Confrontation can be necessary to set a boundary for one’s self, or to call out harmful or unwelcome behavior. Without confrontation, we lose the ability to advocate for ourselves with others.
Conflict occurs when confrontation triggers defensiveness and aggression in turn, or when someone is unable or unwilling to listen or accept responsibility for their part in a situation.
Conflict is not always healthy or productive, though it can be necessary and unavoidable. It’s ideal, in most cases, to try and confront a person’s behavior without conflict.
This isn’t something we can completely control. Sometimes, you can do everything right and the other person will still become angry or defensive. We can only control our half of the equation. What we can do, though, is try and benignly confront someone. That is, to do it in a way that minimizes the chances of us triggering a conflict.
Many people conflate confrontation and conflict. Some people are anxious about confronting someone, so they either become angry as a way of countering that anxiety, or they wait to confront someone until the situation has gone on for so long that they lose their temper. We don’t have to be angry to confront someone. Confrontation does not have to be loud, accusatory, disrespectful or aggressive. If we can manage our anxiety and anger, we can confidently and assertively speak to someone about how their actions or words are affecting us.
For example, imagine you are at a restaurant and the staff gets your order wrong. Some people would avoid confrontation–they’d accept the wrong order despite the fact that it wasn’t what they wanted. They may feel like they don’t want to inconvenience the server, or that they don’t want to “cause a scene”, or that they don’t want to come off as angry. Other people would politely and assertively let the server know there was a mistake, and ask for the error to be corrected. Still other people would scream and yell at the server, feeling angry and wronged.
The first person is avoiding confrontation. The second is confronting the situation without conflict. The third is creating a conflict.
The first step to minimizing the chance of conflict is to manage our own emotions. We have to soothe our anxiety, relax our anger, and approach the person we’re confronting from a place of confidence. We have to remind ourselves both that we’re doing nothing wrong, and that the other person likely has good intentions. Confrontation does not have to be condemnation or correction, we’re just letting them know how their actions or words affected us.
There are many ways to go about making the actual confrontation, and many of them are based on the relationship between you and the other person. I have some suggestions to keep in mind, though.
~Make it clear that their action affected you.
Often a quick interjection sets the stage for a benign confrontation. Saying “Ouch,” or “Oops,” or “Oh!” can interrupt the moment and create an opening for conversation. Something like “Oh no,” may raise an alert, but can be a low-key indication that something has affected you and you want to say something.
~Assure them that you are assuming positive motivations.
In order to lower your own anger and anxiety, it’s helpful to assume that the other person’s actions weren’t intended to hurt or inconvenience you. Anger can make us assume that the other person intended harm when they acted, but most of the time that’s not the case. Relatedly, the person being confronted can feel like they are being attacked. By stating that we are assuming positive motivations, it can lower their defensiveness. Saying something like, “I know you didn’t mean it in a bad way, but…” or “I know you’d never do this on purpose, but…” or “I know you’re a really good person, but…” can be helpful.
~Make an I-Statement.
Therapists love I-statements so much that it’s almost become a cliche, but it absolutely works. Stating, “I felt hurt by that,” is going to create less defensiveness than “You hurt me.” Saying, “What I took from that was that you think I’m stupid, was that what you meant?” is going to open a conversation, while saying, “You think I’m stupid!” may signal a fight.
~Clarify their intention and thinking.
Demanding an apology or condemning someone will raise defensiveness and anger. If instead, you ask them to clarify what they were trying to say or do, you can start a conversation. You create an atmosphere of curiosity and a desire for understanding rather than an atmosphere of judgment and condemnation.
~State your intentions, needs, and boundaries.
Sometimes, simply understanding each other’s position is enough resolution for the confrontation to be successful. In the restaurant example, letting the server know there’s a problem and that you’re not angry is enough, because the server wants you to have the right food and be happy. Simply communicating about your needs and reaction can be enough for a well-intentioned person to change their behavior.
Sometimes, you may need to be more direct and assertive. Saying something like, “I don’t think it’s okay to treat me that way,” or “I don’t think it’s funny when you do that, please don’t do that around me,” sets a boundary that hopefully the other person can respect. The work you’ve done to not trigger anger or defensiveness sets the stage so that setting a boundary doesn’t come off as an attack or an attempt at control. Instead, it comes off as sharing something about your experience and a request that the other person respect what you’re sharing.
It’s important to note that the tools I’ve offered here only work with someone with good intentions. If someone is mistreating you and is aware of the effect it is having, and continues to do it–no amount of benign confrontation will change that. In that case, you need more assertive limit-setting and a willingness to uphold those limits with actions; leaving that person, or contacting the authorities, or even, in some cases, leaning into the conflict with more aggression.
It’s also important to note that this approach assumes a relative equality in power and privilege and a place of relative safety physically, socially, emotionally, and culturally. The path I’ve laid out is one that someone could choose for themselves, if they want to avoid conflict. It’s not the best or only way in every situation, and it’s up to the person who is wronged or hurt to determine the best course of action for themselves in their situation. We shouldn’t police how someone expresses their pain or how they call out for justice–we should trust them to evaluate the best path forward for themselves and support them.