People consistently rank public speaking as their worst fear, but I think the fear of confrontations might be the most common.
As a psychologist, I see this fear of confrontation all the time, often expressed in little ways:
- Being passive or keeping quiet about your true preferences for where to eat for dinner or what to watch on Netflix.
- Procrastinating on making a doctor’s appointment because you know your doc is going to confront you about one of your health issues.
- Chalking up bad behavior on your spouse’s part to “well, that’s just who they are…”
Unfortunately, while avoiding confrontations might get you out of some anxiety or stress in the short-term, you’re almost always worse off for it in the long run:
- It’s a very common cause of chronic worry and anxiety.
- It leads to unhappy marriages with low intimacy and trust.
- It fosters low self-esteem and poor self-confidence.
- It generates resentment and chronic irritability.
Luckily, the tendency to avoid confrontations isn’t a personality trait or genetic curse. With the right habits and mindset shifts, you can train yourself to handle confrontations effectively and with confidence.
In this guide, we’ll look at 15 practical ways to be more confident handling difficult confrontations.
1. Clarify the issue for yourself (in writing!)
Specificity is the key to success when it comes to confident and effective confrontations.
The biggest mistake people make with confrontations is that they lack clarity about the issue itself. They have a vague notion or feeling of what the problem is, but have a hard time articulating the specifics:
- I feel hurt about what you said last night.
- I wish I had a more supportive spouse.
- Nobody appreciates me.
There’s nothing wrong with feelings, desires, and other impressions like this. But here’s the thing…
You can’t solve a feeling.
If you want to have a productive confrontation, force yourself to get specific about what’s behind the feeling:
- I felt hurt last night when you told me not to worry about my work troubles and that it was ‘all in my head.’
- I wish my spouse would help out around the house more.
- I wish my boss and coworkers would acknowledge my work more often.
Of course, it’s often difficult to go beyond the initial feeling and figure out what’s behind it.
The best way to do this is to get out of your head and do some writing. Just start listing everything you can think of when it comes to what’s upsetting you. Could be people involved, different emotions you were feeling, fantasies that run through your mind, whatever…
By forcing yourself to think on paper, you will get a lot more clarity on the real issue.
2. Identify the behaviors you would like to be different
People can’t change their personality, only their behavior.
Once you’ve identified the real issue that needs to be addressed, the next step is to get specific with yourself about what you would like to be different.
But the key here is to frame what you want in terms of other people’s behaviors.
The reason is, that’s really the only thing they have control over. You might wish desperately that your spouse was more affectionate or conscientious, but those are actual things—they’re concepts, umbrella terms and categories that describe collections of behaviors over time.
- You can’t be conscientious. But you can set a reminder in your phone so you don’t forget to pick up milk on the way home from work.
- You can’t be affectionate. But you can give your spouse a kiss (a real kiss!) when you get home from work.
To maximize your chances of a successful and productive confrontation, think about what you want in terms of specific behaviors.
If it helps, think about this way: Your requests should be things that would be visible in a movie. You can’t see respect. But you can see a warm handshake after a presentation at work.
3. Be strategic about the time and place of the confrontation
When and where you have a confrontation matters more than you think.
As a therapist, one of the biggest sources of conflict I hear couples talk about is fights in bed. Both have had a long day at work, the kids were especially rambunctious all evening, and they literally didn’t have an extra minute to talk (much less think) until they were both in bed.
But there’s a reason couples so often report getting into bitter fights and arguments in bed: it’s late!
No one would ever schedule a job interview for 11:30 pm or opt to take the SATs at midnight. And the reason is obvious, when you’re drained of energy and stressed after a long day, you’re simply not your best self—physically, mentally, or emotionally.
When we’re exhausted, we have a much harder time focusing and inhibiting our worst impulses. Which means, we’re far more likely to say something insensitive, forget a crucial detail, or have trouble focusing on what the other person is saying.
If an issue is important enough to have a confrontation about, it’s important enough to prioritize with a good time and place.
Of course, most of us end up in confrontations during inopportune times because we’re in a rush to just get it over with. And while it’s hard to sit with an uncomfortable problem, rushing a confrontation usually goes poorly.
If you want to be strategic about the when and where of your confrontation, ask yourself the following four questions:
- When would my worst time to have a confrontation be?
- When would their worst time to have a confrontation be?
- When would my best time to have a confrontation be?
- When would their best time to have a confrontation be?
Think through each of those for a few minutes, make some notes, and you’re bound to realize that there are probably some ideal times and places for your confrontation.
4. Make sure you will be safe
For some people, physical safety is a genuine concern when considering confrontation.
- If you’re thinking about confronting a potentially abusive partner or spouse, for example.
