Confrontation is an Art

If you are like most women, including Oprah Winfrey, confronting someone on inappropriate behavior or action is not your favorite thing to do. You hope that whatever has been done, or is being done, is a one shot situation-a fluke, never to surface again. Wrong expectation. Your wishful thinking brings you into theconspiracy of silence that is all too common in today’s workplace. Many women don’t speak out, at least to the right people. Oh, you may chat it up a friend or other co-worker. . .but not with her–the culprit. We are more inclined to others rather than go to the person who is the perpetrator of the undermining behavior.

Calling or confronting another when the action is occurring or being made aware of is a key factor in eliminating any unacceptable behavior. As young girls, women have been trained in the art of avoiding conflicts and confrontation–the result, we end up being confrontophobic. If there was one change that women who had been undermined shared in the interviews that I have done over the years, this is it: confront the saboteur. When silence is maintained, it condones their behavior. It says, “Keep doing it. . .to me, to anyone.”

Nice Doesn’t Always Work
One of the most publicized women conflicts within the past few years is that of talk show host and businesswoman Oprah Winfrey. Believe it or not, Oprah is confrontophobic. . .and she paid for it. After years of management and verbal abuse, nine of her producers walked out on her. They couldn’t take the antics of the executive producer anymore. Her long time friend and publicist sued her.

Finally, she had to fire her friend and executive producer of many years. If, she had confronted the executive producer years earlier, most of her staff may have stayed intact; she may have changed the abusive management techniques of her former executive producer. Who knows how big the exit check to her was to get rid of the problem. 

Do you have a deep, financial pocket to get rid of problems? I don’t and I bet you don’t either. Oprah prolonged everyone’s agony, including her own, by wanting to be nice and not confronting her offending former executive producer.

What to Do
So, let’s say you have identified your saboteur in the midst. You have taken the time and documented whatever the situation/issue is and are ready to go the next step–confront her. You start by making contact and setting up a time–the best time (hers) within a reasonably short period of time. Call and say something along the line, “Bertha, I’ve (or we) have a problem that I need to go over with you.”

Most likely, she will say, “What–tell me.” You don’t want to do this over the phone if you can avoid. A great majority of communication used body posturing and voice tone–a one-on-one is usually the more effective way to get across what you want. Interacting on the phone is easier, but your message will most likely have less impact.

Your meeting should be in as neutral a place as possible. Using your office or home (or hers) creates turf and territory boundaries. Neutral places also reduce “acting out” by the person being confronting.

Be prepared to say whatever your issue is at least three times–sometimes it takes more then one saying for someone to really hear or understand that you may be upset or concerned about. It also makes good sense to write down what you want to cover. Why? Because when many are confronted, they become defensive and even go on the attack. Having it written down helps keep you on track.

Your dialogue will go something like this-

When you… state the behavior nonjudgmentally
I felt…. disclose your feelings
Because… explain how the behavior affects you
I prefer… describe what you want in the future
If you don’t… state the consequences if the behavior persists

In between “Because” and “I prefer” you may want to ask–“Was it your intent to______?” The key to this question is not to answer it for her. It is not uncommon for women to be uncomfortable with silence–we fill silence spaces in with more words. Don’t. Your point here is to put her on the spot. Was it your intent to make me look incompetent? Was it your intent to eliminate my contribution to the project? Was it your intent to betray me? Was it your intent to exclude me from communications with the other members of the team? 

How will she respond–probably by saying, “No, I didn’t mean to exclude you from the project.” You can then add, “I’m glad to hear that. I like my work and I’m more productive when I’m acknowledged and included in ongoing communications. In the future, I prefer you…….”

Now does this mean that it’s all over? Probably not. But she is forewarned. You are on to her and will be watchful of future interactions.

Conflicts and confrontations are like a dance–a series of moves and countermoves by all parties involved. Some dances end quickly, others create new moves and go more slowly. Confronting another takes responsibility and sometimes guts. It also holds that person accountable for whatever her actions are. Don’t be a master of the conspiracy of silence, it’s not golden.