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"I have several times made a poor choice by avoiding a necessary confrontation." Actor and Writer, John Cleese

What do you do if a direct report speaks to you in a sarcastic, borderline, insubordinate way? How do you handle it when your boss gives you an unrealistic deadline or a client has over-the-top expectations? What if a colleague is failing to live up to his word, dragging the rest of the team down with him?

All of these situations, and scores more like them, regularly require confrontations. A word that can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest leaders! But they needn't raise your blood pressure - or cause irreparable harm to your relationships. Confrontations can resolve thorny issues in a respectful way and solidify positive connections. If you have an effective conversation strategy with which to approach them.

We Have a Problem

"Confrontation" tends to have a negative connotation, but it simply means to "hold someone accountable, face-to-face." In Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior, researchers Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler write:

Behind every national disaster, organizational failure, and family breakdown, you find the same root cause. People are staring into the face of a crucial confrontation, and they're not sure what to say. This part they do know: first, they need to talk face-to-face about an extremely important issue. Second, if they fail to resolve the issue, simple problems will grow into chronic problems.

The Crucial Conversations We're Not Having

These simple-turned-chronic problems quickly become devastating drains on productivity, morale, and profits. The authors found, for example, most organizations lose between 20 and 80 percent of their "potential performance because of leaders' and employees' inability to master crucial confrontations."

This is why great employees outperform subpar folks by an average of eight to one - and yet the deadwood is allowed to stay. This is why companies spend thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars to implement new systems, processes, or strategies, only to see them fail. Resisters won't adopt changes, and no one else knows how to confront them for failing "to get with the new program."

Failure to address conflict costs an estimated $359 billion in paid hours, or the equivalent of 385 million working days. Organizations can ill afford the direct cost to the bottom line, and the indirect cost to workplace culture, morale, and engagement.

Starting the Conversation

Fortunately, there's an instruction manual. Patterson, et al, turn their extensive research into a step-by-step guide for handling crucial confrontations. Much of the work comes before you open your mouth. How do you prepare for a critical conversation?

  1. Unbundle the problem. Issues are often multifaceted; it's critical that you get to the heart of the matter and choose to address the right problem. Say a direct report hands in a project on Wednesday instead of Tuesday. Is that the real problem? Or are you more troubled that he violated your trust? Didn't respect your time?

  2. Distill the problem into one sentence. If you cannot articulate the issue in just one sentence, you haven't unbundled it enough. Keep pulling at those threads to determine what is bothering you most.

  3. Use CPR. Using this method, you can target the problem more accurately.

    Content: The first time a problem crops up, discuss the content. What happened? "You handed in your project late, and as a result, I had to go to my meeting unprepared."

    Pattern: If the problem recurs, talk about the pattern. You're not concerned about a one-off error, but rather an emerging pattern of behavior. "This is the third report you've handed in late in the past two months. I've spoken to you about it before, and I'm worried you can't keep your word."

    Relationship: Talk about how the problem is impacting the relationship. "This is affecting how we work together. I feel like I cannot count on you to hold yourself accountable, and I don't know if I can trust you."

  4. Examine consequences, intentions, and wants. Work to unbundle the problem by looking at these three dimensions. To use our hapless direct-report again: the problem here isn't the late project; it's the consequences that followed. You were unprepared for your meeting. In that case, you need to address that issue.

    Another way to approach crucial conversations is to consider the intentions of the other person. Did he mean to make you unprepared? Was that his intention? In that case, you must address it in your confrontation. Finally, wants: what do you want from this relationship? For yourself? For the other person? Looking at all these, patiently, will help you deliver a message that resonates.

  5. Set preconceived notions aside. Prepare to go into a crucial confrontation with an open mind. Don't invent reasons why someone engaged in a bad behavior or disappointed you. Instead of "What's wrong with him?" ask yourself, "Why would a reasonable, rational, and decent person do that?" This shift in mindset forces us to look at what influences and factors may have contributed to the behavior.

Ready, Set, Confront

The atmosphere you create will make or break a confrontation. Take steps to ensure the other party feels safe. How?

The authors suggest a technique called contrasting. When called into the "principal's office," as it were, people are automatically on the defensive. They wonder, "Am I in trouble? And, if so, how much?" They may fear for their jobs; they may be worried that you think less of them or their abilities. Allay these concerns, or this confrontation is going nowhere fast.

You might say, "Overall, I'm very happy with your work. I want to talk about this issue of getting the project in late." Or, "I'd like to give you some feedback that I think would help you meet your deadlines more consistently. With a few small changes, things will go more smoothly."

One way to create a safety zone and to get to the root of the issue is to simply ask, "What happened?" If you are genuinely curious, and if you listen, you can move the confrontation in a positive direction.

Walk the Talk: Turning Conversations into Action

You cannot force people to change; what you can do is confront them respectfully and ensure they have the tools they need to live up to their commitments or change their behavior. During your confrontation, you clearly explain the gap between your expectations and the other person's behavior. Your next move is determined by the response you get.

For example: "I had a difficult time using the software for the report." This indicates that there is a problem of ability. Most people may not want to discuss their shortcomings, but will want to work together to identify barriers and potential solutions. Maybe this person needs coaching, training, a mentor, or simply a colleague who can show him the ropes.

You may get a far different response. For example: "I did hand in the report; I don't really see why it's a big deal." Here, we're looking at a problem of motivation. According to Patterson, et al, "When deciding what to do, [people] look to the future and ask, 'What will this particular behavior yield?'"

Your job, through the confrontation, is to "let them know how a different behavior would yield a better consequence bundle." There are six ways to do that:

  1. Link to existing values. What does this person care about most? Explain how his values would be better realized if he adapted his behavior.
  2. Connect short-term benefits with long-term pain. How is the present behavior going to affect the future? For example, "I worry your reputation may suffer because of this."
  3. Place the focus on long-term benefits. Delaying gratification is an incredibly important skill, one that can help people reach success. Emphasize that short-term "pain" is worth it for long-term gain.
  4. Introduce the hidden victims. How is this person's behavior affecting coworkers? Bosses? Shareholders? Bring the hidden victims and consequences out into the open.
  5. Hold up a mirror. How do other people view this person and his actions?
  6. Connect to existing carrots and sticks. Discuss how living up to expectations can be beneficial for the person's career, influence, budget, etc.


The goal of a crucial confrontation is to create a plan that will resolve the issue. You want to affect change - not have the same conversation again in a week. After you've discussed the issue and root cause, create a WWWF plan. Who does what by when - and follow-up.

Be explicit: "we will change our behavior this quarter," for example, is so vague that it is useless. "Jim will learn how to use the software program to do his reports by end-of-day on March 12," on the other hand sets out clear expectations. Make sure Jim has the tools he needs to learn the program, and follow up with him to make sure he's on track.

Of course, not every confrontation goes as smoothly as you'd hope. There are obstacles that crop up, but in the main, if you follow Crucial Confrontation's guidance, you can resolve issues before they turn into lingering, expensive problems.


Larry Hart

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