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The Art of Professional Confrontation in the Workplace

The skill of professionally bringing up unpleasant subjects & holding others accountable.


Download ‘The Art of Confrontation’ PDF Click here! 

“Interpersonal skill is one of the most important skills for professional success, and one of the biggest obstacles to that success and a great source of headache in the workplace, is interpersonal conflict. When differences between people are not managed well what results is politicking, stepping on eggshells around people, or disrespectful arguing, complaining, and interpersonal conflict.  

When managed well however, workplace relationships can become a source of inspiration, leadership, and collaboration. Differences can be harnessed, and conflicts can strengthen relationships. So how do we manage it well? You probably already know how to be friendly. What is rarer is the skill of effectively, and healthily confronting others. This is a key skill in interpersonal relationships and is required for effective leadership, coaching and management.

In this E-Book you will learn a model for healthy and effective confrontation. Yet to actually learn it so that it is in your state, speech, and way of operating, you’ll have to practice and that will mean making mistakes, and learning from them, and doing so until you find your way of incorporating this profound skill.” – James Hayes


What exactly is “Confrontation?”

Confrontation literally refers to come “face to face” with another person. So love-making is confrontation! Of course, we don’t use the term confrontation for love making, intimacy, kindness, etc. We mostly use it for unpleasant encounters when we have to go face-to-face with another person to bring up something that the other person probably does not want to hear. And that’s what makes confrontation challenging.

So, for most of us confrontation carries strong negative connotations. It carries negative connotations about it being conflict with someone, experiencing strong negative emotions about something and someone, and so suggests that we are in danger interpersonally with someone— it might hurt the person’s feelings, it might end the relationship. For the great majority of people, the term confrontation carries a lot of negative connotations so we mostly avoid it. We dance around it. Of course, by the time we get around to it this just makes the encounter and the confrontation worse. By the time we get around to it, it has grown to become large and unmanageable. The design here is to address those contexts when the issue, complaint, or problem is small and manageable.


The Skill of Positive Confrontation

The science and art of positive confrontation is mostly unknown and unheard of. And given that, it involves a set of skills that are in such short supply today. Many people, including most leaders, managers, coaches, etc. have simply not been trained in this delicate art— the art of how to bring up unpleasant subjects in as pleasant as possible way.

Positive confrontation refers to the process whereby we can bring something up that has the potential of being negative, hurtful, and/or sensitive, but do so in such a way that it comes across in a constructive and respectful way. It is not only bringing up the subject, but doing so in such a way that it brings the person face-to-face with the subject. It confronts or engages the person.

Typically, this has the effect of being shocking, surprising, and unexpected. And because of this people often experience confrontation as threatening, criticizing, and even as an attack.

Obviously to do this in an effective way requires special skills. When we confront, we are trying to bring up something that needs to be brought up (or at least that is our perspective) because we’re aware of some possible danger, problem (or potential problem), unacceptable behavior, etc. Something seems “wrong” to us and we want to air it so as to bring it to some kind of satisfactory resolution. Obviously, the danger in confronting is that because the topic involves things that are unpleasant, bad, or in some other way not-okay, the very mentioning of the subject sometimes functions like a “button” setting the other person off. No wonder the word “conflict,” by definition, refers to friction. And in interpersonal conflict it shows up most frequently in terms of the push-shove dynamic—we push to get someone to face something or do something, and they push back, so we shove hard at them and so it goes.


Everyday Confrontations

We all experience confrontations every day. These mostly entail blurting out something and laying all of one’s cards on the table. Or it could entail being open and honest, being up-front and explicit about what you are thinking and feeling about a given subject.

In this way, confrontation is a gift of relationship. It is an expression of true intimacy and an expression of being real. In everyday life it can be abrasive or non-abrasive depending on the person’s skills or states. It can be assertive— just speaking your mind, emotions, values, and wants, or it can be forceful and demanding.

