You know you need to say something, but they will get defensive and feel attacked.

You also know that if you say nothing, the problem won’t go away. In fact, it may even get worse! The time has come. You have to talk to them about this problem. Only, how do you talk to someone who interprets everything as an attack?

Nothing ever solves itself; it usually needs pushback and healthy confrontation to see the pattern change. That’s right, and there is such a thing as healthy confrontation! Some conversations are a fight, but they can also be a battle of integrity, character and an upward emotional struggle rather than a shorting match or a brawl.

When bad manners, ill behaviour and ignorance are given free rein; they only take more ground and hold everyone hostage as they speak their feelings of ill will about every neighbour and their dog.

Edmund Burke famously said that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good [people] to do nothing.

I once spent a year with someone navigating a world of pain and bitterness. Everything was somebody else’s fault, and the world was against them. Truth be told, they still feel that way. It can be challenging to unwrap somebody who is cocooned in their own unwillingness to confront themselves. Lack of awareness, ignorance and emotional bile are ugly things to see within yourself. But when we refuse to confront them, they punish the ones we love and eventually leave us lonely and bitter.

It’s for these reasons why we all have somewhat of a moral duty to help challenge each other where appropriate. Patience is an admirable quality, but it has its limits and the first step to talking with someone who interprets everything as an attack is to know when it’s the right time to talk to them. We shall cover this in point two.

1) Check your motive… and theirs.

I don’t know your situation, but if we were sat in a coffee shop chewing the fat over your problem, I would ask you ‘how do you know that some of the problems aren’t with you’? What I mean is, what are your motives in confronting this person? Are you sick of them? Are you fed up? Are you at the end of your tether? Are you feeling vengeful towards them? Or, do you actually care for them and want them to improve?

You see, usually, when I see someone who is rude, ill-mannered or just downright nasty with their words, I extend some tolerance.  Human beings tend to prefer peace over confrontations and the hope is that conflict goes away. But when it’s intrusive on others, then it usually requires confrontation. You will know when this point is. But check your motives and try to play out in your mind where this conversation might lead you.

Do you know the person well enough to confront them? Sometimes it’s appropriate even if you don’t, but we want to get a sense of whether they will respect you enough to listen. Just the fact that you are willing to call them out can win your respect, but there has to be an element of responsiveness on their part to go anywhere productive.

Also, are you actually concerned for the person your confronting? Is it that you are opinionated and feel the need to say something, or do you actually want this person to improve and get better? I hope it’s the latter. We should all want that for our fellow human being.

You also need to consider if this person has the ability to change. I know on a level we all have the capacity, but most people don’t change easily. Bar a major religious revelation, the conversation you have might not give you the result you hope for. All I’m saying is ask yourself if this person lacks a bit of self-awareness, perhaps has bad manners as a habit, or is genuinely bitter and taking it out on others. If it’s the latter and they are engrained with bitterness, you approach needs to factor that in. I’m not saying don’t confront, but the result might not be changed behaviour, but simply an awareness that you won’t tolerate the behaviour.

2) Prepare your thoughts

You had better prepare your thoughts well on the matter. Whatever the matter is. You don’t want to wing a conversation that involves talking with someone who can potentially overreact. You’re not wise enough to chance it, and if you are wise, you would already know that. Take some time to collect your thoughts properly. If it’s a work mater, you might schedule a meeting and have time to prepare beforehand. If it’s a friend or family member, you might arrange to meet them. Do this in public, and make sure it’s on neutral ground. There is a tremendous amount of psychology involved in confronting conversations and making sure they don’t feel at a disadvantage. Just as importantly, you don’t want to feel disadvantaged by being on the other person’s property – this can make a big difference.

You may have hinted or outright told them why you are meeting beforehand, but even if you haven’t, schedule a meeting with yourself. That’s right, book yourself in for an hour or two the day before for a meeting with your thoughts. Escape away for a walk, or find a place where you won’t be disturbed with pen and paper in hand (you can use your phone if you like, but keeping yourself free of distraction and physically writing it out can help your process).

