Clarity When Confrontation Doesn’t Feel Right




Talentism works with a diverse group of C-suite executives. We often hear these leaders express similar frustrations: “The person I work for/with is terrible. They are telling me one thing and doing another. I just don’t trust them anymore.” While the details vary, the essence of the complaint is always the same: someone has questions they aren’t asking, or an opinion they aren’t expressing, and they are frustrated and confused.

We encourage people to engage forthrightly with people and situations that are confusing them. The benefits often far outweigh the risks. We even teach techniques to increase the probability a difficult conversation will go well. But many people feel that confrontation is just not acceptable. They are deeply uncomfortable with the pain of being at odds with another person in the office, and the perceived costs are just too high.

It is truly unfortunate that most people are holding opinions or questions that they feel they can’t resolve. How many people are living lives of quiet desperation (with a nod to Thoreau), in pain with no understanding of what to do? I think this is terrible, and offer the following advice in the hopes that you can turn your pain into clarity and evolution.

Start with You

Before you spend your attention on unproductive anger and frustration, we recommend that you first consider yourself. The pain you are feeling isn’t unique. Everyone goes through it. But what may surprise you is how much pain you cause others. Just as you feel you can’t discuss something with another person, there are likely people who feel they can’t discuss something with you. Helping others to have productive engagement with you is often the best way towards building the courage necessary for productive engagement with someone else.

Leaders often have the authority to demote or fire other people. In this case you hold the psychological keys to a person’s feelings of security, membership, and status. Happiness can arise from understanding that we, and not others, control those keys. But most people don’t know those keys exist or how they work. The best way to learn is to listen to others. Ask people who you can fire or demote whether they feel like the can talk with you about tough subjects. Try asking them to name a topic that they think would be difficult to speak with you about. Listen for clues that you are creating the same fear in others that you are experiencing. It is hard to be angry at another once you realize that you are guilty of the same behaviors.

Stay Calm

When your mind has questions it can’t answer you feel confused. Confusion frequently leads to feelings of  threat, which can quickly convert into overpowering emotions. Once these negative emotions take hold, your brain will literally lose its ability to make sense of your confusion, and often lead to destructive behaviors. You will continue to spiral deeper into anger and despair, which in turn will trigger more confusion. There is only one reliable path out of this spiral: calm. Realize that you are not really under threat; your mind is just playing tricks with you. Everything is going to be fine as long as you maintain your ability to see things clearly and make good decisions about your situation.

If you can’t stay calm, distract yourself. Use the last shreds of your executive function (your brain’s control center) to point you to an activity that you enjoy and in which you can become fully absorbed. Love hanging out with friends? Call one up. Love a good book? Start reading. Listen to your favorite music, think about your favorite sunny day when you were swimming in the ocean. It doesn’t matter, just find something that is enjoyable and absorbing. Once you return to calm, ask yourself the following:

What if I am Wrong?

Many studies come to the same conclusion: most of us think that we are smarter, more attractive, and more trustworthy than the average person. Believing we are exceptional feels good. Conversely, believing that we are “average” feels bad.

One of the things I love about my work is creating systems that help people see that they are in fact exceptional, but usually not in the ways they think. Its a big, beautiful, complex business world, and there are an almost infinite number of ways to be extraordinary at something, adding value to an enterprise or mission you find meaningful. So take heart: you are special. But beware. Your mind is probably working hard to make you feel good, even if it about something that isn’t real. It will grab ahold of any piece of information that validates the good feeling, and rapidly (and unconsciously) discard any information that makes you feel bad. The resulting confusion means that you aren’t finding your true calling and talents, because your mind is working to protect the past rather than focusing on creating a better future.

I think of it like American Idol. A lot of people tell the judges they are an excellent singer. They then start belting away, only to sound like a cat being stung by a wasp. The judges tell the truth: the singer is terrible. The painful feedback is always followed by the logical question “How could you possibly think you are a good singer?” The inevitable teary admission? “My (parents, girlfriend, grandfather, postman) says I have a great voice!” It’s obviously not true, but the kind words and encouragement from others feel so good that they blind the person to their reality.

Considering that you may be wrong can move you from protecting a feel-good, but ultimately destructive confusion to exploring a more accurate, and eventually better feeling reality. Asking “What if I am wrong?” creates the space to see what is really happening. Maybe the person you think is an idiot is on to something. Stranger things have happened. Stop to consider that the other person has different information, thinking, and perspectives than you do. Just as you may be seeing things that he or she doesn’t, the same is probably true in reverse. In order to see things more clearly, try asking the following questions:

  1. What do they know that I don’t?
  2. What do they see that I don’t?
  3. Can I argue their side of the case?

Starting with you, staying calm, and opening yourself to the possibility that the other person may be right can help you move from desperation towards clarity. The other person may in fact be confused (likely – they are human after all), or a liar (unlikely – most people are worth the benefit of the doubt until you have proof otherwise). But staying calm and considering what you don’t know may lead to you to see things in a new light.


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