- Or if you’re thinking about confronting someone who’s actively intoxicated or in an unsound state of mind.
Whatever the case, remember that while confrontation may be important, you need to carefully balance the risks with the benefits. What’s more, just because it would be easier to “get it out of the way,” in some cases it might make more sense to delay a confrontation until a time that’s safer or more opportune.
That being said, if you do feel like confrontation is essential and there is some risk of safety, try to mitigate that risk as best as possible:
- Have your confrontation in a semi-public space (think the patio of a Starbucks or food pavilion at the mall.
- Bring a friend or support person with you.
- Choose an optimal time given the other person’s personality and habits (I.e. if you know someone gets stressed and irritable after work, try to time your confrontation to be on a day when they don’t work).
Remember, your safety should always come first. Don’t let your desire to “just be done with things” put you at risk of harm.
5. Be relaxed before the confrontation
Two of the biggest pitfalls I see people falling into when it comes to confrontations are:
- Being overly aggressive or defensive in their confrontations.
- Being overly passive and avoidant in the confrontations.
If you enter a confrontation in attack mode, you’re unlikely to get a satisfactory result. But similarly, if you go into a confrontation playing defense and just trying to avoid anyone getting upset, you’re also unlikely to get an optimal outcome.
Well, both of those issues—being overly aggressive or overly passive—both stem from the same source: stress.
When you’re stressed, your body goes into fight or flight mode. Your brain signals the release of adrenaline, your muscles tense, your focus narrows, and your entire mindset becomes about either “killing” the threat or escaping it.
But of course, killing and escaping rarely lead to good outcomes in confrontations.
The best way to avoid either of these pitfalls is to try your best to go into confrontations relaxed:
- Punt. Often, confrontations don’t have to happen immediately. Which means delaying them until you’re able to cool off and relax a bit more is a good idea.
- Deep Breathing. One of the core characteristics of a stress response is rapid, shallow breathing. Well, doing the opposite—slow, deep breathing—counteracts the stress response. It sounds simplistic, but if you’re going into a confrontation and feeling stressed, taking five minutes to do some deep, diaphragmatic breathing exercise can be hugely helpful.
- Mindfulness. Another issue with getting into confrontations stressed is that it can make it hard to stay focused. When we’re stressed, our mind often gravitates toward the things that seem scariest, not necessarily the most helpful things. You can often counteract this with a few minutes of mindfulness practice before going into a stressful confrontation.
But really, anything that works for you to lower your stress levels—even a bit—will be beneficial when it comes to having a productive confrontation. So, experiment with a few different relaxation strategies, see what works best for you, then use those the next time a major confrontation presents itself.
6. Assume responsibility whenever you can
One of the best ways to make the person across from you defensive and blow up your chances for a successful confrontation is to refuse to accept any responsibility and put the entire onus on the other person.
No one likes being told—either directly or implicitly—that it’s “all your fault.” They tend to get defensive as soon as this happens.
One of the best ways to avoid this dilemma in a confrontation is to make it a point to assume responsibility whenever you can.
If you’re confronting your manager about being too much of a micromanager, you could assume responsibility by saying:
You know, I can see why you want to check all my work… When I first started here, it definitely took me a while to get into the swing of things. I know I made a lot of mistakes and you had to check my work and catch them.
Of course, you don’t want to take this too far and start apologizing for things you haven’t done or simply making things up just to make the other person feel better.
Still, in any sort of significant conflict, there’s usually something—however small—that we did wrong or could have done better. And taking responsibility for that is a powerful way of signaling that this isn’t personal and you’re not attacking or criticizing the other person. It’s just about making things better for everyone going forward.
7. Don’t make confrontations into competitions
Many of us are pretty competitive by nature. We like to win and we hate to lose.
In fact, this competitive drive may be a really great quality in you. It may be one of the reasons, for example, that you’re really good at your job or in your work.
But competitiveness can easily get out of hand and become unhelpful—especially in confrontations.
The reason you have to be careful of getting competitive in confrontations is that it frames the whole process as a winners and losers affair. This means people start acting not out of a desire to genuinely improve whatever situation the confrontation is about but because they simply want to win (or not lose).
Suppose you’re in a confrontation with your spouse about wanting them to make date nights more of a priority in the relationship. After explaining that you think it’d be a good idea to try and commit to a date night at least once a month, your partner saying something like this:
Well I tried to set once up last month but you blew it off to hang out with your sister.
Now, it would be really tempting to start getting competitive—either by trying to prove why this wasn’t actually the case or bringing up a handful of instances where they’d been guilty of the same thing, implying you’re less guilty than they are.