Now, you are going to write out the problem as specifically as you can. List what, where, why, when, and the how about this issue. Next, write a list of your feelings surrounding it. Try to sit and imagine the situation as vividly as you can. Really feel the moment and try to capture as much as you possibly can. This will be a helpful tool for step 4. Finally, list all the things you can think of that will help the person move forward. It’s a terrible thing to call a person out on bad behaviour but give them no direction on putting the situation right.

When it comes to constructing steps forward, we are not talking about ‘fixing’ the person. This is not about being an agony aunt or standing on a soapbox. You’re simply saying to the person (and if the conversation goes south, you might not get this far) that if they want to make it right, here is how to do it. We’ll look at some scenarios later.

3) Focus on the behaviour, not the person

It’s so easy to tar somebody as a problem person. When nurturing people, we don’t easily write them off. Imagine if we did that with children? Every time they get something wrong, we tell them they are horrible and are incapable of change? That would be awful. Just in case you’re doing that… let me be clear, it’s wrong.

No, instead we tell them in a variety of ways that the behaviour is undesirable. To help them become self-aware, we teach them that their actions have consequences and negative behaviour affects others and creates a problem for them. We don’t tell children we dislike them, we tell them that their behaviour needs to change. They are not loved any less, but their actions have consequences.

Interestingly, Japan’s cultural practice is for mothers to display distress and anguish when a child misbehaves to help the child understand that their behaviour causes grief to loved ones. Make of this what you will, I think it is evidently a powerful motivator for creating a culture of honour.

As we enter adulthood, the expectation is that people should know how to behave and if they don’t, they are a terrible person. I want to put it to you that some people don’t make the leap and are not self-aware. Consider that they might not have been taught. This blog is, after all, about filling in those gaps of growing up into mature, responsible, fierce and capable adults. If we cannot separate the person from the behaviour, then there is no hope for change.

When you begin your conversation, don’t use phrases like ‘you always do…’, or ‘you never…’. Besides being unlikely that these statements are true all the time, it focuses on how terrible the person seems. When you and I hear phrases like that, we automatically put up defences, go into fight mode, or run away from the conversation.

Instead, approach it from looking at their actions and how they affected you or others. This conversation is not directly about their character, but about their words and actions and how they violated some cultural peace. If the issue is about their character, then that’s a whole different ball game. The character rarely gets developed outside of a person’s willingness to receive correction and challenge. You need a level of teachability, and if it’s not available, then the conversation is going nowhere fast. Proceed with careful consideration and caution.

4) Extended the benefit of the doubt

You’re about to enter the conversation; you must be disarming in every way possible. Try to abandon the ideas about how the person will react and whatever you think might be underpinning this behaviour. Give room for the possibility that they may have had a bad day. They may have had a childhood trauma that set this behaviour as a model. They may be grieving or under and an unusual amount of stress. They may be unaware and would be stomach-churningly alarmed to hear what you have to say.

Sit with them slightly to the side, so it doesn’t feel like an intense interrogation. Place your hands palm up under the table – this pose is a psychological cue to yourself, letting you know you are open in this conversation. Do everything to temper your words with sincerity and concern without talking down to them.

The conversation can perhaps begin something like ‘Jack, I want to talk to you about [the issue] from the other day. It’s probably not something you are of, or you perhaps had an off day, but I’d like to let you know how it came across, how it made me feel and how it has affected me [or others]’. Now, they may shut the conversation down at this point, I’ve had that happen once, or they may open up. Expect them to look uncomfortable.

They may own it and say ‘Yeah, I know. Sorry about that. I need to work on it’. It’s rare, but it does happen. Congratulations, you’ve made it to the best-case scenario.

Or, they may say ‘Right, but you did… and it made me…’. ‘You made me’ language is a classic abdication of responsibility. This person is not yet ready to own it. This one needs careful consideration as you move the conversation forward. The aim is to help reflect the problem and see them take responsibility for their part. If the fall out is with you, then be the bigger person and extend your apologies for any part in it. If you are calling out something you’ve witnessed, you want to try to move the conversation to a place where they can see that they are responsible for their response regardless of what happened. The sign of strong maturity and personal security is the ability to own one’s mistakes and learn from it, living bitterness, resentment and anger behind. This includes you if you’ve had a hand to play in the conflict. Own your shortcomings too!

