Conflict Resolution
How Politics Works

The Art of Loving Confrontation

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Life can be very rewarding and fulfilling. It can also be very difficult at times. Two of the hardest things to do are handling criticism and confronting people, not that we should love confronting people (!) but learning how to do so in a loving manner. The apostle Paul once wrote in Ephesians 4:15 that one of the marks of a mature church is the ability to “speak the truth in love”. Some people speak the truth but not always in a loving manner. Others are so loving that they never speak the truth. Finding the balance of doing both well is essential.

Being Lovingly Assertive

We all need to be lovingly assertive, when appropriate. Assertiveness is all about being able to assert your rights. Errors in this area can lead to a lot of relational problems. Christian counsellor Arch Hart notes that sometimes as Christians we have adopted a belief that says that it’s not right to be assertive. We should surrender our rights and even be willing to be wronged in the name of love. The key issue is how we define ‘assertiveness’. The truth is that you can be both loving and assertive. Of course, Christian love may involve choosing to sacrifice our rights when appropriate.

Over-assertive people lack tact and sensitivity, hurt other people, steam-roll their ideas and opinions, and tend to be autocratic (‘we’ll do it my way’). In contrast, under-assertive people can’t set limits, they can’t say “no” (without feeling guilty), they are easily manipulated by stronger people, they are unable to express feelings of anger constructively, they avoid conflict situations and shirk responsibilities, they are excessively apologetic (“Oh, I’m sorry!”), they can’t send clear and unambiguous messages, they experience anxiety and guilt when they do not assert themselves, and they tend to fantasise after the conversations (replaying the situation over and over). This often leads to passive-aggressive behaviour. They are always assertive in their imagination (fantasy) but never in reality. How many of us have said some real assertive things in our mind but never had the courage to speak them out! As a result, under-assertive people find that their relationships remain superficial, they develop other unhealthy ways of expressing their anger, and they are often the most stressed people around due to a feeling of helplessness.

There is a balance between ‘under-assertiveness’ and ‘over-assertiveness’. We need to avoid swinging unnecessarily or inappropriately between the two. If you are angry, you have forfeited the right to be assertive. When anger is involved, assertiveness is no longer a healing activity. Aggression is not what assertiveness is about. When you do it right there should usually not be offence.

A Few Thoughts About Confrontation

Confrontation is not easy. In fact, it is very difficult. Confrontation is difficult for a variety of reasons, including: we all fear being disliked, we want everyone to like us, we may be afraid of making things worse (however, usually it is the attitude in which you confront that makes things worse, not the confrontation itself), we may fear rejection, we may find it difficult to share our feelings, we may think that confrontation will destroy love and trust (actually, if done correctly, confrontation can build more love and trust into the relationship) and we may lack confrontational skills. Good leaders learn how to confront in love.

1. Deal with conflicts quickly. Deal with issues the moment they come up. Don’t save all your complaints and problems up and then dump them all on a person. When tensions arise, clear the air immediately and personally. When you let tensions continue without dealing with them, they usually get worse rather than better (Eph.4:26-27).

2. Confront with the right attitude. Don’t be either overeager or too hesitant to confront. Confront, not because it makes you feel good, but because you are committed to seeing people mature in Christ (2 Cor.10:1. 2Tim.2:24. Gal.6:1). Confronting with the right spirit comes out of having the right goal in your confrontation, which is: (a) a better understanding, (b) a positive change, and (c) a growing relationship. The goal is not to ‘win a battle’ or to ‘unload our frustration’. Think Win/Win.

3. Outline the problem clearly. Be open and honest. Clearly define what the other person is doing to cause you a problem, how this makes you feel, and why this is important to you.

4. Seek to understand their perspective. Encourage a response. Get the issue out, then let them talk as long as they need to. Their feelings need expression, so give them time to do this. People may feel shock, hurt or resentment. At this point, your goal is to understand their perspective on the situation. You want to learn and to gain understanding. Don’t automatically assume that you are right and they are wrong. You may not agree with them, but be sure you understand where they are coming from. You may need to repeat or rephrase their comments to ensure you’ve understood correctly.

5. Seek to resolve the issue whether it is an action or an attitude. Re-establish or clarify the issue and ensure understanding or forgiveness. Indicate the desired action be taken. Place the focus on the future at this point. Clearly define what needs to change and what your expectations are. Don’t mistake an emotional release for fixing the problem. Let it happen but move to a resolution.

6. Affirm the person and put the issue in the past. Be positive. Affirm the person, even if you don’t like what they have done (Eph.4:29). Thank them for who they are and what they contribute. Express appreciation for them and your desire to work together. Don’t bring it up again unless the problem reoccurs.

The biggest mistakes we make in confrontation are: failing to get all of the facts (relying on hearsay evidence or subjective impressions), confronting while angry (anger causes you to lose objectivity), being vague about the offence (know what you’re talking about by being - people can’t fix things they can’t see), failing to get the other person’s side of the story, and holding a grudge (don’t keep hostilities but let it go and move on).

Your success or failure as a leader will depend more on your ability to build strong healthy relationships than anything else. Unless you learn to get along with a wide variety of people, your effectiveness as a leader will be greatly diminished. Have the courage and the consideration to learn to confront lovingly.

Discussion Questions:

1. Reflect on a time when a confrontation you were involved in went really well (whether you were on the giving or receiving end). What were the contributing factors?

2. Reflect on a time when a confrontation didn’t go so well. What were the contributing factors?

3. What one insight from today’s teaching or discussion will you apply this next week?