5 Ways to Manage Confrontation in the Workplace
Updated: Sep 6, 2018
A short story on confrontation + a framework with concrete steps on how to handle your next confrontation in the workplace with structure, confidence, and ease.
I was preparing for war.
A mental war that was.
It was 3PM and a 6 PM meeting with my main client, Alexa, the head of project management, had just popped into my calendar.
Jeff, my manager, called to inform me that Alexa was pretty pissed with me.
What else was new.
My stomach felt horrible and my brain felt fuzzy as I thought about the pending confrontation.
Of all the clients I had ever worked with, Alexa was the one who pushed my mental, and sometimes emotional, capacity to its limits. To be on her bad side meant you were in her ‘dog house’. It also meant a challenging working environment for you and your foreseeable future.
For someone who relied on relationship management to keep things at peace and timelines moving on the ground, this was the one relationship that I couldn’t screw up. Alexa was my client sponsor and things were already rocky. Moreover, my charm that I relied on and used to my advantage when managing conflict would have no use here.
So how did I get here?
After spending 3 months creating a standardized process playbook on how to operate and manage Agile software development projects, I found myself leading a larger business unit of the organization and implementing some of this process playbook. There was a gray area in one of the processes and while managing this business unit, I made the decision to slightly deviate from the playbook for the benefit of the teams I was working with.
Things worked out with the team, but it didn’t matter to Alexa. If one business unit out of ten could make a modification to this playbook, then so could others. As my client sponsor, Alexa had been managing this playbook project closely. This mishap was perceived as me undermining her and rubbed her the wrong way.
Moreover, I was a Senior Consultant. It was the first time in my career where I was ‘the face’ of Deloitte on the ground for the project, operating with almost complete autonomy. This also meant that I was in the direct line of praise when things went well and in the direct line of fire when they didn’t.
I entered her room. My talking points and arguments were ready. There was no shot in hell I was taking heat for this situation and going down without a fight.
I was doing what was best for her organization!
How could it be my fault!? I said to myself.
My approach was to defend myself vigorously, figure out how to deviate the blame away from me, and drive some sense of tranquility into Alexa to get her to see the big picture and this not being an issue for her organization.
It was a poor strategy and moved me further into the dog pound.
From her perspective, I was a consultant not willing to drive a solution and not seeing the issue through the lens of his sponsor - just great.
Metaphorically speaking, I left that meeting without an arm and leg.
Looking back on this confrontation with Alexa, there were a number of ways I could have better prepared myself and drive the cadence of this meeting. From setting expectations for our discussion, completing my own due diligence on the situation and seeing the issue through her POV, to maintaining a Learner mindset, providing tangible solutions for how to move forward, and getting alignment for next steps, there were a number of different steps I could have taken to change the outcome of this confrontational conversation. Here are 5 concrete ways to better manage confrontation in the workplace for your next ‘difficult’ conversation.
1. Set clear expectations of the discussion
For every meeting you’ve ever attended or formal conversation you’ve had with a colleague, hopefully there has been some sort of intention and verbal expectation in play that helps to provide structure and guidance to the conversation. Failure to provide the expectation of the conversation can lead to a simple conversation going off track.
Confrontational discussions need to be handled in the same manner to make your time constructive, tactical, and solution oriented. Before even beginning your conversation, set the expectation to the purpose of the conversation and the outcome you’re trying to drive.
Here’s a simple prompt that you can use for your confrontation: “the purpose of this conversation is to:
Come to a solution regarding XYZ issue
Discuss the impacts of the issue at hand
Provide some context to the situation
There are endless options for the expectation you can set in your confrontation. I went into my conversation with Alexa without one, leaving the conversation open ended and with way too much room to deviate from a solution and how to move forward. Setting the expectation of the discussion will set the tone of what you’d like to achieve and can help to keep your conversation on track - especially as nerves and anxiety can kick-in to overtake how you will handle things.
2. Do your due diligence, acknowledge, and take responsibility
Confrontations tend to be heated in nature, though they don’t always need to be. A number of professionals forget to include one basic but important input of a confrontation with a colleague (or colleagues).
Walking in their shoes.
Ask yourself what your colleague’s perspective looks like. How are they thinking and feeling about the situation? What are the facts on their end that led to this outcome?
