Constructive confrontations

Telling people you work with and value what you don’t like about them, how do you do that? By saying something nice first, bringing the criticism next and then ending with something nice again (also known as ‘sandwiching’)? Sure that helps, but it doesn’t answer the question how you say what bothers you. Well this is how.

Part one: Why it is absolutely necessary to have difficult conversations

Not only friendships stem from mutual sympathy, business does too. Assignments will only come your way if the client knows you, trusts you ànd likes you. And as soon as you have gained the sympathy of your client, employer or associate you want to hold on to it as much as you can.

From my own point of view I can say I have more trouble speaking my mind and criticising when it comes to valued business contacts, loyal clients and friends than I have speaking my mind to random people on the train or to a cheeky sales person. It seems the more there is at stake the more we are afraid to lose what we have, where in fact the more there is at stake the more we should dare to open up and speak our mind.

A bomb ready to explode

Having invested a lot to build a relationship it is common sense that you are not eager to put it at stake. But what happens to that relationship if you keep all frustrations to yourself? Bitterness and frustrations that are not dealt or met with in time will turn into cynism and are in danger of exploding. Such an unexpected outburst of emotions is usually a big shock to everyone affected.

Nevertheless it’s also remarkable how after the first shock the majority of people claim they did see it coming. Colleagues or business associates who are in the dark of what is going on, can sense nevertheless that something is not right. It’s a fact, every time one swallows bitterness or leaves frustration undiscussed those feelings grow stronger under the surface. And it will not take long before your voice, body language or the way you look or avoid to look at someone starts shining through.

The beauty of self awareness

Relationships go sour when people hide unpleasant feelings. This goes as much for professional relationships as for relationships in your private life. Having said that, my advice is not to adress every minor feeling of discomfort. You must choose your battles. How do you know when something is worth battling for and when it’s really not?

When something someone else has done something that keeps bothering you you need to address it. You are not always aware of it at first but there are plenty of signs.

Take a close look at what happens during a conversation with the person who bothered you prior, do you feel a rising tensity in your shoulders or jaw that you can not explain? Do you click away any updates you see from him or her on social media?

Avoidance is the clearest sign that something has gone wrong in the relationship. If you choose to email where as before you always spoke on the phone you should admit to yourself that something is up. If you are more often speaking about someone than to someone then that’s another sign.

So a first important step in sustaining your relationships is self awareness. Be aware of your feelings and admit it to yourself when something or someone continues to bother you.

Part two: This is how you go into a difficult conversation

While reading this article you might realise that in fact you are avoiding someone close to you because of something he or she has done. If the professional or personal relationship with this person is of value to you you may also realise that you can not let it go sour. What you need now to be able to address the problem is some extra courage and the rules on constructive feedback.

Constructive confrontations 

There are a couple of ways to prepare for a difficult conversation. It is best to realise that it is a particular behaviour that is bothering you. The person in itself has not changed. Realise also that whatever you feel is your perspective,. Is there a sensitivity on your side? Try to also imagine the roles were reversed: the other person is bothered by something you did and you are not aware of it. Wouldn’t you want to get a chance to clarify things?

The reasons to confront the other person are abundant.

Now these are the rules of thumb to do so without damaging the relationship:

  • ask permission

  • be specific

  • don’t give interpretations but only describe your observation

  • start with ‘I feel’; stay away from moral judgement

  • don’t give advise and don’t trying to persuade the other person

You can ‘ask permission’ in many ways. In any case make sure that you time your message well. Bring it without any bystanders present and check that the other person is not occupied or stressed out by something else. You can explicitly ask for a one on one and you can also start by saying that you want to discuss something because you value the relationship a lot.

Be ‘specific’ about what is bothering you. Say for instance: during the meeting with client X last Friday I was saying ‘we probably need a lot more time to get the job done’ and as I started a new sentence you raised your voice saying ‘in fact time is not a factor at all’. Being this specific is much more effective than simply stating: ‘I don’t like it when you interrupt me’. Giving interpretations is not a constructive way of giving feedback.

Then continue by explaining how the particular action affected you.  Start with the words ‘I feel..’. You are giving your perception here, not a lesson of universal ethics (those don’t exist anyway). Don’t force anything either and don’t give advice. Your message will across better if the other person is free to think of his or her own way to do things differently next time round.

Do take care that your message is understood by the recipient. Half measures are not worth your while. If you go into this conversation make sure you finish it by checking whether your were understood.

The result of it all?

Your frustration is out the door. And so is the risk of an emotional outburst or avoidance. If the other person values the relationship as much you do he will change his behaviour or try to avoid the pitfall.

The best side effect of constructive confrontations is that the fact that the two of you have collided, spoken openly about it and resolved the issue strengthens the mutual trust. So don’t worry about that next assignment, thanks to the constructive confrontation it will come your way.

Rationality is an illusion

Not everyone sees the same things but we think we do. It’s a shared illusion, and only one of the psychological biases that disturb our daily communication. Working with conflicts (at best reducing and resolving them) I regularly witness illusions lead to so called rational behaviour that is in reality pretty irrational.

At a workshop in Amsterdam last May professor Richard Birke demonstrated via psychological experiments that people place too much confidence in their own judgement. Where as the truth is that we suffer from multiple cognitive biases. The only upside really is that the cognitive mistakes we make are systematic which means we can learn from them.

Do you suffer from perspective biases?

Perspective biases are positive illusions we create for ourselves. A clear example is The Selective Attention Experiment by Daniel J. Simons, a video that went viral. If you haven’t seen the short video yet, have a look at it before you continue reading. You’ll be surprised.

Half of the people who watch the video and count the passes made by the basketball players miss the gorilla! It is as though the gorilla is invisible. This reveals two things: that we are missing a lot of what goes on around us, and that we have no idea!