Even everyday confrontation can be positively respectful and an act of love and concern that lets someone know how we experience them. Or, it can be disrespectful and punishing as a way to get back at someone. It can be given in a spirit of revenge and pay-back. Such is not a healthy confrontation. In healthy confrontation we affirm and validate the person we confront while openly and honestly communicating our concerns, interests, and perspectives about some issue or behavior.

In healthy confrontation, you can bring up negative concerns that bother you. You then talk about those concerns with the person or persons in the hope of resolving the conflict. Confrontation does not mean shouting at someone, being mean, rough, gruff, or hurtful. It means being authentic while preserving the relationship. It usually requires a strong combination of firmness and care — firm compassion.


The Confrontation Model

Everyday confrontations tend to occur when we reach a threshold of frustration or stress. They arise out of getting into an unresourceful state. This stands in contrast to intentional confrontation when we plan a confrontation and get into our best states to be able to pull it off. Effective confrontation occurs when you integrate an understanding of the confrontational process so that you can recognize where you in that process at any given moment and then know what to do next.


The Five Stage Confrontation Process described here allows you to recognize each of the stages and what to accomplish in each stage. The five stages are:

1) Preparation

2) Approach

3) Encounter

4) Back Tracking

5) Resolution


These stages are not worked through once and for all, but constantly revisited as needed. You reiterate the stages again and again until you get through the stage. This is especially true of the Encounter and Back-Tracking stages. You may go round and round these stages, and even back to preparation and approach several times before you are ready to step into the Resolution stage.

This overview of the confrontational process identifies how confrontation naturally occurs. You prepare, you approach, you make your encounter, you back track when problems arise and the encounter doesn’t work, then you encounter again, you resolve the matter. By distinguishing these stages in your thinking about confrontation, you will be able to know where you at any specific moment and what to do next.


So Skilled at Confrontation That…

Moving through the following stages of confrontation will facilitate the realization that there are loving ways to confront. You can confront by simply being yourself, using “I” statements, and gently engaging the other person without threatening or violating his or her values. The Confrontation Model described here provides a step-by-step for confronting a loved one or a colleague at work. And if you use it systematically, and with elegance, you can confront them in such a way that they will hardly know that they are being confronted.


Stage I: Preparation

How to get Ready for the Encounter

First, Frame Confrontation in a positive way

The first task is to deal with yourself and your thinking. Until you frame this process in a way that allows you to appreciate its values and find it as an attractive alternative to letting things go, you won’t learn these high-level skills. Begin by framing confrontation as a caring process that is inevitable, critical, and healthy for relationships. Confrontation isn’t a case of “lowering the boom” on someone in one fell swoop. It is rather an ongoing interchange of communication wherein you commune with another person about what you think, feel, want, etc. because you want to create clarity and understanding.

In confronting you deliver a “negative” message that seeks to make things better. You evaluate, give advice, rebuke, warn, etc. with the aim of communicating something important with care and respect. This is the art of being kindly tough rather than a pushover or tyrant.


So what are the positive values that positive confrontation offers?

