There are two words that most people don’t think go together; kindness and confrontation. Most effective leaders understand the necessity of confrontation, but most would not consider it an act of kindness. The majority of people who consider themselves “kind” avoid confrontation like the plague. The idea of “stressing” another person or making them uncomfortable by confronting them seems to be a bit unkind, if not downright mean. The common belief is that confrontation by its nature is not gentle. A concept of kind confrontation seems counterintuitive.
If you see a need to confront, and have avoided it because you don’t want to be rude, unkind, or harsh, I have great news. I believe the most effective confrontation is delivered in a context of kindness, gentleness, and the utmost grace. The content of the confrontation generally carries enough toughness to get the job done. The most effective confrontation is administered in a context of kindness and gentleness. If you are interested in learning the art of kind confrontation, this article is for you.
Let’s consider the basic principles of kind confrontation:
PRINCIPLE #1: You can’t change anyone.
You may intimidate, bully, bribe, cajole, flatter, scare, or manipulate some people into some kind of shallow response or behavior, but that is not the type of true and lasting change that results from great leadership. I am proposing that great leaders know how to influence the hearts of those they lead by inspiring them to change themselves from the inside out. Though at times the leader creates discomfort, and even pain, it is always from a place of deep caring and for the purpose of building up and not destroying. The leader provides a context of empathy and understanding in the midst of the sometimes painful confrontation.
PRINCIPLE #2: Few people respond positively to criticism. The kind confronter will criticize the problem, but never the person. Those who practice kind confrontation actually team up with the person being confronted to critique and attack the problem. No one is without weaknesses and shortcomings, so it is inefficient and counterproductive to attack and judge people.
PRINCIPLE #3: Open and honest dialogue gets the job done. The kind confronter knows that candy coating problems and downplaying the seriousness of a problem only makes it worse. Minimizing problems and consequences are not acts of kindness, but selfishness. It is disingenuous and lacks integrity to avoid or deny the issue. The kind confronter must create a context of mature mental toughness so that both people can get real and address what is actually going on. You must face problems to solve problems. Sometimes problems are ugly and nasty and make people look ugly and nasty. They can also be sensitive, personal issues. You need to separate the problem from the person, and then enroll them to work with you to address it…all of it, completely, nothing left uncovered or still hanging. Helping people deal thoroughly, honestly, and completely with problems is one of the kindest things you will ever do as a leader.
PRINCIPLE #4: It is never appropriate to be vulgar, mean, sarcastic or rude. Especially when the person you are helping becomes vulgar, mean, sarcastic, or rude. It is often appropriate to be firm, clear, direct, and even intense at times, but a soft answer turns away wrath. Kindness is never out of style or inappropriate. Rudeness and harshness only shut down communication and create more problems.
PRINCIPLE #5: It is much more important to determine what is right, not who is right. It is all about getting resolution, function, and results. It doesn’t matter who is right or wrong. All that matters is that we get a solution that profits everyone. Kindness disappears when big egos are present. Drop the ego and the need to prove that you are right. Some of the problem may be your lack of information or understanding. A listening ear and reasonableness are keys to creating solutions.
PRINCIPLE #6: Confront quickly. I am often asked when it is appropriate to overlook a matter. My rule of thumb is that if you can overlook it and truly let it go in one day, there is no need to confront. You just need to lighten up and leave people alone!! However, if you have a situation that bothers you more than a day or two, it is time to have a conversation. Unresolved issues don’t disappear. They grow and take on a life of their own. Like snowballs rolling down hill, they pick up all kinds of trash and half-truths. The creative human mind will make up stories in the absence of facts and honest conversation. Small and fresh problems are much easier to resolve.
PRINCIPLE #7: Prepare for the conversation. Do some personal reflection and consider how you may be contributing to or even causing the problem. How much of the issue is real, and how much of it is your perception? Sometimes an issue will be resolved before you say a word! Just make sure this is an issue worthy of resolution. Also, define clearly the issue you are confronting. Write it down. This is where it is crucial for you to be direct and clear. Factual, actual data is important. A clear record of what actually is happening (at least the current information that you have) is extremely helpful.
PRINCIPLE #8: Attack the problem and accept the person. This is a critical distinction to maintain throughout the confrontation. The person sitting with you is NOT the problem. You both have a problem to attack and resolve. They may not be aware of the problem, and they may even be causing the problem, but the goal is to define the problem and resolve it, not attack and mangle the other person. The sooner you can demonstrate acceptance of the person through great empathy and listening, and enroll their help in defining and resolving the problem, the more successful the confrontation. Give them space and respect. Let them fully express their perspective. Be open minded and flexible and always willing to change your position based on what you hear. You are not in a wrestling contest trying to win and dominate and get your way. You are in a dance, leading another person to a beautiful resolution and reconciliation.
PRINCIPLE #9: Be immovable on core values. All of us blow it from time to time. We fail to perform and keep our commitments. Such failures are unacceptable, but are also very human and real. Though we offer forgiveness and a new start, it is never appropriate to make it okay to violate a core value. Have you as a leader defined, clearly communicated, and created agreements with your team members on core values? Here is an example. Perhaps one of your core values is integrity. Integrity means we do what we say we will do. Your team member failed to keep a commitment. They said they would follow up with a customer, and they failed to do so. In the course of your conversation you determine that this actually happened; they did drop the ball. Though they offered some “reasons” for this occurring, they admit that it did indeed occur. At this point you can make a huge mistake by saying that it is okay for this to happen, and that we just need to try harder. No! Though your team member is OK because they are a human being that makes mistakes and sometimes lack integrity (just like you), it is NOT OK to neglect to do what you say you will do. To resolve this problem, we need to create an agreement on how to prevent this from happening again, because it is unacceptable behavior. We fully accept our team member, but we do not accept their behavior. The core value of integrity and doing what we say we will do remains immovable.
PRINCIPLE #10: To be great at kind confrontation, you must practice it. Once you have the basic principles, the only way to learn kind confrontation is to do it. Life will provide the classroom. You must choose to step up and go for it. To be sure, you will make mistakes. Those mistakes will provide more opportunity for you to learn this skill.