But both of those would escalate the confrontation into a competition. They would turn the conversation away from how can we achieve your desired outcome and toward how can I prove myself right or morally superior.
So, at that juncture, you might say something like this instead to avoid turning the confrontation into a competition:
Honey, I really appreciate that you made the effort then and I really am sorry it didn’t work out. Which is part of why I really would like us to figure out a system where we plan date nights far in advance and really prioritize them.
In short, keep your eye on the prize. It’s tempting to get sucked into competitions and one-upmanship during difficult confrontations, but try to remind yourself of what your overall objective is. Because rarely will getting into a completion help you get there.
8. Steer clear of ancient history
One of the quickest ways to sabotage a difficult conversation or confrontation is to dredge up ancient history.
And for good reason: When you bring up another person’s past mistakes and missteps what you’re communicating is that it’s more important that you “win” the confrontation or injure the other person.
Of course, it’s understandable to feel this way. And you might even be “right” in your assessment of how they’re history proves that they’re the one who’s in the wrong. But consider this:
Just because something’s true doesn’t mean it’s helpful.
Right or wrong, dredging up ancient history is rarely helpful and should therefore be avoided at all costs.
The only exception is positive ancient history. If you can use an example from the past of the other person acting in a way you think would be helpful given the current situation, that can sometimes be helpful.
9. Don’t be black and white
The world is a complex place, and the people in it, more complex still. Resorting to black and white or extreme all-or-nothing statements is almost always unhelpful because it means you’re not considering the situation with enough nuance.
Here are some common examples of black and white statements:
- Oh, I knew you’d say that…
- Why do you always have to be late! Can’t you just get ready on time like a normal person?!
- You’re always micromanaging and sticking your nose into everything!
- Every time we have a meeting it’s the same old stuff.
- Why can’t you just keep your mouth shut once in a while?
Now, most of us fall into these absolute, black and white ways of speaking because we feel so passionately about what we’re trying to communicate. What’s more, on some level we imagine that the force of our language will help persuade the other person of how right we are.
Unfortunately, just the opposite happens. When confronted with a false criticism (which almost all back and white criticism are), the other person will almost always feel the need to prove themselves innocent… understandably!
Then the confrontation devolves into a competition rather than addressing the core issue or dilemma.
At the risk of being too black and white myself… Just avoid black and white statements altogether.
10. Use reflective listening
Reflective listening is a simple but incredibly powerful tool for building goodwill and togetherness in a conversation.
Here’s what it looks like: After someone has said something, instead of moving on to your next point, simply restate what they said in your own words.
- If they said, I just get so frustrated when you leave your dirty clothes on the floor You might say, Yeah, I can see that me leaving my clothes is really frustrating for you.
- If they said, We need you to be on time to work every day from now or else you’ll be put on probation. You might say, It sounds like there’s no more wiggle room… I just need to be on time and that’s it.
At first blush, it might seem silly to simply repeat back what the other person just said. But that’s only if you think about a conversation in terms of information exchange. In reality, conversations are about much more than that.
At the end of the day, the goal of your confrontation or conversation isn’t just to exchange information about what you’d like, it’s to actually make a change in your relationship. Which means simply passing on information is not enough. For a conversation to be effective, you also need to maximize the odds that that information will be acted on in a helpful way.
Even though it doesn’t communicate any new information, reflective listening is useful because it makes the other person feel heard and understood. It makes them feel like you’re really present and attentive to what they’re saying. And this gives them confidence, which makes it more likely that the confrontation will head in a productive direction.
11. Look for common ground
In a recent podcast interview, I asked Randy Paterson—an expert in assertive communication and conflict—what his number 1 tip for handling conflicts better was. His answer… Find common ground!
Inevitably, when you get into a confrontation or difficult conversation with someone, you’re going to have lots that you disagree about. But it’s a mistake to assume that that means you disagree about everything.
In fact, there are almost always many points of mutual understanding even in the most intense confrontations. Finding those points and making them explicit can be an immensely powerful way to take your confrontation in a healthy, productive direction.
Suppose you’ve decided to confront your spouse about the fact that you think the way they’re approaching your son’s recent bad behavior is unhelpful and actually making it worse.
Even though you may think a completely different approach is the right way to go, you and your spouse still have a lot of common ground: You love your son; you want the best for him; you want there to be less conflict in the house; you want to support each other in handling this issue, etc.
Unfortunately, even though two people often have a lot of shared common ground, it often goes unrecognized and appreciated. Which is too bad because simply acknowledging your common ground often helps defuse defensiveness and makes compromise and empathy easier.
So, before going into any difficult confrontation, take a moment to think about what your points of common ground might be. Then, during the conversation, make it a point to mention those and make them explicit.
