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Turning Confrontation Into Conversation

Turning Confrontation Into Conversation

Confrontation is unavoidable in life. Knowing how to turn it into something that can improve relationships is a helpful skill. Using questions is a great way to start.

First and foremost, I’m not talking about those crazy reality television/social media over-the-top scenarios with the hair pulling, dish throwing, obscenity screaming, people getting dragged off the airplane type of situations.

The truth of the matter is that most of us don’t live those lives. Most of us don’t particularly like confrontation, and many of us avoid it at all costs — unfortunately to our own detriment.

[Watch: Communicating for Success: Tools for Successful Conversations at Work]

So what do you do, if after all of your best avoidance techniques fail, you find yourself in the middle of a difficult conversation where folks are just not seeing eye- to-eye?

Here is one approach.

Start with acknowledging the frustration the other person is feeling. Acknowledging someone’s feelings is not the same as conceding the point. You can absolutely disagree with someone yet show you are empathetic toward his or her feelings. These things are not mutually exclusive.

Second, ask an open-ended question as a way to help turn what has become a confrontation back into a conversation.

Asking an open-ended question helps break the win/lose thought pattern by making someone stop to think. It can help break through the emotion and move back toward conversation and away from assault/defend.

A “confrontation” implies that each party is trying to win; trying to beat the other person. That is not the goal of a “conversation”. Agreements are much more likely to occur in a conversation then a confrontation.

If what they ask for is something that you know you can’t deliver, again, acknowledge their feelings, or the mistake that happened (whatever is appropriate) and then state plainly and politely that you are not able to meet their demand. You can then either offer a suggestion that you can accommodate or ask for another suggestion.

This interaction may have to happen a couple of times as everyone winds down from their emotions.

You would be surprised how many people really just want to be heard and acknowledged — something sorely lacking in today’s world.

[Related: How To Have Difficult Conversations]

A word of warning: the place where this process gets all screwed up is in your sincerity. 

You need to ask the question with an honest interest in the other person, in their response, and in a mutually beneficial resolution to the issue at hand. You can’t do this from your own place of win/lose or attack/defend.

Remember, only 7 percent of communication is the words you are using. If you have a sarcastic tone, a combative emphasis to your voice, and defensive body language, then this will not work.

Someone once told me you are personally responsible for all the relationships you have. It took me a long time to really absorb that idea, but I’ve grown to fully embrace it. I like this approach to handling difficult conversations because it encompasses not only this ideal of personal responsibility but also empathy and compassion toward others... 

... Something we can all use more of.


Erin Marcus is a speaker and author on the topic of having seemingly impossible conversations. In addition to speaking, she conducts workshops for businesses and associations who are interested in learning how they can stop wasting money, losing focus and making decisions under duress all because of challenges in communications.

Have more questions? Follow up with the expert herself.