4 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Heading into a Confrontation

Confrontation Confrontation: (n.) a face-to-face meeting; the clashing of forces or ideas; a situation in which people fight, oppose,or challenge each other in an angry way.

Like most people, I have sort of a love-hate relationship with confrontation. I’m drawn to it and repelled by it in almost equal measure.

On the one hand, confrontation is a necessary byproduct of honesty, integrity and self-worth. To be capable and willing to confront that which we find offensive, unacceptable or harmful is the mark of a strong character, is it not? Those who shrink from confrontation may well be considered “nice,” but are just as likely to be considered “weak.” Plus, sometimes, confrontation is a great release; by holding back our feelings, opinions or fears, we are quite likely to become victims of our own spinelessness. (That, or maddeningly passive-aggressive.)

On the other hand, confrontation can be — and often is — a wholly obnoxious thing to behold. In the wrong hands, confrontation becomes selfish, foolish, reckless and hurtful. I know more than a few people whose confrontational demeanors are motivated not by any real passion or concern, but by their own low self-esteem and desire for attention. Confrontational people are as likely to be labeled “strong,” as they are to be labeled “overbearing.” Indeed, without forethought or reflection, confrontation is merely wasted energy that damages relationships and accomplishes nothing.

I suppose it’s obvious why I’m writing about this. In the Land of Confrontation, Religion is a frequent visitor. (Or is it the other way around?) In the last few years, as I’ve blogged my way through any number of religious issues, I’ve had to evaluate and reevaluate what I am willing to confront, and when, and how. It’s made me think a lot about confrontation in general, too.

In my 40 years on the planet, I haven't always gotten it right. I’ve said things I wish I hadn’t. I’ve made big deals out of nothing. I’ve intimidated people, hurt their feelings unintentionally, come away feeling guilty and remorseful. Likewise, I’ve chosen not to confront things that I should have. I’ve opted for status quo in order to avoid discomfort. My own fear of hurting peoples’ feelings or of getting an angry reaction have kept me from saying things that might have “freed” me of pain, fear or frustration; from understanding others’ perspectives; from strengthening bonds with those I love; or from making myself a better, more honest person.

These days, though, when it comes to confrontation, I seek a middle path. I try to confront others with deliberation, consideration and kindness, with an eye on what can be gained and what can be lost. It's been my experience that aiming for the center gets me closer to becoming the person I want to be — and the person I want my daughter to be. After all, how we confront our differences with other people, religious or otherwise, says an awful lot about who we are.

But what does a middle path look like? Every confrontation has the potential for failure or success, so how do we know who and what's worth confronting? How do we measure the risks versus the rewards? When should we go big, and when should we just go home?

Running through the following series of questions can help you get some clarity:

1. How important is this issue?

Whether you're on the giving or receiving end, confrontations can be emotionally exhausting. Confronting people over every problem or concern will quickly turn you into a high-maintenance drama queen. That said,  it's a mistake to believe that only "big issues" are worth confronting. Small issues often deserve our attention, too. If you find yourself thinking about a problem for an extended period, unable to "move on" in your mind, then it's probably an issue worth confronting. Will it go your way? Maybe, maybe not. But your feelings are important; treat them that way. Otherwise, you risk selling yourself, and your relationships, short.

2. How important is this person?

The closer you are to a person who has, say, offended or hurt you, the more likely it is that you’ll need to confront them head-on. It’s why we argue with our spouses and partners more than just about anyone else; those arguments may be painful, but they're usually worth it. That’s not necessarily the case when offensive comments or hurtful behavior come from those in your “outer circle" — distant relatives, occasional acquaintances, Internet friends. If people don’t matter to you in your day-to-day life, confronting them on much of anything will hold little long-term value. And it may send the message that they're more important to you than they really are.

3. Have I had time to reflect?

We all have triggers — subjects that take our stress levels from zero to 60 in under a second. When triggered, we are likely to react emotionally, rather than to respond rationally. If this is the case, take a giant step back. Breathe for a while. Your initial reaction may or may not be the right one. And, either way, giving yourself a day — hell, even an hour! — to recalibrate won't weaken your position and may very well strengthen it. With a cool head, you're likely be perceived as someone with a legitimate, thoughtful concern rather than dismissed as a hot head with anger-management issues.

4. What do I hope to accomplish? 

Every confrontation should have a stated purpose. Maybe you need to know something, for instance, or you need something to change.  Maybe you want to educate people, or be heard and understood. Maybe you need to admit something you did or will do or want to do. Whatever the reason for seeking out confrontation, try to do so appropriately and deliberately. If a confrontation holds the potential to hurt someone’s feelings, or make you sad, or damage your friendship, be doubly sure that your purpose is noble, necessary and worth the risk. That way, you'll have no regrets — even if things don't go your way.

Oh, and one more thing: Don't forget to accept confrontation graciously when it comes your way. When approached with kindness, confrontation is a gift. It signals your importance to the person doing the confronting, and your reaction will either encourage or discourage the person from sharing their feelings with you. Be a role model. That way, when the situation is reversed, you'll have laid the groundwork for a mature and compassionate meeting of the minds.

Happy New Year, everyone!