Handling Confrontation

Recently a coworker asked me for advice on handling situations where someone is being confrontational. They mentioned that I was good at diffusing these situations and avoiding getting into an argument. I was pretty surprised by this compliment, since it’s not necessarily something I’ve focused on improving, so I started paying more attention to what I was doing.

To be fair, I’m known for instigating my share of arguments. I’ve been told I wear my heart on my sleeve and often come across more emotional than necessary when arguing my perspective (often referred to as “passion”). Controlling this reaction is something that I’ve been working on improving. I feel it’s important to be thoughtful and articulate with my opinions, rather than brash or childish.

After dissecting what was running through my mind when I’m on the receiving end of a confrontation, I found that my goal is to avoid having a debate, diffuse their frustration, and buy myself time.

If someone is unhappy and has a strong opinion, they’re likely trying to debate it out and trying to convince me that they’re right. I often have to actively force myself not to “bite.” It’s so tempting to jump into a heated debate. It feels so good — matching their level of enthusiasm (and volume) feels like you’re appropriately defending your opinion. Don’t do this.

Instead of engaging in their level of frustration, I focus on diffusing the situation. My goal is not to convince them of my point of view (regardless of how I feel about it or what decision has already been made). They’re in a completely different mindset. There’s no way I’d be able to flip the conversation around. Instead, I focus on bringing them down to a less emotional level.

They’re often venting their frustration and are simply looking to be heard. I often find myself simply saying “okay” a lot. It’s a simple word, but it’s helpful to acknowledge that I’m listening, that I understand what they’re saying and that I know it’s important to them. There’s a lot of complexity in the tone — it’s important to be sincere and not sound like I’m trying to rush them along. I never want it to come across as “okay, okay, hurry-up and get this vent over with.”

Regardless of whether I was able to effectively diffuse the situation or not, some simple advice from a past manager of mine has always stuck with me. “Buy yourself time.” I don’t need to have an answer or a response right away. The goal is to drive toward a future conversation when emotions aren’t running as high.