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.

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