Last week I wrote about how words can become redefined, or new words developed to address new situations or the need for new terms. The example I used was “otherize,” the act of defining someone as not a member of our own group and therefore, open to suspicion and perhaps to unjust treatment. I am especially aware of a term used by a presidential candidate saying someone had “New York values,” and since I’m a New Yorker at heart, I took that as a compliment while recognizing the intended insult or warning at the same time.
When I wrote that column I knew I also wanted to write about the change in meaning of “confront,” a change from what I might call “not avoiding” to what has become “facing directly and arguing about it.” These words are important to conflict resolution and communications issues in all contexts, so changes in nuance are important to note.
Then purely by chance, I opened a file and there was an article on “confront,” so I’m doing something I have never done before – republishing a column.
The focus of the article is about the nuances of language, the ability to discriminate among situations, and applying the absolutely right approach.
These two columns on language lead into next week’s column on “1984,” a stage production of Orwell's book that I saw last night. Talk about timely! We need to remind ourselves of how words can be redefined (“confront”), invented (“otherize”), or simply used for a different purpose (“values”), techniques that are vital to our understanding of conflict and finding ways to resolve it. The column has been edited slightly to remove references that are no longer relevant.
Often it’s little things we confront, and the action seems disproportionate to the incident. We’ve spent so much time being reasonable on big things that every little thing feels like a personal injustice, and we just don’t have the energy to put up with one more insult or slight. Why did we get the bad restaurant table? Why did that person imply that criticism when I did everything I could and he doesn’t know the half of what it took? Why was the server so ill-tempered? It’s her job to be nice to me. Why . . .?
But confrontation is often depicted as necessary to ensure self-respect and seen as a good thing. Without it we would become doormats, so we have come to consider confrontation as a dressing to be applied to every wound, no matter how different they may be. The problem is, it takes so much energy! It’s exhausting to confront every little thing.
We’ve forgotten how to discriminate, how to determine when to be angry and when not. We default to how we feel at the moment without thinking before acting or going with whatever approach we just read about because it’s the newest suggestion.
What should we do instead? I suggest shifting the starting point from “confronting” to “addressing” so that we don’t start from a place of anger. Instead of confronting we can explore, or discuss, or explain, or address whatever it is we are talking about. We don’t need the anger to feel that we have made a point.
The anger of confrontation is really about us, anyway, and not about the situation. We feel a slight or hurt and want to let that other person know, not just that we are hurt, but that THEY CAN’T DO THIS TO US!!
When we focus on the hurt we lose track of the situation, which if it were explained, might generate an apology or explanation, which would in turn ward off repetition and eliminate future potential for confrontation.
To avoid confrontation don’t assume you can’t raise the issue at all. Instead, express a preference (I’d like to sit farther away from the restrooms) or provide additional information (Perhaps some background would be useful here) or make a request (Please blow the smoke in another direction). None of these statements are confrontational if they are expressed in a reasonable tone of voice, without frustration, exasperation, or patronization in our voices. And especially not with anger spilling out all over.
Start from the assumption that situations need first to be clarified, addressed, and discussed, and confrontation comes much later. Perhaps what we have agreed to doesn’t materialize or the difficult behavior is repeated, or the insult is egregious. Then we can raise the issue again, perhaps discussing it in more direct terms, and confront the unwillingness to respect what is important to us.
And that is the bottom line. When people ignore what is important to us we feel as if we ourselves are unimportant. When we get angry we are “confronting” that sense of personally being unimportant to people we thought considered us important, too. We change that perception by, metaphorically at least, banging on the table and shouting, “I am still important! (add your own expletive)”
The key is to remember that we are always important even when others treat us as if we were not. We don’t need to prove anything.
So start with making what is important to us, the event or action, important to the other person as well. “This is really important because . . .” (And don’t add “You’d know that if you really cared about me.”) Focus on the event or action and try to stay away from the personal, or the discussion will become a confrontation quicker than you wanted.
This approach works only if you are willing and able to then let go of the incident and not dwell on it, thinking of the alternate scenarios and waiting for another, similar exchange to occur so you can say what you really wanted to say. Maybe it was a clearer statement of how very much something hurt or made you angry and you thought you were too reasonable the first time. Consider this. Even if you don’t dwell on the incident, and even if you weren’t quite as clear as you might have been the first time, then the message wasn’t clearly received, and the event will be repeated. You’ll have another chance whether you were dwelling on it or not. Let go of it.
Discuss, explain, consider, expand. But don’t confront. At least not until it’s absolutely necessary. (I have to send an email to someone who called the concern over an LA earthquake a “nothingburger” and explain why she is oh so wrong. I don’t call her tornado warnings “nothingburgers” if no tornado arrives. Who calls something a nothingburger anyway? How can she ignore . . . I’d better take my own advice.)