Before approaching a confrontational discussion, take some time to think about the situation at hand and try to understand the perspective of the person you’re going to engage with. Once you’ve put yourself in their shoes, use that perspective as an input into the conversation.
In this regard, acknowledge your ‘partner’ in this situation for why this the situation at hand may be difficult, what may have led to frustrations, and how yours (or some actions) may have caused some issues with them or their team. Acknowledgement is an invaluable tool that allows your colleague to feel heard and understood in a situation. It also highlights your emotional intelligence, conveying your ability to understand what may have went wrong and why that person you’re interacting with had an issue in the first place.
Take it a step further. After you’ve acknowledged the frustration that your partner in this conversation may be facing, take responsibility for allowing it to get to that point.
Knowing that you’re willing to assume responsibility for a situation is a constructive tool for managing confrontation. Focusing on who is right or wrong and playing the blame game will only lead to further obstacles in moving things forward. This also shows immense growth and maturity for how you handle challenging situations in the workplace.
In my conversation with Alexa, there was no acknowledgement on the challenges she was facing nor those she could potentially face because of my actions. My failure to recognize, acknowledge, and take responsibility only added fuel to the fire of the confrontation as well as her feeling of frustration with the situation.
3. Come prepared with functional solutions
You’ve set expectations for the conversation, acknowledged a different perspective, even taken responsibility. Now for the third step.
Part of why my conversation with Alexa went so poorly was because I went in with all of my artillery ready to defend the decision I had made for her organization. Explaining myself over and over was a dead end - one that my ego was not willing to give up on. The conversation would have been completely different had I come with a solution oriented approach.
When preparing for your next confrontation, come prepared with 2-3 possible solutions to drive a resolution or best step forward. Remember to keep in mind that the solution should be something that both parties agree to.
As you work through these solutions, put some additional thought into the future. Think through the potential outcomes and responses of how the other party may portray the solutions and the outcomes they may drive for the professional relationship and the organization with which you’re involved.
4. Go in with a Learner mindset
I’ve emphasized a Learner versus Judger mindset in a few posts so far this year - and I’ll continue to do so because it is one of the most effective coaching tools you can have in your repertoire. The questions that we ask ourselves have a direct correlation on the type of mindset that we maintain in conversations.
Confrontations tend to be blame oriented in nature and lead us down a dangerous path of closed mindedness and negative thoughts (aka being in Judger mode). A Learner mindset is all about creating win-win and solution oriented opportunities for any type of situation that you’re in. To approach your next confrontation with a Learner mentality, ask yourself these questions before the conversation even begins and even have them handy as a reminder of what you’re trying to accomplish:
What can I learn? What’s useful?
What is he/she thinking, feeling, and wanting? (for situations where you’re aggravated with a teammate)
What are the best steps forward?
What’s possible for this confrontation?
With Alexa, I was in pure Judger mode and checked off all of the boxes of Judger questions that are destructive to any conversation. These included:
What’s wrong with her that we need to have this conversation?
Whose fault is it?
How can I prove I’m right and cover my ass?
It’s no wonder that our conversation was a dud.
The power of maintaining the right mindset can not be overstated. Confrontational conversations in nature can cause anxiety and make your brain feel fuzzy - limiting your brain’s ability to stay sharp when it’s needed most. Arm yourself with the right questions and mindset for how to make any confrontation a win-win and solution focused scenario.
5. Sign-off and agree on next steps in written form
Have you ever heard of meeting minutes? There’s a reason consultants are so disciplined about recording what is said with their clients during meetings and ‘official’ conversations.
Meeting minutes are formal documents some organizations use to register the list of attendees during a meeting, a brief description of the event, what topics were discussed, and what outcomes were produced. Think of it as a cliff notes for a meeting. It’s just one method that can be used to hold both parties accountable of what was agreed on during your confrontation and what will be in place moving forward.
Moreover, having a written agreement in physical form is a professional way to align on what was agreed on and what both parties will be committed to. Even a quick email recap can be an effective tool to make sure both parties are aligned on how to move forward. Without this, conversations and solutions can be left open for further interpretation, impeding any progress made during your efforts.
Confrontations in the workplace are an inevitable part of a professional culture. Instead of letting them drive anxiety in your day to day, leverage these five steps for managing your next conversation with structure, confidence, and ease. They’re an effective framework to empower you to leave your next Alexa meeting feeling empowered instead of lost.