4 Tips for Handling Unpleasant Confrontation

I really didn’t want to.


I’d spent several days worrying about it, and the whole morning preparing for it. I had typed three pages of notes, with more than twenty scripture references. I had prayed and prayed about it. My stomach was still twisted in knots.


But I wasn’t backing out.


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I had been “the boss” for about a year and a half, but confrontation was something I still avoided whenever I possibly could. Conflict management was a leadership skill that I knew was absolutely critical, but one I had hoped I could somehow get along without ever using.


The time had come.


This was much harder than that one time I had to ask someone to go home and take a shower and put clean clothes on because the smell was making me gag (and believe me, that conversation was painful).


This was completely different than that night when we were running way behind so I made the decision to pull one employee from their task and replace them with another who was much faster and more efficient.


Those moments were hard, but this one was so much harder.


I have always been a people-pleaser and a peacemaker. I hate hurting feelings, stepping on toes, or seeing people argue. For this reason I still can’t watch presidential debates. So when it comes to those moments as a leader when you have to confront a direct report about poor performance, misconduct, or worse – I’ve been guilty of being that leader who is inclined to dismiss things really easily rather than actually deal with the problem.


But this time, I was determined to deal with the problem head on.


I took him aside for a private conversation. I picked a picnic table outside, shaded from the summer sun by a big oak tree. I pulled out my notes, and cut to the chase.


“I know you, I respect you. I’ve seen how you’ve grown and matured in the last year. But recently I have had several of your coworkers ask me why you’re such a jerk.”


Talk about a hard thing to say! But guess what. The conversation went great. At the end of it, eyes were dry, chins were up, truth acknowledged, and a plan and consequences agreed upon.

And then I bought him ice cream. (Okay, I didn’t say I stopped being a people-pleaser…)


So how did a potentially awful confrontation turn into a productive and effective conversation? I don’t claim to have all the answers, and I’m still learning the art of conflict management as a leader. But here are four elements to which I attribute my success that day:

1. Proper preparation: By spending hours thinking, praying, and searching scriptures beforehand, both my heart and my words were ready. When you’re not afforded the luxury of several hours or more of preparation before confrontation, at least take a few moments in prayer to prepare your heart and mind.

2. A neutral setting: By choosing to meet outside in a different but pleasant location, I reduced the inevitable tension that would have been felt had the meeting taken place in my office. While there are situations where it is appropriate to utilize the power-position of your side of the desk, sometimes you need to find common ground to put everyone at ease.

3. Openness and candor: As tempting as it was, I decided not to beat around the bush. I let him know that this was hard for me, but was very clear about why the problem needed to be addressed. I didn’t leave him guessing about why the conversation was happening, what he’d done, or what the consequences were going to be.

4. Affirmation as well as correction: Yes, I was blunt. But I did not berate or humiliate. While I firmly corrected his misconduct, I honestly affirmed the personal and spiritual growth I had observed in the year I had known him. While I pointed out what he was doing wrong, I also praised him for the things he was doing right. I didn’t leave him feeling chastised like a child; I left him with the knowledge that I truly appreciated what he added to my team, and with instruction for improvement.


These steps may not be foolproof, but they have certainly worked for me. What are some tips you’d add for dealing with potentially unpleasant confrontation?