That we  are unwilling to accept that we miss so much from what is going on around us is due to over-confidence and the illusion of control. Two biases that play a huge role in conflicts: we hear or see only one perspective and we’re convinced that everyone shares our perspective. Something that is even more persistent when a matter is linked to our expertise.

I practiced as a lawyer earlier in my career and during my traineeship I was told not to read the opposing arguments before drafting my clients side of the story. It proved an effective technique to stay convinced of my clients’ arguments and strengthen them. But it’s also a dangerous technique. Strengthening a vision that is allready one-sided does not permit you to see the weaknesses in your own argumentation and will lead you to overestimate your position.

Through biased assimilation or confirmation bias we interpret facts in a way that supports our conclusion. And that leads to pretty irrational behaviour.

Add up all these psycholgical biases and you can see why we have so many conflicts!

How you can amend your psychological biases

The Gorilla Experiment illustrates how difficult it is to believe that each of us live in an altered reality. But how can you convince yourself or others that there are more sides to a story?

Research documented by the cognitive psychologist Tom Stafford illustrates that despite all the biases we’re subject to, we are sensitive to reason — we discriminate better arguments from worse ones, often recognise the truth when it can be demonstrated, and adjust the strength of our beliefs when we discover we can’t justify them as fully as we thought.

Other specialised literature also describes how crucial it is to offer different perspectives on the same reality. When it comes to disputes this means it is crucial for all parties to hear the other sides arguments ànd the reasoning behind it.

Looking at a conflict from all the different angles is the only way to compensate irrational behaviour such as tunnelvision and over-confidence. But most of all we should realise that there isn’t one single reality. If you decide to include other people’s interests you might gain a lot. Or framed more effectively: you can lose a lot if you don’t!

Photo: Street Art by Julian Beever.

It’s your best quality that leads to conflicts

I’m sure you know the type of person who, at a job interview, says their only flaw is ‘perfectionism’. It’s not that far off really. Our worst traits are always an overdose of our best qualities. 

Daniel Ofman, a Dutch engineer, was the first author to describe this. And judging from my own conflicts and the conflicts I mediate I can say it’s a fact: we reproach others a kind of behaviour the other person would qualify as a quality. When put under pressure your strong point becomes your pitfall.

More than 20 years ago D. Ofman developed a quadrant to help indivuals assess their core quality and its distortions. Distortion being the result of an overdeveloped core quality.

The Total Core Quadrant 


This is how you apply it:

In the first square you write down the quality or potential that defines you as a person in every situation. So if you are precise while at work but a chaotic freewheeler outside of work precision is not your defining quality, it is merely a skill (nurture versus nature). Think instead of what you can not turn off, a potential that drives you. That is your core quality.

The second square, your pitfall, is an excess of your core quality and describes the way you behave in stressful situations. Think of what people tell you in these situations: ‘Don’t be such a..’. or ‘Don’t be so..’.

The third square is your challenge, something you don’t have a lot of. Let’s say you are very ‘energetic’ (= core quality), which leads to ‘chaos’ (= pitfall) in stressful situations, then ‘structure’ or ‘focus’ could be your challenge. Adding focus to a lot of energy creates the perfect balance to make you florish. So balancing is not about being less energetic, but only about adding structure to that energy.

Last but not least is the aspect I see all the time while mediating conflicts: allergies. It is what I call a red button. A behaviour or tendency in other people that drives you mad. When being confronted with it you can no longer deal with that person. This is your allergy.

Using the quadrant to analyse conflicts 

The quadrant is particulary helpful to analyse conflicts. The beauty of it is that the different squares are complementary. As soon as you define one of the quarters you can deduce the other quarters. If you feel that someone is pushing your buttons take a closer look. Applying your allergy to the quadrant gives insight in your defining quality, your pitfall ànd your challenge.

In a crisis people are trapped in their pitfall: a core quality has become an excess. It is usually the display of your allergy by someone in your surroundings that pushes you in to your pitfall.

And there’s more: Ofman discovered that people are allergic to individuals who display an overdose of their own challenge. Say you are allergic to lethargic people: your challenge in life will be ‘to let go and lean back’ a bit more often.

Taking the example used earlier: you are ‘energetic’ and your challenge is ‘focus’, then you will get really annoyed by overly structured people (controlfreaks in your language). As an effect of your allergy you will display your pitfall, in this case ‘chaos’. Result: ‘chaos’ versus ‘control’. An effective collaboration is no longer possible and you will start avoiding the controlfreak.

The quadrant offers insight in the reason why people can no longer interact but it also explains why these two interacted in the first place: we are always looking for complementary qualities.

But then, how to resolve conflicts? 

Analysing conflicts by letting conflicting parties fill in their quadrant offers them self-insight: a clear mental picture of their core quality, pitfall and allergy. The self-knowledge helps them become more effective. One of the ways to become more effective is by adding what they don’t have much to their core quality.

At the same time the quadrant is a good tool to normalise and de-escalate crisis situations. It will allow the parties to agree what the problem is exactly and where it comes from, which is an essential aspect of solving a conflict.

Also, filling in the quadrant on behalf of the person you have a dispute with can offer understanding. An understanding of the incompatibility is essential because it helps you realise that you are allergic to a particular behaviour, which relates more to your core quality than to the other person. And just as important: you’ll gain insight in the underlying special quality of annoying behaviour. Someone who is ‘insistent’ and ‘oppressive’ is also at core a ‘decisive’ person, which is a quality and might have been the ground of which you started collaborating.

So it all adds up to self-insight of your behaviour and understanding of the behaviour of the person you are in conflict with. Both factors de-escalate conflicts to a level on which they can be resolved. The end result is that you can balance your core quality again and be stressfree.