  • Confrontation enables you to troubleshoot relational problems. With this process you can point out incongruities, identify things that seriously hurt or bother you, smoke out potentially dangerous issues, and be straight with one another. Where there is no conflict, there is no relationship.
  • Confrontation has the power to sharpen a person. By confronting, we challenge one another to greater levels of excellence, responsibility, and the developing potentials. An old Proverb says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” If you take confrontation well, it can help you to knock off your rough edges and give you a polish and edge that makes you more effective. As such confrontation prevents stagnation, stimulates curiosity learning, and growth. Confrontation can even revitalizes your life passion.
  • Confrontation can lead to greater levels of authenticity. That’s why a personal relationship between intimates needs confrontation. Authentic intimacy works best when we feel free to bring up and talk about anything and everything that bothers or concerns us. Walking around on eggshells may work for a while if someone is in a particularly vulnerable state, but in healthy relationships we cannot always “walk around on eggshells” with someone and believe we have a reciprocal relationship. Healthy reciprocal relationships involve adults who assume responsibility for their own emotions and actions. When two people trust each other, and deeply feel that the other has his welfare at heart, they can talk about things that would otherwise trigger defensiveness. They can “speak the truth in love” to each other without either taking offense or blowing up. They will be able to confront each other in loving and gentle ways.
  • Confrontation is part of healthy conflict resolution and meditation. And wherever there are human beings who have wills of their own, conflict is inevitable. There is no escaping that. We must face each other and find out how to mesh our differing wills. We can do this without pushing, demanding, nagging, or criticizing. Those are the things that make confrontation negative and hurtful and create more problems than they solve, which is undoubtedly why most people avoid confrontation.
  • Confrontation provides a forum or medium for resolution for exploring differences. Whenever there is conflict, there is a sense that some value is being violated, disagreement arising from differing models of the world and differing expectations, and there’s a non-understanding state that calls for new and better negotiations. Where there are different values beliefs, interests, needs, and decisions, there will be conflict and an opportunity to explore these differences.
  • Confrontation gives us the chance to learn to conflict positively. The way people conflict can be positive or negative. When it is negative, the conflict becomes hostile, people begin to fight dirty. They “throw below the belt pushes.” Push–shove dynamics then escalate until the battle becomes an all-out war where people engage in a knockdown and drag-out discord. Positive conflict, on the other hand, clarifies issues, wrestles with differing viewpoints, explores differing needs and wants, and comes to a resolution that allows everybody to win. When we conflict positively, people learn, grow, make healthy adjustments, deepen their understandings, and work from a win/win perspective that maintains the dignity of all persons.
  • Confrontation can strengthen relationships. Healthy conflicts strengthen our relationship and make them more stable since we then experience being authentic with each other. Each person knows that merely having a disagreement or a conflict will not end things. This reduces the need for hiding, opens up more channels for communication, and provides graceful ways for saving face while resolving problems. It fosters an internal cohesion of the relationship.


Second, Access a State of Calm Defenselessness

Whenever you go face-to-face with someone in a straightforward way, you will need to be sure that you are ready, mentally and emotionally. Are you so angry you can’t stand it? Then you are not ready to confront anyone! Are you unable of listening in an attentive way to the other’s position? You are not ready either. Have you clarified your mind so that you know what you want to say? If not, you’re not ready. Have you given sufficient thought to how you are going to say what you want to say? And if you’re not ready, then don’t do it.

If you are confronting out of stress, fear, anger, shame or any other strong negative emotion—you are merely reacting and not responding with your full resources. If you attempt something as complex as confrontation “from the seat of your pants” it will almost never be effective. You will be confronting from a defensiveness that will provoke defensiveness and get nowhere.


Knowing when to not confront is as important as knowing when to confront. To be an effective conflict manager, you need to be calm, in control of yourself, with presence of mind and flexibility. These questions highlight the fact that effective confrontation requires that you are in a good and resourceful state to begin with.

So, gauge your state:

  • What state of mind, emotion, and body are you in?
  • Is it resourceful?
  • Or are you feeling unresourceful?


Third, Separate Person and Behavior.

Healthy confrontation focuses on behavior that is objectionable or unacceptable and not the person’s thoughts, attitudes, or emotions. What specifically is the person doing that elicits the need within you to confront them? As you then identify the behavior, do so with the recognition that they are more than, and different from, their behavior. This distinction will then free you to simultaneously affirm the person.

  • What behavior is objectionable to you?
  • What behavior hurts you? How does it hurt you? In what way?
  • What damage is it doing? How do you know and make that evaluation?


Effective confrontation requires that instead of reprimanding, scolding, or correcting, you simply identify the behavior that you do or don’t want and why, for you, it is unacceptable. Offer the alternatives that you know. Then invite the other person to offer his or her alternatives. Assert the person’s dignity and curiously explore what the person says. Make it your objective to let the other person save face. Don’t make the dignity of person the issue.

