When you’re unsure whether or not to confront someone about a conflict or other problem, getting clear on your intention can help make the decision clearer. Here are six questions to help.
What am I trying to achieve by confronting?
Many confrontations turn out to be thinly disguised efforts at getting the other person to change. This is tricky and often fruitless territory. Mark Twain once said, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig.”
People do change, of course, but rarely because you want them to. It is often much more fruitful to confront with the intention of addressing a problem behavior instead of a problem person. Here is an article that can help you tease out the differences: How to deal with difficult people.
How important is it?
Anger, emotional upset, and other strong emotions can color our view of a problem, magnifying it as we focus repeatedly on it. Like a pothole in the road, we can repeatedly steer right into it if we focus only on it. But if we widen our focus to the wider road and scene around us, we can reduce the pothole’s seduction.
Consider developing a confrontation benchmark. Mine is, “When I’m 80 and looking back, will this be one that mattered?” My husband’s is, “Will I ever see this person again?”
Am I seeking short- or long-term results?
Taking the long view reduces the danger of trading long-term accord for short-term relief, though it may be the short-term relief that’s occasionally more preferable. A former colleague of mine ran the student housing department for a small college. She often reminded staff that writing students up for every minor infraction of residence hall policy usually resulted in a general feeling of ill will between students and staff, and that a better approach was to spend energy building relationships and focusing on truly important violations.
What difference could confronting make?
This is different than, “Will it make a difference,” which is a common question too easily answered with no, especially if we tend to avoid conflict. By asking ourselves what difference, we essentially trick our minds into imagining what is truly possible.
Is the problem cumulative?
Taken individually, some problems and differences seem minor. Taken as a whole, they may suggest a wider pattern that needs addressing. When debating whether or not to confront a certain situation, step back and consider the cumulative effect on you and/or others.
Is the timing right?
The most important conversation in the world needs good timing to increase its effectiveness. Confronting my spouse about sharing more of the housekeeping isn’t likely to go well if I do it while he’s in the middle of grading student papers and on a deadline to submit them.