Confronting is an essential conflict resolution and supervisory skill, yet it can feel risky and uncomfortable. We don’t want to seem confrontational or aggressive, and we do want to feel confident that confronting might make a difference. Here’s a mediator’s tip for how to confront someone and raise an issue without seeming antagonistic or argumentative.
Some of the problems we have with another person melt away without confronting because the problem isn’t very important to us or something about the situation changes. And, of course, some problems don’t go away; they plague us or grow into bigger problems. So before confronting, it’s useful to evaluate whether we should raise an issue or let it go.
Once we’ve decided an issue is worth raising, we want to broach the subject in a way that makes the effort to confront worth the discomfort many of us feel in encounters like these. This often means we want to come across as reasonable and fair. We want them to stay engaged in the conversation with us. And we want to buffer the personal or professional relationship from an uncomfortable conversation’s negative effects.
Here’s a tool from my mediator’s toolbox that helps achieve all of these goals. I use it regularly, both in the mediator’s chair and out.
Say what you’re seeing and check it out
“Say what you’re seeing” means succinctly describing the behavior or circumstances that are bothering us, leaving out the verbal or attitudinal junk that will put them on the defensive — pop-psych diagnoses, judgmentalism, holier-than-thou attitude, and the like.
“Check it out” means inviting them to help us understand what we’re seeing. It’s about checking out our observations before reaching conclusions about them or about what, if anything, should be done.
Say what you’re seeing: Here’s what I’m noticing…
“Here’s what I’m noticing” is a simple, straightforward, and considerate way to be transparent about what’s on our mind. We’re briefly describing something we’ve noticed that’s puzzling or bothering us.
I like and use this phrasing because it doesn’t come across as a statement of fact, a label, or a diagnosis of their flaw. Instead, it’s just me wondering out loud and willing to be disproved. This intention is important.
Keep it short and sweet. One sentence is usually enough. We can go into detail later if needed.
Check it out: …and here’s what I’m wondering
“…And here’s what I’m wondering” is a gentle invitation that’s kind and direct at the same time. It’s not a demand or an ultimatum, and it doesn’t call someone on the carpet.
Keep this short and sweet, too. Before we open our mouths, it’s useful to get clear on what we’re wondering and how we can say it succinctly. Be sure not to abuse 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
- I’m noticing that things still seem tense between you, even though you tell me you’ve worked things out. I’m wondering if I’m misinterpreting what I’m seeing…?
- I’ve been thinking that your work has been a little off your usual high standard. I’m wondering if you’re ok.
- I’ve noticed that you roll your eyes each time I request a meeting agenda in advance. I’m wondering if there’s something you want to say to me about that. (Hat tip to Brenda.)
- 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 the incident last summer, one or both of you change the topic. I’m wondering what that’s about…?
- I noticed that you ended our last call soon after I offered feedback that may have been hard to hear. I’m wondering if the feedback was the cause of the call ending before our time was up.
- 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 to your choice of language (more suitable for private session).
Remember: The approach here is to wonder out loud and invite them to explore it with us. Sometimes that exploration will lead to a change in them. Sometimes it will lead to a change in us. Sometimes it will lead to both.
For this approach to be effective, we’ve got to open ourselves to the possibility that our view about the issue or about them may change. When we go in with this intention, we kindle our own curiosity and signal flexibility about how things unfold from there. This makes the conversational less confrontational and increases the likelihood they’ll respond thoughtfully.
This article was originally published in 2016. It was updated and expanded in 2022.