Do you take this critical step as you prepare to confront someone else?

Douglas Adams tells a quintessentially British story.  He sat opposite a stranger in a railway station.  Both were drinking coffee.  Both were eating from the same bag of cookies.  Nobody said a word.  No mention of discomfort or challenge.  The stranger got up to leave and gave him a ‘pointed look’.  Not a word was said.  He concludes the story by commenting that two people that day had a strange but stiff upper lip tale to tell.  But only one had the punch line.  As he packed up to catch his train he found the cookies he had purchased under his newspaper.

This would never happen to us:

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What could be more of a boundary incursion than a stranger eating, uninvited from your packet of biscuits?  How often do you allow this type of behaviour without comment.  More to the point;  how often do you allow people you know to consistently invade your space without doing anything about it?

It is one thing to describe a boundary to yourself.  This is an important milestone.  Having set up the boundary, it will not be long before it is tested by someone.  Your next challenge is to deal effectively with the boundary intrusion.  Managing intrusions requires an ability to successfully confront behaviour.  Kerry Patterson and his co-authors have developed a highly effective process for managing confrontation which they describe in the book, Crucial Confrontations.

We cover this approach in module 10 of the Personal Mastery Course.  In this posting I want to talk a little bit about step 2 which I believe is the crux of the process.

In this step you tell yourself a positive story about the person you are going to confront.  A true positive story.  A realistic story.  There is a model for giving criticism that suggests a whole night in prayer for the person and the topic before taking the responsibility of giving them criticism.  A whole night!  Now there’s a cure for busy-bodyness.  Criticism and confrontation are similar but different.  But the point is clear.  You are about to give a direct, new and possibly a difficult perspective to another soul on this journey through life.  This just cannot be taken lightly.

Confrontation is only to be taken on with a real human being.  When I coach people on this topic I do not move onto the next step until the client is able to tell a humble, authentic, caring story about the person they are about to confront.  The key to successful confrontation is SAFETY!  If the person you are confronting does not feel safe they will not hear what you are saying.  At all!  And safety is impossible unless you look each other eye to eye and level.   If you see the person as a dirty dog they will perceive this and it will trigger all their defences, including “I can’t even hear what you are saying”.

There are two sides to any conflict.  Going in with guns blazing at this dirty dog will make it very difficult for you to listen to the story they have to tell.  Yes; this person will have their day in court – let’s just prepare for that.

Consult your anger.  We rarely experience real anger as we grow up.  Real anger is the healthy response to boundary incursions.  We are far more used to Anger’s deformed cousin ‘Rage’.  If your anger is directed inwards your confrontation will take on the nature of a self-development process.  Learning for you.  And from very sore experience I can tell you this.  If there is even a hint of abuse in your message, you have more rage to address.  It is essential for you to re-examine your story for a judgemental approach.  Many people have never experienced a truly safe place.  And many more have never experienced a safe place for dangerous conversations.  Preparing in this way will help you bring real healing.

You also need to feel safe.  In pre-flight presentations the hostess always tells us to put our own face-mask on first, in the unlikely event of a drop in pressure.  Safety is not the same thing as ‘superiority’.  If you perceive this person as a ‘superhero’ they will feel the advantage of the pedestal and will look down their noses at you and the confrontation will flounder.  Winston Churchill once said “A dog looks up to you; a cat looks down at you, but a pig.  A pig looks you straight in the eye.”

Take heart.  This is NOT easy.  Putting your neurotic ego aside requires dedication.  Collecting positive data will be greatly facilitated by an ongoing programme to load your unconscious with a realistic, ‘Adult’, even ‘Positive’ view of the people around you.  The success of this step is built on the foundation of an ongoing work in your life to build a healthy ego and sense of self.

We can help this by managing our self-talk.  I am writing this note on a flight from Gaborone to Gauteng.  There was an American couple who sat behind me in the airport.  As he spoke to his wife about organic farming in Africa I asked myself why his conversation with her had to be a lecture to all within a 20 meter radius (spot my shadow material here).  They are sitting in front of me and I have caught my self-talk running them down.  Then I looked again.  And I saw he had kind, intelligent and lively brown eyes.  And his wife had a kind of calm about her.  Many of us surround ourselves with heroes and villains when we are really surrounded by people.  Our work is to see them all as people.  Of course some are wonderfully gifted.  Of course some are really evil. This is not about being naive.

This has been a longer note.  Justly so.  This is the place where our intention to confront comes together or falls apart.

Now, what is your process for confrontation?

This post is reproduced with permission.

“By Stephen Quirke of StrategyWorks. Please visit Stephen’s web site at for more resources on how to de-clutter your strategic conversation.”