I've always been wary of confrontations, shunning them at times. I like to blame it on my astrological sign, Libra. Ruled by Venus, the goddess of love, Libras search for peace and harmony, working hard to balance any oppositional forces.
But in truth, I think it's more than that. Whenever I have to face a difficult situation with another person, there's a part of me that fears getting tongue-tied or of things escalating so out of control that in the end there's a bigger problem than I started with, rather than a resolution or any valuable forward motion.
Yet, the reality is that you can't always run from conflict. In my own tireless quest for peace, there's also that nagging need to have an oft-times spontaneous conversation to "make things right" or to "have a talk," "straighten things out," "get something off my chest" or "clear the air."
There's a "right" way and a "wrong" way to handle a confrontation, I've learned by reading Dangerous Instincts, the book I mentioned in my last post. To start with, rather than call it a "confrontation," the authors refer to talking to coworkers, friends, neighbors or family members as an "interview." And, just as you'd prepare for a job interview (you would, wouldn't you?), you can prepare—in fact, you must prepare—for this type of interview. (There goes spontaneity. But there is a time and place for it, and this is not it.)
So let's throw out the word confrontation for now: it's just too emotionally laden and filled with finger-pointing and bad endings.
Preparation involves doing some homework. According to the books' authors, Mary Ellen O'Toole, PhD, and Alisa Bowman, here are some things you need to do before you ever ask a question:
- Set some goals. Think about what you want to accomplish during the interview. What do you want to find out? Keep in mind that it may take several interviews to get the whole story.
- Calm down. Be angry and aggressive and you risk a total emotional shutdown from the other person. Although you might be feeling upset and tempted to yell out something like, "I've had it—I can't take it anymore!" take a break and calm down first.
- Think about how your interviewee will react to the interview. Have past conversations with them been mired by crying, changing the subject, storming out of the room? Take what you know about the person's personality and behavior and figure out a way to craft your questions accordingly.
- Write a script. With emotions running high or there being a lot at stake, it's likely you could forget what you want to say or get flabbergasted by a comment from the other person and completely lose your train of thought. Writing down—and practicing—not only what you want to say but how you'll want to respond to the questions you might expect can help you stay on course.
- Think about venue. Physical surroundings play a big role in the success of an interview. If you meet in a hot, noisy, crowded restaurant the likelihood of a relaxed, meaningful conversation is low. Waiters can innocently interfere with the flow of your conversation; other diners can be distracting. Or, if the other person is likely to become emotional or upset, a public place may not be the best choice.
Preparation also involves honing your best interpersonal skills to help put the other person at ease. Some tips:
- Ask open-ended questions. Rather than asking questions that only give you one word answers, try to start your questions with these words: what, how or why.
- Slow down your line of questioning. Ditch the rapid-fire where-were-you-who-were-you-with approach.
- Use silence to your advantage. If you are patient and allow for a pause in the conversation without filling the silence with chatter, the other person is likely to say a little more.
- Acknowledge someone whenever he or she provides you with an honest and sincere answer. Everyone likes to hear some encouraging feedback. All it takes is saying something like, "I appreciate you telling me that; thank you for opening up."
- Reflect back what they say. What you think someone has said is not always what he or she actually did say. Summarizing the conversation can prevent any misunderstandings.
- Offer a compliment. A simple, "You're doing a really good job of explaining this," can go a long way in making the other person feel more comfortable and open.
Maybe you have your own personal tips for staying cool during a tough time. As for me, the next time I have to have a tough confrontation, er, interview, I'll feel much more comfortable and confident, that's for sure.