Office Communication: The Art of Healthy Confrontation

As a business owner and manager of people for nearly 20 years, difficult discussions with teammates have been a necessary requirement. Serving as president of a company with over 500 team members, confrontation, coaching, corrective discipline and terminations became familiar territory. Most interactions went well — but I also bombed on some occasions. More than once, I recall walking away thinking, “Wow, that did not go the way I that I thought it would.”

I purposefully reflected on and learned from each less-than-stellar experience. Leadership development courses, reading, studying, trial and error, and a genuine intention to grow and improve in this area have helped. I’ve become more strategic and prepared, over the years, in my approach. And I’ve trained our teams, colleagues and clients on the techniques we’ve found successful.

With a little pre-planning and the right intentions, you can turn what could be a difficult conversation into an opportunity to build trust, communicate needs and expectations, and foster an environment for growth and improvement.

For many of us, just the word “confrontation” carries strong negative emotions. We may fear that we will hurt someone’s feelings, complicate our work environment or compromise a relationship.

Developing the ability to confront issues is essential in the workplace and life in general. Addressing issues as they arise lets team members or coworkers have the information they need to meet expectations in relationships, job performance, and workplace culture.

You can foster communication by providing an opportunity for people to correct and grow with the organization, while documenting your efforts to help them. Unfortunately, sometimes a manager’s best efforts don’t evoke the needed improvement, and documentation may be necessary to support a decision to terminate employment. However, many times I have discovered that an employee didn’t realize that their behavior was creating a problem. When given the information and an opportunity to improve, they made corrections and began to thrive.

I’m sure you would like to avoid a conversation that leaves you asking yourself, “What just happened?” There is an art to approaching difficult subjects in a positive manner that will create an intentional environment for growth. My goal is to provide a coaching opportunity to align my teammate with company’s vision. I’m not going to claim I win ‘em all, but I’m certain that this thoughtful preparation will put you on a path to the most positive outcome possible.

When we confront, our objective is to bring to light something that needs to be addressed. Remember, that is our perspective, but the person you are conducting the conversation with may not see it the same way, or even be aware that there is an issue in the first place.

Here are my tips for mastering difficult conversations:

1) Be the example

  • It’s difficult to coach, correct or discipline others if you aren’t providing an example of the good behavior, characteristic, or skill you are trying to encourage. Being a good example in leadership will earn the respect of your team.

2) Prepare

  • Plan for your conversation ahead of the interaction. Visualize approaching the person from a spirit of care and optimism about a successful resolution. Anytime you go into a meeting with genuine concern for the person you are engaging with, the outcome will be better.
  • Be intentional about what you will discuss, and why it is important. Plan what you will say. Let your words demonstrate an intention to help the other person.
    • When addressing the concern, remember to clarify your position. How serious is the issue? What’s the potential effect? Are there other parties involved? How reliable is the source or content?
  • Define and articulate what you’re asking. Be specific about the needed improvement. Write it down, if appropriate, and give them a copy.
  • Remember to distinguish between the person and the behavior. Consider areas where the employee or colleague is doing well in their role and potentially including those positive contributions in your discussion.
    • Ensure that you are in a calm state before the meeting. Consider trying a breathing exercise, or something to get you in a good headspace before you begin.

3) Approach

  • Your approach before, and during the discussion will have an immense impact on the outcome.
  • Contemplate your meeting location. What kind of environment makes for a successful confrontation? Ensure the location will provide privacy and mitigate disruptions, to manage stress all around. Maintain composure, self-control, and presence of mind.
  • Depending on the nature of the discussion and if this is an elevated corrective counseling meeting following a previous encounter, it may be appropriate to include a Human Resource Manager or appropriate secondary attendee.
  • Give notice so that the person isn’t caught off guard.
    • Example: I have some concerns I’d like to share with you. Would now be a good time, or is there another time that works better?
      • Reminder: Go into the discussion with the intention that you can grow your relationship with this person.
  • Prepare to offer a collaborative discussion. Intend to work together to find a common solution.
    • Example: How can we make things better? Or: This doesn’t seem very productive, what other ideas do you have that might help us both win?
  • Listen during the discussion and avoid defensiveness. Your teammate may share valuable information.

4) Encounter

  • State the facts calmly. Nothing is to be gained by being accusatory, and it will only put them on the defensive.
  • State your agenda, purpose, and intention for the outcome of the discussion.
    • Example: You’re continued missed deadlines have impacted the team and delayed project completion. I’d like to learn if there is something we can do to help. Executing according to the schedule is required to help the team achieve success and meet our client’s expectations.
  • State your expectations and what is your desired outcome is.
    • Example: What I would like to accomplish today is to draft a plan for you to get caught up, and to secure your commitment to complete the deliverables according to the client’s scope of work and schedule.

5) Avoid back-tracking

  • You’ve begun a thoughtful conversation addressing the issues, but you may find the discussion deteriorates if you’re not getting the response you’re looking for:
    • Defuse – If someone is defensive or angry, it’s time to quit the discussion.
      • If this happens, don’t beat yourself up. It isn’t out of the ordinary, which is one of the reasons giving notice is important. Some people need a little time to mentally prepare so they can be in the “right place.”
  • Stop delivering your agenda and address the person’s emotional state. Get in the right mental space; the goal is to understand each other and respectfully work through things. Maintain your composure and suggest a timeout.
    • Example: You seem very upset right now. Should we take a 15-minute break?
  • Go slow. Hear each other out. Affirm their emotions and maintain respect.
  • If all else fails, know when to table the confrontation. Most times, an issue can be resolved in one sitting. In other circumstances, you may need a couple of discussions. A person may need some time to process what they’ve just heard. It’s okay to schedule a follow-up discussion, but make sure that this happens.

6) Resolution

  • Negotiate a workable solution. Summarize your expectations, restate any decisions by writing them down on paper or a counseling form when necessary. Confirm in a way that each person knows where they stand and what’s expected.
  • Find or create arrangements between people that allow for needs to be met in a way that achieves the company’s objectives but works for everyone when possible.
  • Confirm the negotiation and resolution.
    • Example: Is this something you can live with too?
    • Get their commitment.
  • Talk about what the future will look like with the new arrangement. What will the outcome be if commitments aren’t met? Writing these things down gives you something to refer back to, should you need to address in the future, or in a way to encourage and acknowledge positive behavior as well.

Take confidence in knowing that confrontation, coaching, correction, acknowledgment, and encouragement are all essential aspects of leadership. When performed well, these types of communication and engagement can positively communicate needs and expectations. They can help you improve performance and grow relationships and trust with colleagues, coworkers, and personal relationships — even parenting! Learning to embrace these communication essentials will inform your team, inspire and grow you as a leader and cultivate a healthy culture.

If you got to the end of this article, keep up the great work! You clearly have a heart for inspiring healthy communication and expectation transparency within your teams! You are going to do great things!

Nikki Cummings is an entrepreneur and businesswoman, she is Cofounder & CEO of Cummings Camp Programs, LLC. a leadership development organization committed to helping entrepreneurs build the business of their dreams, so they can live the life of their dreams!