In my counseling practice, I often deal with relational conflicts, where one or both people have a grievance against the other. They’ve been confronting each other about what the other person needs to change, but unfortunately, that usually doesn’t end well–which is why they’re in my office!
So I’d like to share some thoughts about confronting and then propose an alternative.
When I confront someone who ticks me off, I’m pointing out what they are doing wrong; I’m spotlighting the ways I’ve been mistreated or how disappointed I am. I’m taking someone to the proverbial woodshed. For example, I might say…
You never listen to me and you don’t care about my feelings.
You’re never home to help with the kids.
Stop trying to fix things all the time!
You always leave the house a mess and expect me to clean up after you.
You drink too much. You need to stop.
Notice all of the “you” statements I’m using as well as the exaggerated terms “always” and “never”. And the use of direct commands. In confronting this way, my focus is clearly on the other person’s deficiencies. If that person was to put on one of those adhesive nametags that says “Hello my name is…:, I’d be taking a Sharpie and writing the words “MY PROBLEM” on it. That’s what my opponent is to me…a problem.
The response from such a confrontation is predictable. It will likely be denial (I’m not that way), defensiveness and deflection (yea, but you treat me this other way), distancing (I can’t stand being around your constant criticism–I’m outta here), or despair (I give up: I will never be able to please you.)
Rarely, does someone who has been confronted this way respond with, “Oh, that was so insightful. I’m a changed person because of your confrontation!”
Can you see why some people avoid confrontation at all costs? It’s precarious for both people and it usually doesn’t end well. For them, it seems best to stuff their feelings and live at a distance–relationally and emotionally.
I’m suggesting an alternative to that kind of interaction. Let’s stop Confronting and start Educating.
What if I look at the person who is displeasing me, not as my antagonist, but as my friend who simply needs to learn how to care for me better. What if the nametag I stick on that person is “Unaware Learner” rather than “My Problem.” Do you see the difference this would make? What if we took the person to the classroom instead of the woodshed. That’s far less risky!
To educate simply means helping my friend learn how to care for me better by letting that person understand me more. It includes positive reinforcement just as much as disclosing the things that bother me. Here are some examples:
It meant a lot to me when you asked how my day went.
Thanks for letting me vent just now. That made me feel not alone. It makes me feel closer to you.
I sometimes find myself feeling like I’m getting your leftovers when you work so late so often. I don’t want to feel this way. I love you and I appreciate it so much whenever you make me feel more important than work.
Lately, I’ve been overwhelmed in caring for the kids and I find myself feeling angry sometimes when I see you on your phone so much. I’m not saying this to beat you up, but to let you know how this affects me. I don’t want to feel that way about you. Whenever you remember to set down your phone and help with the kids please know that I will be so grateful to you.
We both know that a tidy house is obviously more imporant to me than it is to you! I know you don’t share this value, but this is something that is very imortant to me. I suppose I feel like the condition of my house is a reflection of my success as a woman. I realize that it doesn’t come natural for you, but I want you to know how much it means to me when you do remember to pick things up for me.
I get nervous when I see you drinking so much. Sometimes I can’t even sleep because of it. I worry about ways that alcohol might harm our family like I’ve seen it do to others. If you were able to cut down on your drinking that would be such a blessing to me.
I find myself getting defensive when I feel criticized and I don’t like that about myself. I want to share something with you that I think will help: it would help me to grow and change if you could educate me rather than confront me. I think this might draw us closer and I’d appreciate it so much if you could give it a try.
Each of these statements will likely lead to increased heart connection, understanding, and improved behaviors.
Notice the prevalence of “I” statements, the avoidance of commands, and a complete lack of blame and shame. Educating like this is not soft-peddling or minimizing issues; it simply involves discussing the same issues with a different tone and a different goal. The focus is on strengthening the relationship, not on controlling another person. It involves kindness, honesty, straightforwardness, polite requests, patience, and hope.
So whenever we remember to, let’s replace Confronting with Educating! In fact, let’s change the title of this blog post as well!
[Disclaimer, in this post I’m speaking of confronting as it pertains to personal conflicts in the everyday frictions of life. Certainly, there are times when outright confronting is necessary, such as with addiction treatment interventions, poor performance reviews, or to stop harm from being done to others.]