What are some resources to help me do better at confrontation?
September 23, 2014 10:00 AM   Subscribe

I am in the second year of my first big-girl job working with and leading groups of people. I am looking for advice/suggestions for ways to a) learn how to confidently negotiate a confrontation without feeling physically ill and b) recognize my personal avoidance tactics for these situations and assess whether this is me taking the "easy way out" or if the actions I am taking really are correct. This is specifically for business situations. Are there classes out there? Is there a book I should read?

Hello Metafilter! This is cmoj's SO using his account while I wait for my own membership to process.

Background story: This has happened on two separate occasions. The first time, I thought was just nerves. I was working on an event and the clients were asking me to do something I found ethically not ok. I tried to hint to my boss that this made me feel uncomfortable, but was obviously not doing a good job of voicing my dissatisfaction. Finally, a month before the event, I gathered up my courage and essentially blurted to my boss, “I don’t want to work for them anymore!” as she was walking out the door to go to a meeting. When I told her, I was shaking uncontrollably, my voice was quivering, and I felt like crying. I was very nervous about confronting my boss about something that felt essentially like telling her I could not do a part of my job, and as a result I held out from speaking to her for so long that by the time I finally got it out of me, it caused disorganization & stress in our small company.

The second time happened last week. It involved me telling a local recreational sports team that they could not play in a charity sporting event planned by a different client-organization. This team had participated in the past, but the client had decided that this team was too aggressive. Additionally, several members of this organization complained that they didn't want to play with this team again. I just didn't tell the team about the game, but the day before registration closed, they signed up. The organizers of the sporting event determined that we should ask them not to play & refund their money. When I called them up I was so nervous I didn't share the full story, and they ended up feeling that they were lied to. When I set up a meeting with their captain later to explain the situation my body was shaking so uncontrollably I couldn't hold my tea cup without spilling. I also felt like I was going to throw up, but inside, my mind was basically calm. I realized in hindsight that I could have avoided this whole ordeal if I had just contacted them earlier in the registration process and explained the whole situation. I just didn't think of doing that!

This is two times now that this pattern of behavior has happened. I am frustrated by my actions and need a way to recognize when I am being conflict-avoidant. A solution to avoid or work through that shaking sick-feeling I get when I need to have a hard conversation with someone is also necessary... I'm just not sure where to find resources for this!
posted by cmoj to Human Relations (16 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I actually found my therapist (who actually functions more as a career coach for me these days) the best resource for this. Role-playing scenarios, "what's the worst that could happen" prompts, etc. But having been in similar situations early in my career, some of it just does take time and experience. Good luck!
posted by dynamiiiite at 10:56 AM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

You could start by thinking of yourself as an actual adult with strengths and responsibilities equal to those around you rather than as a "big girl" living in a world of adults who know more and have more rights than she does.

I may be reading too much into it, but your mention of your first "big girl job" really jumped out at me.

I am the youngest of six kids in my family. As such I perpetually find myself relating to others as if they are older and bigger than me, even though that is not the case. If you frame yourself as a child the world will be an intimidating place.

You are old enough to know what is right and wrong, and to have responsibilities. When you are acting on your responsibilities it is not about you. It is about what the situation calls for. Rest in the objective necessity of what you are doing and on the requirement that you do it as part of your role. That should allow you to deflect any blow back that comes your way from someone who objects. It's not about you. It's part of the larger social contract and you're just the responsible adult holding up that contract.

But start by thinking of yourself as really truly grownup.
posted by alms at 11:24 AM on September 23, 2014 [17 favorites]

I recommend Difficult Conversations - it gives quite a good model for how to talk to people when you are disagreeing about something, and how to resolve conflicts without caving in or avoiding them.

That said, it does sound like this is a tough area for you, so maybe think about some situations where you do feel okay about saying no or disagreeing, and what makes those different from your work issues. Therapy may well be a good way to help as dynamiiite says.
posted by crocomancer at 11:35 AM on September 23, 2014 [5 favorites]

Getting To Yes is a great book for learning more about successful negotiations.
posted by Flood at 11:36 AM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like both these scenarios escalated because you put off the tough conversation. In number one, you could have told your boss about your concerns months earlier. In number two, if someone had told the team up front they were asked not to participate, much hassle could have been avoided.

As for how not to avoid these conversations until the last minute, I think your options are to either decide it's easier to do earlier than later, or talk to a therapist or career coach.
posted by colin_l at 12:10 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've had to get over this same aversion. Two things that help me immensely:

1) Practice. It gets better, it really does. Once you have a few experiences of standing up for yourself or delivering bad news and the world doesn't end, it won't seem like such a big deal. Be sure to take time afterwards to notice how good it feels to have that resolved, not hanging out there occupying your mental energy. Do the thing so you can get to that state.

