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How to Help Clients Overcome Fear of Confrontation

7 bulletproof ways to help clients make unavoidable confrontations work for them

Handling conflict effectively is a key life skill.

She was intimidating – 20 years older than my 23 summers. But I had to confront her.

Sometimes confrontations are unavoidable.

I was her manager, and her bullying of other staff members had to stop.

Known for having her finger firmly on the workplace ’emotional temperature dial’, she was apt to scream and shout, but also cunningly find and deftly push emotional buttons you didn’t even know you had.

She was an accomplished bully with all the ‘tricks of the trade’ up her sleeve. At least one colleague had been brought to tears by this woman in the last week alone.

I had no particular fear of confrontation, at least that’s what I thought. But with her I wasn’t so sure. I asked her if I could “have a word”.

So there we were.

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Careful what you say, mister!

I hated confronting her. She looked at me scornfully as if to say, “I may have to be here, but I don’t have to listen. Careful what you say, mister!”

Feeling like Gary Cooper in High Noon minus the heroism or glory, I’d been inwardly rehearsing what I was going to say all morning. But she spoke first.

“What’s all this about then?” The growl was foreboding, like a warning rumble from a growing storm.

But despite having determined to stay calm, I surprised myself by suddenly feeling angry. Why the #@£! should I worry about upsetting her when she’d been bullying, manipulating, and not caring a jot how others felt?

“What it’s about,” I snarled, holding her petulant gaze, “is a grown woman acting like a kindergarten bully, throwing her weight around [she later tried to claim I’d been discriminatory because she was obese!], being rude, lying, threatening, making personal comments to other members of staff… It’s bullying, and it’s GOT TO STOP!”

Stunned silence. Dropped jaw (mine too). Tears (not mine).

What a screwup!

There is an inbuilt mechanism within non-psychopathic males – or at least me! – which has them immediately crumple into desperate capitulation the moment a woman starts to weep.

Sure enough, as her tears manipulatively flowed, to my shame I backpedalled a little, tried to focus on her good points (and even invented a few) – all because the waterworks had switched on.

But she’d wrongfooted me, softened me up – and now she leapt back with a vengeance.

“No one ever, EVER speaks to me like that!” As she screamed, ranted, and raved, I noticed her eyes were no longer even dampened.

“Well I screwed that up!” I thought as she flounced from the room.

Defensive tears had turned to angry attacks so fast that I’d been flummoxed before I knew it. I had made a mistake by becoming so obviously and quickly angry with her.

The upshot?

A bit better

She did actually bully less, especially if I was around, and she never actually crossed me again. Some bullies will cease bullying not because they’ve suddenly developed care, consideration, and empathy, but because it’s become more difficult for them to get away with it.

My co-workers felt better too, as it felt some sort of injustice had been, at least partly, righted. I could have handled it better, but it’s hard to appeal to a better nature when it might not actually be there.

The point is that confrontation isn’t always easy and doesn’t always go smoothly but, like a bitter medicine, may hold a cure.

But what about those who just can’t confront others?

Confrontation and self-esteem

Some clients seem totally unable to confront others, and this can cause them to ruminate bitterly, feel anxious, frustrated, and angry, and therefore damage their mental health as well as maintain an unfair situation.

Inability to confront also gives implicit permission for others to treat our clients poorly. This lack of capacity to ever confront can lessen self-esteem and certainly contribute to rumination, which can cause or worsen depression.

So why are some clients less able to confront?

The origins of chronic over-niceness

Fear of confrontation may stem from a chronic reluctance to ‘upset the applecart’ – that is, a desire to ‘keep the peace’ at all costs. Keeping others happy, especially if they are ‘difficult’, becomes the one and only priority and takes precedence over personal needs and/or the wider situation.

I don’t personally enjoy confrontation. I’m not one to get a hedonistic buzz from discord, and I always want everyone to just get along. But at least I know I can confront if I have to.

Sometimes we see clients who just can’t imagine a scenario in which they’d ever be able to confront someone for their bad behaviour. And that may be the root of many of their problems.

Often a chronically people-pleasing client may have had to deal with highly difficult parents or siblings, which may have led them to fill the role of peacekeeper and appeaser. This, perhaps coupled with a naturally agreeable personality, caused them to (mis)learn early on that their only role was to keep others happy at all costs.

Perhaps they grew up feeling they were constantly ‘treading on eggshells’ around a fractious parent who might terrifyingly ‘explode’ at any moment. This feeling of terror may have spread to encompass the idea of upsetting anyone in life.

Then again, other factors may also be at play.

Undue fear of confrontation may stem from a fear of rejection. Wanting to be ‘nice’ all the time (regardless of how the other person behaves) is a fast-track route to repressed bitterness, and sends clear messages to the insensitive or ill-intentioned that “I can be treated poorly.”

Undue fear of confrontation may stem from a fear of rejection. Wanting to be 'nice' all the time is a fast-track route to repressed bitterness, and sends clear messages to the insensitive or ill-intentioned that 'I can be treated poorly.' Click to Tweet

So pathological niceness may be an attempt to meet the need for safety. But always having to be ‘nice’ can backfire big time – as my client Monica found.

