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A Confrontation Is Just a Talk That Searches for the Truth

April 22, 2002

Executive Roundtable is a weekly column by TEC Worldwide, an international organization of more than 7,000 business owners, company presidents and chief executives. TEC members meet in small peer groups to share their business experiences and help one another solve problems in a round-table session. The following question and answer are a summary of a discussion at a recent TEC meeting in Southern California.

Question: I need to have a serious talk with my sales manager about the way he treats his people. He gets the job done in terms of the numbers, but his management style is so abrasive that we keep losing good salespeople. I've mentioned to him several times that he needs to lighten up, but it seems to go in one ear and out the other. My problem is that I'm not good at confrontation.

Consequently, I keep putting off the conversation I know I need to have. It's gotten to the point where it's keeping me awake at night and affecting my performance on the job. How can I get over my fear of confrontation?

Answer: It sounds like you have developed a severe case of "confrontophobia"--the inability to sit down with someone and hold that person accountable for what he or she is supposed to do.

Don't feel alone. Confrontation ranks high on the list of activities feared and loathed by executives at all levels, according to Susan Scott, a Seattle-based management consultant and author of the forthcoming book "Fierce Conversations." Where does this fear come from? Mainly from outdated and misguided notions about the true nature of confrontation.

Most people see confrontation as a distasteful activity that involves head-to-head conflict with another person. In reality, Scott says, confrontation involves nothing more than a mutual search for the truth. It's how you go about searching for the truth, however, that makes the difference in your ability to resolve the situation.

"Confrontation does not consist of arguing, blaming, accusing, yelling, finger pointing or any of the combative behaviors that most people attribute to it," she explains. "Instead, the process of confrontation involves two or more people getting on the same side of the table and investigating an issue together. The secret to successful confrontation is to first own your piece of the truth and then open yourself up to other truths."

To prepare for a confrontational conversation with someone, Scott recommends, first determine what you want, why you want it and whom you want it from. Then clarify in your own mind the particulars of the situation--what has happened, how you feel about it and what's at stake.

Next, examine your contribution to the problem. What have you brought to the table that might be contributing to or exacerbating the problem? Equally important, examine your feelings about the issue and the confrontation. How long have your feelings been building up? How long have you been postponing the conversation? How have your feelings been undermining your relationship with this person?

Finally, prepare what you need to say. Write an opening statement and read it aloud several times. Listen carefully to the words coming out of your mouth and consider how someone else might hear them. Keep working on your statement until you get it exactly right.

During the confrontation, present your opening statement and define reality the way you see it. Always state the issue in the first person--"This is what I saw happen, this is how I feel about it, this is what's at stake for me, and this is what I want to resolve in this conversation."

Next, ask the other person to give his or her version of reality. Listen carefully without rushing to judgment. Instead, ask probing questions to gain clarity on the person's position. Make sure the person knows that you fully understand and acknowledge his or her position and interests. No matter what the other person says, do not try to build your case. That only puts the person on the defensive and sends the message that you have a closed mind. Instead, ask as many open-ended questions as possible to get the person talking about his or her side of the story.

Once each of you understands the other's position, identify what you learned during the conversation and chart a course for action. Ask questions such as: "Where are we now on this issue? What was left unsaid that needs saying? What is our new understanding? Given this new understanding, how do we proceed from here? What do we need to do to achieve resolution?"

Once you reach agreement on a resolution, identify a method for holding each other accountable for it.

To engage in successful confrontation, focus on asking questions rather than on trying to build your case. Keep in mind that there is no one "truth"; there is only your truth and the other person's truth. The harder you work to understand each other's truths, the better your chances of achieving a satisfactory outcome.


If there is a business issue you would like addressed in this column, contact TEC at (800) 274-2367, Ext. 3177. To learn more about TEC, visit

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