This provides another powerful preparation mind-set for confronting. Go search for the positive intention behind the behaviors of the other person. Even the most destructive of behaviors have positive intentions behind them. As you solicit them, find out what the other person is trying to do or achieve by what he or she is doing:

  • What do you want from this relationship?
  • What do you want from him?
  • What was your intention in doing X?
  • What do you hope to accomplish or get from Y?


This frame will give you a de-stressing point of view and enable you to explore with a positive framework as you seek first to understand the other’s negative behaviors. This also takes the pressure off the person so that he doesn’t have to be defensive. You have not made him (as a person) or his intentions the problem. Only the behavior is the problem —to you.

If you operate from the belief that another person is perverse, hateful, worthless, etc., you corrode your ability to trust that person and this then will create all kinds of crooked communication and relational patterns. Once you discover the wants behind the other person’s behaviors, affirm the person’s positive intentions.


Fourth, Clarify your Mind about the Issue

Jumping in and bringing up lots of topics without clarifying your own mind and doing your own homework is impetuous.

First take time to think through the issues. Target the issue and formulate the problem by questioning yourself:

  • What is the point of conflict?
  • What is the source or the basis of my understandings?
  • Where did I get these ideas?
  • How reliable is my evidence or source?
  • Is this a descriptive or an evaluative issue?
  • What criteria and values is my evaluation based upon?


Evaluation the nature of the conflict:

  • How serious is this conflict?
  • What is its potential effect?
  • What is the worst case scenario?
  • What is the best case scenario?
  • What factors are involved in producing this problem?
  • Who differs from my perspective about the problem?
  • What is the other person’s perspective about this?
  • What is their evidence? How is it that they have a different perspective?
  • What is the specific frame of belief and/or understanding that needs to be changed?
  • What is required to alter that frame?
  • Who else is involved in resolving this?
  • What are all of the methods available for resolving this conflict?

It is important to not focus on solutions too quickly. The reason is simple: you might be solving the wrong problem. First thoroughly understand, evaluate, define, and brainstorm the problem and reality-test your findings.


Stage II: Approach

Set an Atmosphere Conducive for Positive Confrontation

Everything up to now has been in preparation for the confrontation. Having induced the kind of defenseless state that allows you to move in gently, non-abrasively, and caringly to encounter another person, you are ready to make your approach. If that is the case, then you are ready for the next steps in this process.


Fifth, Establish the Right Climate

As you think the atmosphere wherein your confrontation will succeed, what climate will you now seek to create? If you don’t have an environment where it can succeed— it will not. It is as simple as that. So, do not do it until you have prepared the ground and have created the context where you can accomplish what you want to accomplish.

What kind of environment makes for successful confrontation? It will be one characterized by good will, a collaborative spirit, respect, a state where stress can be managed, a sense of being in control of yourself, presence of mind, privacy, lack of disruptions. Share your intentions of good will. “I want to make things better for both of us.” Express yourself respectfully. Invite the other person to help solve the problem.

Positive confrontation occurs best in an atmosphere conducive for resolving things. This means approaching the other respectfully with good will, trust, in a relaxed way, and an openness to listen. To express your good will, begin with attentive listening. This will also enable you to adopt a non-defensive stance. When people become defensive, no one is really listening to the other, negotiation can’t take place. Here you can use humor and some playfulness, but it should be at yourself, not at the other person. De-escalate on small tissues first to build trust and for the basis for handling the more risky issues.


Sixth, Invite Confrontation

Now you are ready to invite an engagement on the issue. Don’t just impose your confrontation on the person. Allow him or her to get mentally and emotionally ready. If you surprise the person when he is not looking if you pull it on her when she is hot, defensive, feeling insecure, scared, or if you try it when he hasn’t clarified his thoughts, things will not turn out very positive.

So invite the person into the process:

  • “I have something that’s really bothering me and I would like to sit down and share it with you. Would this be a good time or would another time be better for you?”