2) Early feedback. It's way easier the less you're surprising the other person. Having to tell a person they're a poor performer when they're hearing it for the first time in a performance review is scary. Telling someone something they already know isn't that scary. If someone presents a plan that seems off, say so. Saying "eh, I have concerns about that, let me think about it and get back to you" is way easier than saying "Great!" and having to call back later and say you decided against it. Bonus: If you're consistent with your standards, over time people will learn what you're going to say no to or chew them out for ahead of time. Sometimes they'll still make you do it, but at least YOU know it's not a total surprise to them and that makes it less intimidating for you.
posted by ctmf at 12:21 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I've come a long way on this. Books that were helpful to me were Crucial Confrontations, Crucial Conversations (by the same authors), and The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense at Work.

The main takeaway from the first two is to approach these confrontations as opportunities to improve relationships, and that winds up working out pretty well. The authors also advise finding a solution and making it easy for the other party, and doing proactive work outside of confrontations by making sure you get regular face time with the other members of your organization and use this time to speak on friendly terms with nothing at stake. The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defense is about subtly refusing to engage with someone, but without drawing attention to the fact that they were trying to bait you into an abusive conversation.

Other things that have worked for me are starting off with *small* confrontations where the disagreement is minor, having a good idea of the escalation path if the person gets defensive or uncooperative, and taking the mindset that my frustration with another person is often a sign that I haven't fully taken stock of my ability to shape the outcome of a situation. I also (especially lately) have been holding myself to a high standard in terms of how I speak to other people, even those whom I disagree with.

I also think about the idea of symmetry in interpersonal communications, and how disagreeing with someone is really doing the same thing they're doing, which is stating my position on an issue. This is really encapsulated nicely by the quote, "We are equally entitled to express ourselves respectfully to one another" on this page's list of attitudes of assertive people. That whole page, really, gives good, concise guidelines on what assertive communication looks like, as well as less healthy communication styles.

Confrontations usually follow very similar trajectories. You will raise an issue, the other person will either talk productively about the issue, or stonewall you or engage in manipulative theatrics, in which case you must refuse to engage (especially don't start defending yourself when it's the other person whose actions need defending, or get sidetracked by another issue), state your boundary and/or give a consequence, and/or refer to the social or professional norm that supports your position and carries with it the implication that you can take things up the ladder.

(This is why holding yourself to a high standard is important: you don't want to cause the defensive behavior by being aggressive or abrasive, and there should be no need for anything other than politeness if you really have additional consequences at your disposal. In fact, you can act as though you're doing the other person a favor by giving them a chance to resolve the situation between the two of you instead of taking things to your boss, your landlord, or the police as the case may be. If you can make the case that, hey, I tried really hard to work this out and keep this off your desk, the other person will look crazy to whoever has to arbitrate it.)

Other books that are helpful in a less general sense are Games People Play and In Sheep's Clothing. In Sheep's Clothing is good for learning to fend off people who fight dirty, who have a tendency to target people who have a hard time with confrontation. Games People Play is good at illuminating some weird social dynamics, including some that could be characterized as conflicts with covert motives.
posted by alphanerd at 12:40 PM on September 23, 2014 [7 favorites]

Seconding ctmf, I used to be horrified by confrontation, but have found practice is vital, (and just amazing) in getting myself used to letting things roll of my back.

Though one of the skills I've really consciously honed is my body language and tone of voice in dealing with people, and in giving myself an air of quiet authority.

Most of this comes from feeling comfortable (or at least affecting to be calm) in dealing with other people but also engaged and ready to respond with people in a friendly but firm manner, and being proactive in approaching tricky conversations.

It does feel funny and awkward for a while, but this sort of thing is a bit like learning to dance or playing judo in knowing where to put your feet and reponding to your partners mood and moves, but like any dance or martial art you'll get the hang of it.

I deal with grumpy, arsey, pompous and self righteous people all day in customer service, all wanting to grumble about all sorts of things, so come prepared to expect a certain amount of friction, as part of my job.

I find one of the skills in gaining the upperhand in this sort of "difficult" conversation is not to mirror your partner in tone or body language as interject, just slightly higher / bolder and "pointing up" as a demonstration of your self confidence and belief in what your saying, is just enough to convey to the other person that you know what you're talking about and they need to catch on.

I deal with lots of people who come ready to "talk at" me, but by putting my conversational feet in the right places, (tone of voice, nodding, listening noises, summarizing, clarifying questions, gentle interruption if needed) can pull them round to "talking with" me instead, and listening to what I need to tell them, which makes my job almost painless.
posted by Middlemarch at 1:09 PM on September 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

In contrast to the other responders I would call the summary of both events as fundamentally pointing to a lack of maturity.

You don't need confrontation/negotiation practie or help, you need to stop putting off things that you perceive as uncomfortable, which is not the same thing.

Also, in particular, the first issue about ethics is not about confrontation (you should not be confronting ANYONE in that situation, you should be _asking_ your boss about the ethical considerations). If they simply reassigned the task then basically you are in fact telling your boss that you aren't able to do part of your job.

