Article: Caring confrontation: A powerful approach to resolve conflicts

Learning & Development

Caring confrontation: A powerful approach to resolve conflicts

Conflicts and confrontations are almost day-to-day occurrences. We stand to gain respect and camaraderie by attempting to bring in care for our colleagues even if we have daggers in our eyes or have an urge to run away from the scene.
Caring confrontation: A powerful approach to resolve conflicts

The see-saw clanged noisily as Tia and Rohan both jumped off it and ran towards their respective mothers, crying. A happy see-saw game had turned into an ugly fight about who had won and was more strong in pushing their side of the see-saw. The mothers paused their chat and listened to their six-year-olds with a troubled expression. Amidst shouts and sobs, they gathered what had happened and tried to calm down the shouting match. Tia’s mom Ruhi told Tia to say sorry to Rohan and resume their play. ‘What?? Why should I?’ retorted Tia, daggers in her eyes. Rohan was equally perturbed by his mom’s attempts to make him shake hands with Tia. Loudly shouting a ‘No!’, he ran away in the opposite direction.

Phew. You really wouldn’t want to be in the shoes of either of the mothers would you? Resolving to put an end to these frequent fights, the mothers exchanged a knowing glance and took away their children to speak with them in private. Having worked their magic, they were back together with Tia and Rohan in tow, who were looking at each other angrily but were much calmer than before.

As Ruhi nudged her, Tia walked towards Rohan and asked him, ‘Why did you push your side of the see-saw so hard? It scared me and I thought I am going to fall down. You always do that!’ Rohan smiled mischievously, remarking, ‘You started it, you pushed me and took my side of the see-saw first. Don’t do that next time. I’m sorry I scared you.’ Nodding, Tia wiped her tears and extended her hand with a muffled apology. The mothers heaved a sigh of relief as they all left the park.

A children’s fight is sometimes no different than conflict between adults. We all may have sometime been a Tia or a Rohan, who either felt threatened by the other or angry at having been pushed aside. The result? Many possibilities, based on how much you have learnt about the behavioral options available to adults.  Either the situation turned into a shouting match, or you acted as your own parent/guide who tells you how to handle it constructively.

Whatever may have been your stance, a large part of conflict management is related to our ability to manage emotions and communicate assertively. In the above scene, Ruhi coached Tia on what can be referred to as a ‘caring confrontation’. An impactful way of addressing conflict positively, especially when emotions are running high in an argument. 

Rahul became party to such an argument when he vehemently denied his role in sending an incorrect document to the customer. His manager Aarti was shocked to hear Rahul’s raised voice and felt an urge to shout back and take charge of the situation. Cautiously managing her tone, she told Rahul to reconnect on this after an hour to discuss the details. At the assigned hour, Rahul entered the meeting room in a mentally aggravated but physically controlled state. He had gathered all relevant details to make his points.   

Let’s pause for a moment here, to assess what happened in this scenario. Points listed below are indicative of triggers and causes of conflict in the above and most workplace situations:

Work requirements not met: 

A missed deadline, an incorrect update or a mistake leads to a situation like Rahul was in, where workflow gets disrupted. An unmet deliverable is a surficial evidence of a potential trigger for conflict.

Fault-finding than RCA:

There exists a thin line between root cause analysis (RCA) which is solution focused, and a fault-finding approach. The latter is subjective and uncovers disagreements and ego issues between people.

Immature behavior:

Lack of self-awareness, blaming and venting are not only inappropriate but also detrimental to individual and organizational well-being. They fuel, rather than ease conflicts. Rahul and Aarti were at the cusp of such behavior, when Aarti consciously deferred their discussion. 

Understanding the above triggers is crucial for developing a constructive response to conflicts. Many approaches like compromising, collaborating and competing are recommended for a desired outcome.

Along with the chosen approach, there comes a moment in the midst of such communications, to clearly articulate and confront the behavior of the other person. A confrontation can be challenging because it is basically an opposition that conveys disagreement. Additionally, it is aimed at making the other person think or feel differently, which at times is almost impossible.

A ‘caring’ confrontation though, is an assertive communication of what happened, how one felt, and what they expect of the other going forward. It is useful during conflicts due to the following distinct benefits:

Balance your own thinking and feeling: Caring confrontation makes you ‘think’ and not just get carried away with feelings. Going back to Rahul, he realized that his shouting was out of line and he needed to gather facts to convince Aarti.   

Empathize with the other’s feelings: It gives the other person a respectful opportunity to share their feelings and their side of the argument. This is tough, but not impossible. Taking a people-centered approach towards resolution is the hallmark of a thorough professional and a sound people manager. Injecting ‘care’ in your communication conveys trust and a desire to maintain the existing friendliness and professional bond. 

Focus on impact of inappropriate behavior: When you care for your colleagues, you assertively state ‘what’ they are doing that is unfitting. You take an inclusive approach to indicate how you and they, both are suffering its negative effects. 

Goal for the future: People are generally scared to be assertive as they believe it will break the relationship. A caring confrontation includes a goal for the future, alleviating any fear of such a breakdown. It highlights ‘how’ the changed behavior will benefit in future. 

Here are a couple of excerpts from the conversation between Rahul and Aarti:

Rahul: Aarti, I understand you were anxious about the incorrect document sent to the customer. I wish you had slowed down a bit and checked who was the last person to have modified it. It was Amit. I do not get, what stopped you from discussing with me first, before concluding that I am responsible?

Aarti: Rahul, I get it. I could have been patient and asked you. But we were already late. You could have explained to me, rather than shout. This is the second time you have shouted - help me to understand, what makes you lose your cool with me? Your behavior is not helping us work smoothly together, we will have to figure out how we can do it better. Do you agree?

As you can see, the above communication includes a combination of thinking, feeling, empathy, facts, respect, goal and a collaborative solution focused tone. From here, the conversation is likely to get constructive because the right foundation has been laid.

Conflicts and confrontations are almost day-to-day occurrences. We stand to gain respect and camaraderie by attempting to bring in care for our colleagues even if we have daggers in our eyes like Tia or the urge to run away from the scene like little Rohan!  

Topics: Learning & Development, Leadership

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