Two faced and a phoney!

Monica told me she had a great friend who had recently accused her of being “two faced” and a “phoney”. This same friend had gotten into the habit of asking Monica to babysit her two-year-old daughter twice a week while she went out.

Monica, who could find her forthright friend intimidating, never “dared” say no, but confided to another friend that she felt this was becoming a burden. This second friend then told the first friend what Monica had told her!

The first friend confronted Monica, wanting to know why she’d “pretended” to be fine with babysitting so often. Of course, if it does leak out that you’re unhappy about something but you’d never mentioned it, others may feel you are untrustworthy.

Another risk of not clearly and calmly confronting when it needs to happen is the classic explosion effect.

Emotional Molotov cocktails

On one occasion at work, the resentment Monica had long been bottling up against her line manager had finally burst to the surface. She’d “just exploded” and said all kinds of things she later regretted and had never wanted to say. Her manager had been left completely stunned, having had no prior indication that Monica had been unhappy.

Continual failure to confront can eventually create such pressure that it is bound to ‘burst’ in some way, creating an ‘explosion’ that can seem out of proportion to the original problem. This can then further play into the client’s sense of shame and guilt, making them even less likely to want to confront in future, even when it’s hugely necessary.

On the other end of the spectrum, some folk are addicted to the buzz of confrontation, and this causes other types of problems. But if you ever work with clients who feel they would rather do anything than confront someone when it would really help if they did, I hope the following ideas are useful.

Step one: Decide whether confrontation is needed

If a client wants to become better at managing confrontation, I might remind them that being good at handling confrontation doesn’t mean needlessly shouting people out or creating problems where there were none. Some clients may have been afraid they’d need to become aggressive or bolshy.

We can remind our clients that they have the power to decide, the agency to consider whether a person needs confronting or not. But that decision needs to be predicated on calm analysis rather than fear.

The client needs to be able to be calm enough to judge for themselves not just whether they need to confront the person or not, but also whether it’s safe to confront the person – that is, they won’t become physically violent – and whether it’s the right time to confront them.

Monica told me she’d wanted to finally confront her son over his messiness, but then discovered he’d just been dumped by his girlfriend. The time wasn’t right.

So clients don’t have to confront, but we can remind them it’s more to do with being clear in their own mind where the ‘cutoff point’ lies – the point where they need to say something. They can make their own rules, and then respect themselves enough to stick to them.

For example: “Okay, my neighbours have played loud music till late twice this week. They don’t usually, so I’ll just see if they do it again before the weekend, and if they do, then I’m going to talk to them!”

So working out whether to challenge and when to challenge is part of the overall skill of being able to challenge effectively.

Next up, we can teach our clients some practicalities.

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Step two: Set some proper time aside

Monica was thinking about talking to her father about him needing to take his medication for diabetes. Once she had decided she really did need to say something and make her feelings and expectations clear, I asked her what she would do next.

At first she looked nonplussed, but then decided that the next step might be to tell him she wanted to speak to him. That was great – she was devising a strategy. We can, of course, simply speak to someone spontaneously, but the advantage of setting an ‘appointment’ is that it lets the person know this is important enough to set time aside. It’s not a small matter.

I suggested to Monica that if her father demanded to know immediately “What’s it about?”, she might say, “Okay, well, I was going to talk about this later, but since you ask: It’s about…”

Monica was again getting overly worried about not wanting to upset anyone, so I suggested: “If a person feels intimidated by you setting a time to talk, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of time for self-reflection.”

We looked at different ways of asking:

  • “Can we have a chat this morning, please?”
  • “I want to talk about something important. Can we talk in 10 minutes please, once you’ve finished what you’re doing?”
  • “I need to talk to you about something. Have you got time now or later today?”

“So what should I say?”

Now Monica wanted to know in detail what the nature of her confrontation should be.

So what’s a good principle for the content of a mature confrontation?

Step three: Stick absolutely, completely, and utterly to the facts

All those years ago when I’d confronted the cry-bully at work, I hadn’t really stuck to facts. I’d accused her of being like a kindergarten child and spoken vaguely about bullying. It was impressionistic and more of an ad hominem attack than a laying out of actual incidents and facts.

I spoke to Monica about the importance of sticking to facts to avoid messiness. I used a hypothetical example to make my point:

Saying, “I’ve noticed you’ve been playing your music loudly until 1 am” is very different from knocking on the door and shouting, “What the hell do you think you’re doing? Who do you think you are? Where do you get off, you jerk?”

None of that stuff actually means anything. Yes, I know it means you’re angry, but when you’re confronting someone, they need to know immediately why you might be angry. Confrontation needs utter clarity.

When we stick just to the facts we automatically avoid inflammatory insults. If we insult someone, we’ve created a new issue for them to feel aggrieved about.

Next, we delved deeper into how Monica could communicate when challenging and confronting.

Step four: The all-important I statement

Want to know how to make someone defensive? Start a sentence with the word you. Even better if you follow it with a globalization: “You never…” or “You always…” The word you can actually stop people listening altogether if it simply becomes a trigger for cast-iron defences to come down.

