How I Learned to Love Confrontation

I suppose there are some who naturally enjoy and seek out confrontation with other people. But this is not true for most of us, where confrontation presents very uncomfortable defensive emotions even to the point of invoking concern about physical danger. When confronted, my reaction would be one of anxiety and anger. As I began to gain experience in business consulting, especially as I grew further away from my experiences as a trial lawyer, my reaction to confrontational situations changed – mostly because my posture in reaction to the experience of confrontation changed.

At the heart of confrontation is the foreshadowing of potential conflict. Let us examine a typical physical fight such as a professional MMA or boxing match. The two fighters posture, often presenting physical assets and combative emotion. Once the fight begins there is caution and exploratory exchanges, probing strengths and weaknesses, but at some point weaknesses are exploited and there is a winner. Interestingly, when the fight ends, the fighters often embrace showing respect for the other’s effort. One wonders whether this respect could have been established earlier by other means. This parallels what happens in a civil trial, where the pretrial activities demonstrate strength of evidence and resolve of the parties. The typical civil trial – the fight – does not happen, since over 90% of the time civil cases are settled because of the cost and time involved in going to trial. Yet, most of the time the settlement cannot happen right away, the parties have to parry a bit to show that the parties are not going to compromise without a costly battle. Thereafter comes the realization that a settlement is the only sensible way to resolve the conflict. Looking at these combative examples brings up the question, is there a way to avoid the posturing and fighting going straight to the settlement?

The key to answering this question is to distinguish confrontation, conflict, and fight. Confrontation is the focus on posturing where the polar positions are expressed. After confrontation there can be conflict, that is to say disagreement without a fight, the actual exchange of blows, or the trial. One way to deal with conflict and eliminate the fight is after confrontation for one party to accept the other party’s position. This typically does not happen, and the fight ensues. In the fight one party will win and one party will lose. However, if both parties have the view that there is a different goal other than winning or losing, the discussion can then be about the conflict concerning that goal rather than a fight to determine who wins or loses.

As a lawyer in a civil law suit situation, the primary focus is to win the case. Lawyers represent their clients by advocating the best position for their client to win the case – anything gained by one party is a loss to the other party. As a lawyer I declared the client I represented and then became bound to advocate for that client’s best interest, which usually was viewed as winning the case. In game theory terms, this is the zero sum game, where the view is that anything gained by one party is a loss to the other party.

Acting as a consultant with business owners in conflict, there was no case to win. I was not there to win or lose, but often each owner in conflict with other owners wanted to win adopting the zero sum game posture. Initially, I thought my job as consultant was to review the situation and propose a solution. But this posture added another dimension to the conflict and resolved nothing. Because I was naturally competitive and an advocate for my position, I was simply another party adopting the zero sum outlook, and the conflict continued.

Finally, I realized that the problem was not to provide a solution, but to enable a settlement to occur. Again the question, is there a way to avoid the posturing and fighting going straight to the settlement? I found the answer to be not to provide a solution but to convince the parties to change their behavior and provide the solution.

For the parties to provide the solution, they need to recognize a common goal. In most business situations this is the continued success of the business. Discussions about this common goal should not include references to fault or conclusion statements about right and wrong. The parties need to listen to one another, not make personal characterizations, and try to understand why a viewpoint is taken. In short, anything said that causes a party to make a personal defense should not have been said at all and will need to be retracted. This needs to happen, notwithstanding that a defensive posture is almost always one caused by fear and is not appropriate when discussing achieving a common goal. Once the parties have listened, they should be able to restate the positions of other parties. Most of the time this requires more than one attempt to accomplish the restatement correctly in the eyes of the other party. This straight-forward procedure causes confrontation to result in decision-making not conflict.

This procedure is easier to describe than execute. I found that I had to present and model several attitudes – present a profile – to make the procedure work. To enforce the listening part (the initial and most essential part) I had to model listening. To initiate discussion on the common goal, I could not have a solution in mind or that concept, through body language or other subtle aspects of communication, would stifle any discussion by the parties. I could not use fault or judgmental concepts such as “right” or “wrong” so that the discussion would not be affected. If the parties followed my profile, we could avoid the posturing and fighting going straight to the settlement.

In a more general sense, I discovered the profile that worked for consulting situations worked in many other situations in my life involving potential conflict. I began to see various situations I would have viewed as confrontational and negative instead as an invitation to listen, a signal to not propose a solution, and a warning not to judge. Taking this posture gave me an opportunity to look for the common goal leading to a dialogue and not conflict. While I never found this profile easy to master, experiencing the positive results taught me to love confrontation and view it as an opportunity to understand.