12. Embrace awkward silences
As a therapist, I love a good awkward silence.
Sure, they’re uncomfortable. But the benefits are almost always worth it if you can hang in there.
See, because most of us get so uncomfortable with even brief bouts of silence, we instinctively rush to fill the room with more talking. Unfortunately, this has two effects which tend to be counterproductive for managing difficult confrontations well:
- You end up saying dumb stuff. In an effort to escape the pain of awkward silence, you say the first thing that comes to mind. Unfortunately, just because a thought is the first to break through your consciousness doesn’t say a whole lot about its value or utility.
- You make the other person feel invalidated. If you’re constantly responding immediately to everything the other person says, it signals that you’re not really processing and hearing what they’re saying. It can make them feel rushed, ignored, or even attacked.
The lesson is simple: Give your conversations room to breathe. Give them margin. Give them whitespace.
When the verbal back and forth of conversation gets too fast, it can turn the whole confrontation into a pressure cooker. And more pressure is usually the last thing you need to resolve the confrontation well.
13. Pull your punches
In boxing, to “pull your punch” means withholding socking someone in the head despite being able to. And it’s usually considered a bad thing.
However, when you’re in the middle of a difficult confrontation—especially when it’s with someone you love or who really matters to you—pulling your punches can be your saving grace.
For one thing, counterattacks often feed the other person’s defensiveness. When someone says or does something hurtful in a confrontation, attacking back can lead to them feeling justified in their initial action. On the other hand, if you don’t retaliate, it can cause them to reflect and perhaps readjust their position.
The other way to look at this is that we all need a little grace sometimes. We all make mistakes. We say things impulsively. We get sarcastic or biting even though we know it’s hurtful.
But if you’re constantly “keeping score” and retaliating tit for tat, it’s very easy for the confrontation to turn into a competition, or worse, a battle.
Of course, pulling your punches doesn’t mean you shouldn’t stand up for yourself. It just means you should avoid responding to foul play with more fouls play.
If someone says something hurtful, by all means, respond, But do it in a way that’s balanced and reasonable not vindictive. In other words, strive to be assertive, rather than meeting aggression with more aggression.
14. Acknowledge good points
By now you’ve probably realized that a common theme through all these tips is to avoid defensiveness in confrontations. Because as soon as one or both parties become defensive, the confrontation quickly escalates into a competition and even a fight.
Well, a powerful way to reduce defensiveness in yourself and the other person is to acknowledge good points. And I mean that literally!
Simply saying You know, that’s a good point… can go a long way toward keeping a difficult conversation balanced and calm.
When we receive compliments, it feels humanizing—like the other person is acknowledging us as a person—and that feels really good. It’s calming and relaxing.
Best of all, it doesn’t cost you anything and can be done quickly and easily.
The trick is simply remembering that’s an option at all. Typically in confrontations, we’re so concerned with getting our point across, that we forget that the other person might have valid points even if we don’t think their overall position is correct.
If nothing else, set the following rule for yourself: In every confrontation, I will try to acknowledge at least one good point the other person makes.
You’d be amazed how much mileage you’ll get out of that one small change.
15. Treat yourself after successful confrontations
My final tip for managing difficult confrontations more effectively and confidently has to do with what you do after the confrontation is over. Specifically, whether you reward yourself or not for handling a confrontation well.
It’s one of the most powerful and influential laws of human nature there is that we tend to repeat behaviors that are followed by a pleasant outcome. In other words, if you successfully implement some of these strategies in a confrontation, you’ll be more likely to repeat that success if you reward yourself for a job well done.
Very simply, start by acknowledging what you did well in a confrontation. Even if the overall outcome didn’t go the way you wanted, you can still give yourself credit for doing certain aspects of it well.
But beyond mere acknowledgment, I actually recommend treating yourself—literally!—for a job well done:
- Did you successfully broach a difficult topic with your partner about some family issues? Treat yourself to a massage.
- Did you finally confront your manager about their overly nit-picky supervisory style? Treat yourself to a fancy Starbucks drink.
- Did you have a difficult conversation with your teenage daughter and manage to keep your cool throughout? Treat yourself to an hour at the driving range.
Nobody is above reward. And often, treating yourself for implementing a new behavior is the best way to make it stick. Give it a shot!
All You Need to Know
With the right strategies and habits, you can train yourself to handle confrontations effectively and with confidence.
In this guide, we’ve walked through 15 different ways to do this. Don’t get overwhelmed!
Choose a couple that seem most applicable to your life and start with those. Once you’ve mastered them, move on to another and slowly incorporate more over time.
It’s possible to approach confrontations with confidence. But confidence comes from experience, practice, and skill. And all of those take time.