I suggested to Monica that I statements give people less to challenge. “I’ve noticed that you…” is a much gentler startup and is unarguable.

It’s easy to argue with “You are…” but not with “I feel…” If you tell someone you feel let down, they can’t actually argue with how you feel (even if they think you shouldn’t feel like that).

  • “I want to talk…”
  • “I’ve been noticing that…”
  • “I have been hearing a loud noise coming from your room in the wee small hours…”

Using I statements made a lot of sense to Monica and further added to her confidence that confrontation wasn’t just about wading in angrily, but had a technique and structure she could follow.

One of the most important aspects of confrontation is clarity. The actual problem needs to be communicated, no matter how much the person being confronted may deflect and obfuscate.

We can follow up presentation of facts with clarity about why it’s a problem.

Step five: Be sure to communicate why it’s a problem

I reminded Monica that once the ‘confrontee’ knew what the problem was (because she’d stuck to the facts and started with I statements to keep them listening), she needn’t assume they’d know why this was a problem for her. So she’d need to make that clear too.

“I’ve been hearing a loud noise coming from your room in the wee small hours. It’s a problem because it wakes me up, making me tired for work the next morning.”

Now we might assume the why would be obvious to the person we are challenging, but we should always spell it out.

Monica admitted that she often felt she shouldn’t need to tell someone how to behave decently because she assumed they should see the situation exactly as she did.

Again, I used a couple more hypothetical examples:

  • “The reason that shouting at other staff members in front of clients is problematic is that it makes us all appear unprofessional and may lose us business.” (And if they can’t see why that’s a problem, recommend they take a year-long sabbatical to some place far away!)
  • “The reason never doing your own washing up is a problem is that it creates resentment in the house and may cause maggots to breed!”

The next step was for Monica to use a little persuasion.

Step six: State the benefits and seek agreement

Finally I suggested to Monica she could state the expected benefits for the confrontee as well as for her. Once she’d done that, she could end the chat by seeking agreement from them that things would be different in future.

If they relapsed on that agreement, she had something to return to and could remind them of their agreement.

After all, if she’d been dealing with an ultra-considerate and sensitive person, the confrontation may not have been necessary in the first place! As it was, she might have to spell out what changes she wanted, tell them why those changes would be good for both of them, and seek agreement. Seeking agreement in front of a ‘witness’ may be even more powerful.

For example:

“In future I will appreciate it if you can ask me before putting me down to do overtime. That will be better for me because I’ll feel more relaxed and less resentful and for both of us because you won’t be left with me not being able to do the shift when you assumed I could! Can we agree to do it that way in future?”

These steps and ideas would have been little better than useless without this final, vital step to better confrontation.

Step seven: Above all, keep calm

“But I just get so tongue tied and can barely speak. I feel terrified when it comes to it. Or just so angry I scream!”

Monica was happy with these confrontation strategies, but worried about her emotional state during the confrontation. And she was right to worry.

When we are too emotionally aroused we can experience an emotional hijacking in which our ‘thinking’ brain and ability to articulate are ‘hijacked’ by powerful emotion so we can no longer think, act, or talk clearly.

I reminded Monica that many people rehearse what they’re going to say but not how they’re going to feel. We plan what we’re going to do, but we don’t prepare for feeling the best possible way ahead of time. Unless we know self-hypnosis.

I suggested we could rehearse calm confrontation both through relaxed role play (with me being the stand-in for the person she needed to confront) but also through relaxed hypnotic rehearsal.

Over and over Monica practised the steps of confrontation until communicating in that way became second nature to her. Now she’d never need a crib sheet when she actually needed to confront someone.

I encouraged her to relax deeply and observe herself calmly and assertively confronting someone she needed to speak to.

I suggested she see herself as poised, polite, and clear in those times. She was to notice what it was about her body language, expressions, and words that let her observing self know she was calm, comfortable, and confident. We did this over and over until it started to feel natural to feel confrontational comfort.

I wrote down for her the steps of confrontation:

  1. Decide calmly whether the confrontation is really needed.
  2. If appropriate, request to talk ahead of time.
  3. Stick absolutely, completely, and utterly to the facts.
  4. Use all-important I statements.
  5. Communicate why it’s a problem.
  6. State the benefits: why things will be better once things change.
  7. Seek agreement that things will change (and refer back to the agreement if the person relapses).
  8. Use relaxed rehearsal to prime the mind to feel calm during such times.

Monica now had the strategies and emotional learning to manage conflict by managing her emotions and choosing whether she wanted to confront or not.

She told me later it had changed her life.

All those years ago when I confronted my colleague, I lost my cool and handed her enough ‘counter-accusation’ material – after all, I had likened her to a child early on in the encounter – to (almost) ruin my own case.

Handling conflict effectively is a key life skill. Helping those who need it to develop it can transform lives.

De-traumatize Your Clients Quickly and Comfortably

You won’t believe just how effective the Rewind Technique is until you use it with a traumatized client. Then you’ll be truly astonished by how quickly it works while maintaining client comfort. Read what our trainees say about it here.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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