Six Steps to Positive Confrontation at Work

By, Barbara Pachter

Your boss yells at you in front of your co-workers. Your co-worker is not doing her fair share on the team project. Your employee is chronically late. What can you do about these and countless other annoying, bothersome, or even intolerable situations at work?

"The American workplace can seem full of conflict," says business communications trainer Barbara Pachter. "For the employee, this conflict translates into added work stress and dissatisfaction. For the employer, this conflict translates into missed deadlines, poor work habits, unhealthy work relationships and poor communication between co-workers." And, in a few extreme cases, some people have even resorted to violence!

Pachter, author of "The Power of Positive Confrontation: The Skills You Need to Know to Handle Conflicts at Work, at Home, and in Life" says that many work conflicts aren’t dealt with properly. "Most people are simply never taught how to handle themselves politely and powerfully in confrontational situations," she says. "Many people blow up or wimp out."

But there is a middle ground. And Pachter reminds us that, "Most people are not jerks who are out to get us." Yet she adds, "Many people become preoccupied and don’t realize how their behavior affects others. They simply need to be told in a polite and powerful way."

So instead of becoming a bully in order to express yourself or having to wimp out because you don’t know what to say, try positive confrontation. Here are 6 steps to help you confront others in a dignified and effective manner.

  1. Pick your conflict. You can’t fight them all. You can’t win them all. And beyond all that who cares! Pick the ones that matter to you and have an effect on you. If they don’t, why not let them go? You’ll be less stressed out.

  2. Give the person The Jerk Test. We are very quick to make negative assumptions about others. Yet often we have no idea what is driving the other person’s behavior. If you approach someone thinking that person is a jerk, it is very easy to explode. So give the person The Jerk Test. Ask yourself some questions about the other person, including: Did the person really mean any harm? Is it the person or the policy? What’s the other person’s culture? You may find out that the person is not a jerk after all. Or, if you still choose to confront, you are less likely to explode.

  3. Pick the right time and place. Confront others in private and when you are calm. Also pick a time that’s good for the other person to talk. If the person is walking out the door for a meeting, it’s not the time to confront!

  4. One issue at a time. You don’t want to confuse things. Keep the discussion to one issue. Also, you are less likely to get side tracked if you stick to just one issue.

  5. Prepare and practice. You want to prepare and practice what you will say. You are less likely to explode or wimp out if you do. Your wording is to be specific, direct, polite and non-accusatory. My Don’t Attack’em, WAC’em™ model can guide you. WAC’em stands for: What’s really bothering you? – What do you want to Ask the other person to do or change? and Check-in for their reaction.

  6. Pay attention to your nonverbal body signals. Have you ever heard yourself say, “But I didn’t mean it that way!” Chances are your words said one thing but your body language or voice sent a different message.


Barbara Pachter is also the author of "When the Little Things Count" ($12.95 paperback, 170 pages, Marlowe & Co., 2001). She is co-author of several books including the "Prentice Hall Complete Business Etiquette Handbook." She is a speaker, trainer and coach specializing in assertiveness and business etiquette. Her client list features major corporations and organizations worldwide, including NASA, Merck & Co., Ernst & Young, Nabisco and the University of Michigan. For a free copy of Pachter's newsletter, Competitive Edge, call (856) 751-6141 (NJ) or go to www.pachter.com on the web. Published three times a year, it contains tips and strategies for business professionals on a wide range of business communication and etiquette issues.

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