How to have a successful confrontation (even if you hate conflict)

When I was practicing law, I regularly represented business owners who had been stiffed by one of their clients. In most of these kinds of cases the business owner had performed many, many hours of work and then their client failed to pay them. They would ask me if I could help them collect the money they were owed, and I told them I could. But I always had a few questions for them to answer before I could begin.

My first question was always, “when was the last time you reached out to your client and asked them to pay you?”

When asked this question, 80% of my clients would say, “I haven’t.”

Then I’d stare at the phone blankly thinking I must have heard them wrong and ask again, “So you never reached out to your client to let them know the payment is late and request payment?”

And they would shock me by confirming their previous answer, “No, I have not.”

I had this conversation with enough different business owners to know that a lot of us struggle with having hard conversations. Many of my clients, who were brave enough to build successful businesses, would rather pay a lawyer than have to call or email their client and demand payment for services rendered. In at least some of these cases, their clients may not have even realized that their payment was late. A clear, direct conversation could have resolved at least 60% of these late payment issues (and subsequent cashflow problems) for my clients, but the mere idea of having that conversation was terrifying to them.

You cannot be a successful business owner without ever having hard conversations.  

In this article, I want to lay out a process for you to follow to prepare for and execute a confrontation you need to have. As a business owner, you will absolutely have to confront people, probably on a regular basis. You may need to confront a contractor who is not performing, you may need to confront a competitor who swiped your IP, you may need to tell a client that those additional services are outside of the scope of your agreement, and, perhaps the most dreaded confrontation of all, you may have to fire an employee.

When you avoid these conversations and put them off for days, weeks, months and years, you lose money, you lose sleep and you lose the opportunity to make a change in your business that could usher in your next level. Just think about what an employee who isn’t performing costs you to keep on payroll for months when they aren’t doing their job. Think about how miserable that demanding client, who isn’t even paying you for all the things he demands, is making you feel every day. Think about what it costs to have a competitor announcing their six-figure launch built on the back of your stolen IP. Hell no, Sister!

You cannot get what you want without having hard conversations.

In your personal life you need to have hard conversations as well. Confronting your husband about his lack of help around the house, confronting your kids about the consequences of their behavior, letting the plumber know that the shoddy work he did is not acceptable and he needs to fix it asap and confronting your sister about dropping her kids off at your house when she didn’t even ask if you were willing to babysit. These are the kinds of everyday conversations that the other side of which will bring you peace, understanding, saved money, saved time, and all the other things you want but currently don’t have because you are too scared to speak up. You can’t enforce your boundaries without confrontation.

Confrontation is a means for uncovering the truth.

Confrontation carries a bad rap. I want to dispel the assumption that this kind of discourse must be nasty or aggressive. Neck rolling and finger wagging are not required. Having a hard conversation where you boldly share your truth does not automatically equate to irreparable drama. In fact, drama often stems from the fear of confrontation.

We imagine all of the horrible things that will result from confronting someone. We think: they’ll scream and sob, they’ll tell everyone I’m a terrible person, they’ll take a crowbar to my office/house/reputation, I’ll never get another client again, when people Google my name they’ll see this person’s bad review of my business, they’ll never speak to me again, they’ll tell everyone I’m a horrible boss, they’ll file a lawsuit.

And you are correct some of those things could happen, but in my experience as a lawyer, CEO and a truth-telling woman,  most of them never will.

So rather than stuffing down how you truly feel—which can sometimes end in a blow out when you can’t bottle up your feelings any longer—consider confrontation as an opportunity to grow and to solve problems by getting to the real crux of an issue.

What does a successful confrontation look like?

When it comes to confrontation, we don’t define success as you getting what you want. Yes, we’d all love to get what we want from the person we are confronting but that’s not always going to happen and it doesn’t mean the confrontation wasn’t successful.

In my opinion, a successful confrontation is one where both parties leave the conversation knowing where they stand. That’s it. You say what you have to say and the other party says what they have to say, and you both decide whether that means you’ll be changing your relationship, continuing to work together, no longer working together, making adjustments to a bill, redistributing responsibilities, etc. That is enough because confrontation needs to occur when the status quo is no longer working for you, so speaking up to put change in motion is all you need.

Ten steps to a successful confrontation (even if you hate conflict)

I’ve had countless successful confrontations as a lawyer, CEO, business coach, mom, stepmom, wife, sister, daughter and friend and I’ve studied conflict resolution (I have a law degree and a graduate certificate in Alternative Dispute Resolution). In other words, I know what I’m talking about when it comes to confrontation and I’ve mapped out my approach to make it easy for you. So without further ado, here is my 10 step process for conducting a successful confrontation.

Part I: Prepare for the confrontation

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.” ― Abraham Lincoln

The success of your confrontation will be determined by your level of preparation. Every negotiation is won or lost at the preparation stage. You can’t control what your counterpart will do, but you can be sure that whatever happens you are prepared for each possible outcome, and most importantly, know when to walk away. Here is how you prepare for a confrontation.

1. Alter your mental state. Avoid going into a confrontation angry if for no other reason than anger is not a good way to get people to do what you want them to do. It’s not an effective negotiation tool. It can come off as intimidation which may get you a desirable result in the short term but will likely lead to the other party secretly plotting against you. Anger can alter perception of risk, increase prejudice, and trigger aggression. When you are angry or otherwise emotionally charged you will say things you don’t mean to say—and probably forget what you do want to say. (And then regret it.) You want to step into a confrontation from a space of clarity. So if you are feeling emotional, go for a walk or engage in some other form of physical activity (it’s the fastest and healthiest way to get into a more positive headspace) and then have the conversation.