My suggestion would be to really rethink how you view your position, authority and job duties in the abstract in a working environment. It's OK to have personal and professional ethics, but you really need to draw boundaries about what those apply to and what your response will be when those boundaries are pushed.
posted by rr at 1:22 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I hate it too. A few thoughts - face it sooner rather than letting it build up in your head (and write down some notes/points for yourself prior) - this is handy on the phone.

Look up the broken record technique.

People want to be heard "I think what you're saying is...."
then, personally, I get stuck and would love to see some examples of the above great suggestions.

I once thought about going on an expensive leadership course group practice where you get to 'try' on unnatural roles for you.. might be something to consider as might acting classes, mediation training and/or non violent communication. I haven't done either of the latter but it's meant to be the sweet spot between avoidance and confrontation and if done right can lead to unexpected middle ground.

Did you have a parent who's 'assertion' was far too aggressive? If so you likely learned early you never wanted to do so much harm.
posted by tanktop at 1:28 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I recommend volunteering for political causes you believe in, both canvassing in person and working the phone banks.

It is terrifying at first, but the good interactions will make your heart sing, and you quickly learn to let the bad ones simply roll off your back. This desensitized my avoidance with conflict like nothing else, and it's especially great because the stakes aren't as high as they would be with, say, your boss.
posted by susanvance at 1:36 PM on September 23, 2014

There are lots of good suggestions above, but I just wanted to point out that THIS IS HARD STUFF, and you've actually done OK pretty much with the conflicts you described. We are wired, as humans, for the flight-or-fight response. Additionally, as women, we are socialized to smooth things over in social settings (assuming you're female from the "big girl job" note). So in dealing with conflict head-on, we are having to counteract a lot of evolutionary brain stuff and a decent of amount of social programming. So, please, give yourself props for trying to do a hard thing well.
posted by pantarei70 at 3:20 PM on September 23, 2014

My recipe for big girl pants: communicate early and often. No one likes blurted out surprises. No one likes guessing why they were obliquely left out.

Real leadership doesn't come from things like authority or confrontation. It comes from openness and collaboration. Communicating expectations and working with the other parties to find ways to meet those expectations. Assume the other party wants to be a part. Identify the problem and have a plan for how to deal with it that includes all concerned members.

Example one: Talk to your boss when the question of ethics first comes up. Say something like, hey, they are asking me to do this thing and I am unsure if this thing is ok. I say this as someone who both supervises people and answers to others. Last minute blurting just makes everyone feel frustrated and crappy and is unneeded drama when you're just trying to do your job.

Example two: Are there rules and expectations for those participating in the sports event? If not there should be. Make it clear from the beginning and hold everyone to those standards. They are frustrated because they don't know what is expected/what they are doing wrong.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 3:49 PM on September 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I am a really, really serious conflict avoider. I go to great lengths to avoid conflict and confrontation wherever possible. But once I conclude that other people or circumstances beyond my control are going to make it impossible to avoid, I am good about taking the bull by the horns and dealing with it head on (this seems to get me read as very confrontational -- it is apparently pretty unusual for a conflict avoidant person). It looks to me like there are two things that would help you enormously:

a) Get it clear in your mind that a lot of conflict is situational, not "personality" or "bad behavior" type stuff.

B) Get better at figuring out when confrontation is actually unavoidable. In situations where confrontation is unavoidable, putting it off only grows the problem. And that's what went wrong with the two incidents you described.

In addition to the above suggested book "Getting to Yes," I will also recommend "The Mind and Heart of the Negotiator." Both are research-based and both were texts for a college class I had on negotiation and conflict management. They should both help you with getting a better handle on the idea that conflict is situational, not social/personality/bad behavior. A lot of people seem to think that if everyone was just nicer, then there would never be any conflict in the world ever. Nope. Not true. Most conflict is situational. It is about competition for limited resources. There are only so many slots in the whatever, only so many hours in the day, only so many Xs in the Y, etc. So people compete for them, knowing that if they don't, hey, it will be gone and they will be left out.

My oldest child has no sense of time. I have learned a lot from him about dealing with life in terms of mileposts rather than deadlines. I think in your first example (which was the first time this happened, so I am not saying you should have known better), the point at which you needed to deal with it was the point at which you realized they were doing something you felt was unethical. Time was never going to make that better.

Getting better at recognizing events that are watershed moments of that sort has made it enormously easier for me.
posted by Michele in California at 4:03 PM on September 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Beta blockers should help with the physical manifestation of stress while you are implementing the excellent suggestions people have made above.
posted by marguerite at 4:21 PM on September 23, 2014

I would also suggest that when you get to the point of being able to identify that there is a conflict you are avoiding (this can be at least half the battle) and that you need to confront it in order to prevent things from getting worse, practice. Find a willing friend or cmoj and ask them if they can roleplay being your boss, or the coach of the difficult team, or whatever. Practicing what you are going to say and how to say it in a safe environment might help with the physical stress symptoms you mention.
posted by Athanassiel at 2:35 AM on September 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

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