As you invite engagement on some hot subject, put the focus on behavior or issue, not the person. The person is not the problem; the frame is always the problem. Inviting an engagement encourages a collaborative spirit wherein both are searching for ways for everyone to win.


Collaborative means working together to find a common solution and not competing about who is winning. Downplay competition in every way possible. Focus on building a sense of morale in working together, belonging, caring being fair, and laughing together. The collaborative spirit corresponds to a win/ win orientation.

To invite collaboration ask such questions as:

  • How can we find a solution that will be mutually satisfying?
  • What alternatives can you imagine to help both of us win?
  • How can we make things better?
  • This doesn’t seem very productive, what ideas do you have that might enable both of us to fulfill our needs?

Getting this kind of win/win collaboration from the other person helps to create an agreement frame and this will give you the power to negotiate. An agreement frame gives you a common ground for agreeing. To discover and articulate this you may have to keep going to higher-levels of values and meanings until you discover some common value that you both want and can use to bind yourselves together.

Given that confrontation itself is a hot behavior that seeks to deal with a hot topic, this is crucial. So set it in your mind to make it as safe as possible for the other to receive it. You would want the same if the shoe was on the other foot, wouldn’t you? By inviting engagement, you allow the other person some choice and the ability to prepare for the encounter. By setting out your agenda you get things on the table beforehand so there won’t be any surprises later on. And by packaging everything in gentleness you send the message that you care about the other person and are trying to help, not hurt. It is this agreement frame that helps to create the best atmosphere.


Seventh, Attentively Listen

If you are asking for verification of the details, or how the person is thinking and feeling, then cool down your spirit and give the gentle grace of hearing the person out. Don’t interrupt. Allow him or her to speak and hear the person out. Avoid talking over the person when something is said that you disagree with. More often than not, conflict results from miss-understanding and miss-communication. It arises from not checking out the meanings and understandings that we get.


Eighth, Package your Communications in Gentleness

Gentleness is a key component for successful and positive confrontation. Make it your aim to make it safe for the other person to hear you out. Do this private so that there will not be any chance of pushing the person’s embarrassment buttons so that he or she loses face in public. Offer your criticism tentatively. Give disclaimers as you do such as, “I may be wrong…”

Since people can get their buttons pushed so easily by being confronted in public, in front of others, be gentle enough to consider this and confront privately. Jumping on someone in public almost always pushes the person so he or she becomes defensive and will react out of wounded pride. It creates a situation where the person feels that he has lost face.

To make it safe for the other person avoid all judgment statements. Evaluative statements are immediate and automatic with most of us. We think evaluatively and so we speak in moralistic ways— we are right; they are wrong. We quickly defend, deny, and give reasons for ourselves.


To another such statements sound defensive, pushy, accusatory rejecting and even degrading. “You were supposed to be here half an hour ago, where have you been? Look at those spelling errors, can’t you do better? When we speak with judgments we often convey a better than thou” attitude that implies moral condemnation and a put down of the other person. Put-downs as statements or questions convey the message of insult and rejection. “Why don’t you pay more attention to what you are doing?”

Put-down statements also convey arrogance and superiority and that is not going to help. Make the confrontation tentative to give your encounter a touch of gracious gentleness. It seems to me that this is the situation, am I right in thinking this or am I missing something?

Don’t communicate in a way that implies that you are omnipotent and all-knowing. Remember that you are a fallible human being and are often wrong. You could be wrong right now. Any kind of superiority will come across as self-righteousness and contaminate your message.


Stage III: The Encounter

Move in face-to-face to deal with the Complaint

If you have induced yourself into the right state, prepared yourself appropriately and have created the right kind of state where the other is also ready, then you are now ready to engage in the encounter itself.


Ninth, Objectively State the Facts

Set forth in an objective manner what you know or believe to be the facts. Use “I” statements to take responsibility. I may be wrong in how I am understanding and reading this, but this is where I am today and

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