5) Express yourself using emotive phrases.

Whether this is a character issue or a behaviour problem, express the cause and action in terms of emotion. Without making it personal, explain how their negative words or behaviours make you and others feel. You cannot easily have your emotions dismissed. With this approach, we rely on the person having a degree of empathy or regard for hurting people. The aim is to explain how their behaviour has hurt people. For example, ‘When you stormed out of the room the other day, it made me feel as though what I had to say didn’t matter. You probably didn’t mean for it to come across that way and were just upset, but felt as though you had no respect for me and were unwilling to hear my side of things.’.

The other person listening can’t say ‘No, you didn’t feel like that’, because your feelings are entirely subjective. You’re extending the benefit of the doubt, but you’re telling them how their actions negatively impacted others. How you feel is exactly that, and it is hard to argue against that. If you’ve entered this conversation but failed to realise in step 1 that there is nothing in the relational bank account, i.e. they have no respect or regard for you, then this approach will have little effect. It takes great skill and personal competence to command respect from someone who hardly knows of you, so don’t expect them to necessarily care whether their behaviour negatively impacted you.

If there is a foundation of respect, even if they admire you from afar, then (providing they have a small dose of humility and self-concern about how they come across) you stand a chance of getting a good response. The only real response to this kind of conversation will be genuine remorse for the pain caused or a complete and utter denial of responsibility (and perhaps indifference to how they affected you). Well done at least for having the bravery to confront them.

6) Call it quits.

Everything we’ve talked about so far makes up the steps I would take if I were trying to carefully approach someone sensitive and somewhat insecure. The hope is the relationship will be strong enough, so they listen long enough, and be caring or respectful of you. If that’s the case, you’ve got a great chance of putting the issue to bed and moving forward. However, these types of conversations go one of two ways. We’ve covered the optimistic scenario, but now and then you’re trying to help someone who is utterly dominated by their own insecurity.

While it is a display of good character to try and help somebody realise and change their poor behaviour, it is up to that person as to whether they want to learn and grow from the conversation. You cannot have that experience for them. This is where Matthew 7:6 from the Bible comes into play;

‘Do not throw your pearls before pigs’.

It’s the vivid analogy of putting wisdom in front of people with no regard for it – they will only see it trampled on. Somebody who doesn’t want to change or see their own faults and own them, won’t. You can want the best in the world for them, but unless they have a dose of humility and embrace correction from a friend or loved one (one of the rawest ways to show true concern for a loved one), then you will be wasting your words.

If that’s the case, you can rest easy in the knowledge that you at least gave them the opportunity. And that has to count for something. If you have taken them to water, but they do not want to drink, it’s time for you to take a step back from the conversation. Your only duty at that point is to push back their behaviour when you see it harming others. Oftentimes if they carry on, they will push people away, and it may be that the only thing which teaches them is the consequence of their actions. When we meet the tenth or eleventh person who falls out with us over the same issue, we might start to ask ourselves the question ‘Am I the problem?’. If you manage to get to the point, there is hope that you can do something about it!

My last bit of advice on this is that doing this well and not so well can be a powerful teacher. It’s never easy to have these kinds of conversations. I mean NEVER. Your stomach will turn upside down. You will get your words muddles up. You will forget what you’re supposed to say. Whatever your experience, the more you do it, the more familiar you will become to approach these kinds of talks. Don’t put the conversation off. Don’t beat around the bush. Don’t wait until the final five minutes to begin talking about ‘the issue’. Get to it early on so you can give yourself time to chat it through or pick up any unresolved pieces. And finally, don’t feel like this one conversation is going to be the final fix. You might need to keep this conversation alive over the weeks and months and keep gently challenging it until you find its resolved. Regardless of the outcome.


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Discussion Rules: I’m not into thought policing at all, but I am big on honour and respect. Opinionated is fine, but if you’re ill-mannered or nasty, expect to see your comments disappear. Please do not put your URL in the comment text and please use your PERSONAL name or initials and not your business name, as the latter comes off like spam. Have fun and thanks for adding to the conversation! (All credit to Tim Ferris’ site which I totally took this idea from).

Julian Joseph

Author Julian Joseph

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