How to Confront Someone Without Being Confrontational

Conflict Zen Blog by Tammy Lenski

Confronting is an essential negotiation, conflict resolution, and problem-solving skill. Being confrontational, though, will usually do you more harm then help. Here’s a mediator’s tip for how to confront someone and raise an issue for discussion without being aggressive or argumentative.

When I want to confront someone about a concern but don’t want to come across as confrontational, I pull out this tool from my mediator’s toolbox:

Say what you’re seeing and check it out.

“Say what you’re seeing” means making an observation without loading it full of junk — diagnoses, judgments, and the like. It’s naming and/or describing a behavior or circumstance that’s bothering you.

“Check it out” means finding out if what you’re noticing is accurate, what’s behind it, and the like. It’s about checking out your observations before jumping to conclusions about them.

Translated into language you can use, the approach uses this phrasing:

Here’s what I’m noticing…and here’s what I’m wondering…

Say what you’re seeing: “Here’s what I’m noticing…”

“Here’s what I’m noticing” is a simple, straightforward, yet considerate way to be transparent about what’s on your mind.

I like and use this phrasing because it doesn’t come across like a statement of fact, label, or diagnosis. Those are apt to put someone on the defensive, after all. Instead,it’s just you wondering out loud and willing to be disproved.

Keep it short and sweet, because the longer you go on, the less it seems like a wondering aloud and the more it seems like a tirade. One sentence is enough. You can go into detail later.

Check it out: “…and here’s what I’m wondering”

“…And here’s what I’m wondering” is a gentle invitation, one that’s kind and direct at the same time. It’s not a demand or an ultimatum, and it discloses what’s on your mind without calling someone on the carpet.

Keep this short and sweet, too. Before you open your mouth, get clear on what you’re wondering and how you can say it succinctly. Make sure you’re not abusing the idea by using it to cast aspersions (“I’m wondering why you’re a jerk”), blame (“I’m wondering why you can never take responsibility”), or diagnose (“I’m wondering why you’re so passive-aggressive with me”).

What it sounds like in practice

At work…

  • I’ve noticed that each time I request a meeting agenda, you roll your eyes. I’m wondering if there’s something you want to say to me about that? (Hat tip to Brenda.)
  • I’m noticing that things still seem tense between the two of you, even though you tell me you’ve worked things out. I’m wondering if I’m misinterpreting what I’m seeing…?
  • I’m noticing that your work has been a little off your usual high standard. I’m wondering if everything’s ok for you…?

At home…

  • I noticed you were unusually quiet before leaving for work this morning. I’m wondering if our disagreement last night is still on your mind…
  • I’m noticing the tension between us lately. I’m wondering if you’re noticing it too?
  • When we argue, I’ve noticed that you often say I started it. I’m wondering if that’s something you say in anger or if you really believe that to be the case…? (Alternatively: When we argue, I’ve noticed that you often say I started it. I’m wondering what I’m saying or doing that leads you to that conclusion.)

If you’re a mediator or coach…

  • I’m noticing that each time the conversation references an incident last summer, one or both of you change the topic. I’m wondering what that’s about…?
  • I noticed that you got very quiet when I gave you feedback. I’m wondering if I’ve inadvertently been too blunt with my feedback?
  • I’m noticing that each time you say X, her anger flares quite a bit. I’m wondering if you’ve noticed the strong negative reaction you’re getting to that language (more suitable for private session).

Tammy Lenski

Dr. Tammy Lenski helps individuals, pairs, teams, and audiences navigate disagreement better, address friction, and build alignment. Her current work centers on creating the conditions for robust collaboration and sound decisions while fostering resilient personal and professional relationships. Her conflict resolution podcast and blog, Disagree Better, are available at… MORE >

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