Posted by: Christine Donovan | June 2, 2009

When and How to Confront a Difficult Person

So far, I’ve been talking about three levels of difficult people, and have mentioned (more than once) the fact that WE also must take responsibility for the conflicts in our lives.  We always have choices.

Identifying these three groups  (irritating, annoying, and truly difficult) give us a basis from which to decide if and when confrontation is necessary. 

And confrontation, by the way, doesn’t necessarily refer to anger, attack, or any of those implied emotions that seem to always accompany the word “confront.”

Confront, according to, means: face in hostility or defiance; oppose: The feuding factions confronted one another. present for acknowledgment, contradiction, etc.; set face to face: They confronted him with evidence of his crime. stand or come in front of; stand or meet facing: The two long-separated brothers confronted each other speechlessly. be in one’s way: the numerous obstacles that still confronted him. bring together for examination or comparison.

I like the last definition – to bring together for examination or comparison. 

Confrontation, in the arena of difficult people, simply refers to the action we choose to take when our boundaries have been violated, when our work is affected, or when our character or reputation has been damaged by someone else’s actions.

Healthy confrontation helps us clarify boundaries and lets others know that we have self respect and can’t be pushed to compromise our values.  Conversly, there are plenty of people who have no problem confronting.  There are those who seek any opportunity to argue, to debate.  To them, confrontation is just good sport; it feeds their flimsy egos and makes them feel important and powerful.

The truth is that there is no power in having a confrontational nature.  Power is obtained through respect and trust, not intimidation.  (Well, in the U.S.A. in this milennium anyway.  Intimidation does still work in other parts of the world.)   Those who confront as a force of habit will never find the very thing they are seeking from other people — respect, admiration, importance.

You see, when we confront (in the aggressive, argumentative sense) we force the other person into a corner.  People forced into corners have no choice but to fight back and to protect their sense of pride and power. 

When we threaten, give ultimatums, or devalue a person’s sense of importance, it forces others into their corners, and when everybody is in a corner, nobody wins.  Most people will dig in their heels and nothing or nobody will get them to change their position.  More times than not, the confronter has made an enemy who will lie in wait, looking for the first opportunity to “get him back.”   And so the cycle of conflict continues.

There’s a wise American proverb that says:  “The more arguments you win, the less friends you will have.”   Dale Carnegie talked about the fact that you can’t win an argument anyway, because it always results in the “defeat” of the other person. When you have cost someone else their pride or their self worth, you really haven’t won anything.

I’ve referred to the expression, “Pick your fights” a number of times in this series about difficult people, because it is so simple yet so profound.

Life is just too short to spend so much of it angry, hurt, frustrated, ‘victimized.’  That’s why I took the time and space to divide difficult types into levels of difficulty, in order to help you (and remind me) that most of the time it’s just not worth getting upset about (i.e. “irritating” and “annoying” people that are best ignored).  

Plus… and this is a big plus… about 75% of the time we have overeacted to, or misunderstood the insult in the first place.  So we get ourselves all worked up, and often look like fools, for nothing.

PICK YOUR FIGHTS, pleeeeeeese.

So…generally speaking, you have two choices (and you ALWAYS do) when it comes to reacting to a perceived insult, put-down, offense, whatever…

  1. 1. Take offense, yell and scream, make a fool out of yourself and be labeled a trouble maker.
  2. 2. Laugh it off and give the other person the benefit of the doubt – you’ll find that in MOST cases they did not intend to offend you.

Most people are more concerned about protecting and promoting their own “image” than they are about putting you down (although some think they elevate themselves by downgrading others).  We give ourselves entirely too much importance.  In other words, don’t be insulted, because they probably didn’t even know you were in the room.  It’s never about YOU; it’s about them.

OK.. there’s actually one more choice when we “think” we’ve been imposed upon.  And that is to…

3. “Confront” in a non-offensive, reasonable, self-effacing way.  Depending on the situation of course (there are some rare times when it IS appropriate to be blunt, but not usually).

If you say… “George, I may have misunderstood you and if so I apologize.  But are you saying…?”  Or…”Susan, I love working with you – I learn a lot and have a great time.  Sometimes though I feel that my ideas aren’t valued in the group.  Am I wrong?”

Notice the use of the “I” message.  (“I may have misunderstood,”  “Sometimes I feel.”)  That’s much more effective than, “You always…!”  “You are so difficult…!”  “You have a problem…!”

Whenever you begin a sentence with “YOU,” you have backed the other into that proverbial corner again.  So express your OWN hurt, anger, offense… “I feel” is much more acceptable and powerful than, “You make me…”

And always remember that TONE is everything!!!  The examples above do not work if the tone is accusatory, sarcastic, or condescending.  Interestingly, tone is never a problem if sincerity is the underlying emotion. 

So be sincere, and you’ll learn to address problems with people in a tactful, positive way.  You’ll gain respect in the process and you’ll wonder what took you so long to say something.

Most of the time we confront in order not to be a doormat, to let others know they have stepped over our boundary lines.  But we want to keep and maintain the relationship, which is why it takes us so long to say something in the first place.

If you:

  • Pick your fights carefully.
  • Keep your sense of humor and don’t take yourself so seriously.
  • Use the techniques mentioned above (“I messages,” tone of voice, etc).

…you will find that the occurances of conflict generally go down in your life, that your relationships become more open and trusting, and that you gain more respect — from others and for yourself.


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