likely to cause a sense of shock or recognition in the other person, that will be very noticeable to you. If you are then quiet and listen (resist the temptation to move into apologetic mode), you will be able to help the other person to consider what you have said and decide what and how to change. This is uncomfortable for both people, but can lead to genuine insight and learning.

5 Appropriate support

At the end of the discussion, end on a sincere and positive note - expressing appreciation of the person’s commitment to address the issue and offering any appropriate support. 


So to come back to my original example, when you have asked someone repeatedly to change something (gently) and then ended up shouting at them, this model would suggest you have done this: pussyfoot, pussyfoot, pussyfoot, CLOBBER!

(Ask my kids for further details...)

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