2. Set an intention. Spend some time thinking about why you need to have this conversation. Get clear on what’s not working for you in the current relationship, what you want the other party to know, your goals for the conversation and your desired outcome for the conversation. Set an intention about how you want to feel and how you want the other party to feel at the end of this confrontation. This will help you decide on the tone you want to use, exactly what you want to say, what you don’t want to say, etc.  

3. Outline the conversation. Most people worry that they won’t have the right language to express themselves in a confrontation, especially in really emotional situations. So make it easy on yourself by creating an outline of what you want to say and even the exact language you want to use to say it. This will help you feel more confident and at ease in the conversation and make sure you get your key points across. I especially recommend writing down the first couple sentences to begin the conversation that will transition you from small talk into the topic at hand. That way all you have to do is read the words on the page to get the conversation started. You can allow the conversation to flow from there naturally but the outline will be your safety net, should you need it.

4. Know Your BATNA. BATNA is a concept I learned while reading Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury of the Harvard Negotiation Project. It is the best book on negotiation that exists, in my opinion, and should totally consider reading it. That said, one of my favorite concepts from the book is knowing your BATNA. BATNA stands for Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. You are going into this confrontation hoping for a specific result, but you can’t be certain that the other side will agree to your terms, no matter how good of a negotiator you are, so your BATNA is another piece of information that you need to think about and prepare. Knowing exactly what your absolute best options are if consensus is not reached will set the tone for how you conduct the conversation.

For example, in a conversation with a vendor who won’t release the work they’ve done for you until you pay her additional fee of $1,500 that you did not agree to ahead of time, your best alternative might be not to pay the surprise additional fee and hire someone else to do the work for less than $1,500. In this scenario, you’d have to know whether you can find someone to do the work from scratch for less than $1,500 and if they could get it done in accordance with your timeline. And that’s often the case with your BATNA, it’s not just something you think about, it’s often something you need to research so you have solid confirmation on whether this “plan B” is a viable option. Then when you walk into a negotiation you know exactly at what number or point you will walk away and execute your BATNA instead of continuing to seek a resolution with the other party.

Part II: Conduct the confrontation.

“No pressure no diamonds.” – Mary Case

Now that you’re in a positive headspace, have set intentions, prepared your outline and understand your BATNA, it’s time to actually have the confrontation.

5. Detach from the outcome. Prior to picking up the phone or opening the door to where you’ll meet the other person face-to-face, acknowledge that you can’t control the outcome and therefore detach yourself from the result. You might say to yourself, “You know what? Whatever's gonna happen, will happen. No one's gonna die. Nothing catastrophic is going to happen as a result of this call.” Put it in perspective, and just get it done. Start dialing the number or opening the door before you're even ready because you'll never be ready. Dial the number, open the door and just do it.

6. Start strong. Share your intention with the other party as you begin the conversation. It’s incredibly brave and kind to say to the other side: “Look, I'm really scared to have this conversation because I'm worried about how you're gonna feel. I don't want to hurt your feelings and I don't want you to think that I don't care.” Starting the conversation this way disarms the other side, acknowledges both party’s humanity and sets the tone for the conversation.

7.  Be brave, honest, and vulnerable. It's very hard to solve problems if both sides aren't being truthful about what they want, what their experience has been, or what they're actually upset about. You can’t control how the other party responds, but you can take care of your side of the street. Honesty requires bravery. Courage is required to put yourself out there and acknowledge that the other side may attack you. If you’re willing to have a respectful confrontation with someone, the chances increase that the other party will respond in kind. “Okay, we're being honest here. I now feel free to be honest, open, and vulnerable, as well.” Your vulnerability will continue to shape the conversation.

8. Create boundaries, not threats. What are the things that need to happen to reach a resolution for you? Avoid empty threats, ultimatums, and false promises. We’ve all heard threats that we know the other party is NOT going to follow through on. They are not effective, lead to posturing and often waste everyone’s time, money and energy. So don’t make empty threats but do enforce your boundaries, where appropriate, by letting the other party know what you intend to do if a resolution cannot be made. So don’t say, “If you don't do X, we will do X by X date,” unless that's exactly what's going to happen.

9. Refuse to be responsible for other people’s feelings. One of the most important things to remember when going into a confrontation is this: you are not responsible for other people’s feelings. Being the “feelings management police” is a really common knee-jerk reaction for women, it’s also totally patriarchal and patronizing. Historically, men have made executive decisions for women and did not allow women to be involved in business, financial or political problems—due to our supposed inability to “handle it”. (Yes, someone please fetch me my smelling salts!) As a result, women often feel compelled to manage other women's feelings—when it comes to our daughters, mothers, clients, sisters, friends, or any other women in our lives. We need to stop this madness. You take away the power of the other person when you go into feelings management mode. And it makes matters even worse, when the other party decides that yes, it is your job to manage their feelings. What a nightmare. So decide in advance that everybody is responsible for their own feelings in this tough conversation and don’t let the other party make managing their feelings your job.

10. Make a deal or walk away. You have to be willing to walk away, before you even start the confrontation. Most people who are afraid of confrontation are worried they’re going to ruin a relationship, and, yes, that’s absolutely possible. The relationship might be destroyed by the truth. Not everybody can handle and survive a tough conversation. But you can also ruin a relationship by not having an honest conversation about how you’re each thinking and feeling—so maybe that's what needs to happen for growth. Don’t avoid a confrontation because you're trying to hold on to a relationship that needs to evolve or end.

The next time you need to have a hard conversation (there’s probably one you are avoiding right now), use this step-by-step process to guide you. The better you get at confrontation, the better your relationships will be. The better your relationships are, the better your life and business will be. It’s that important.

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