Saturday, February 23, 2013


1996 was one of those years that changed the way I see the world. My cousin met with a serious car accident, regained consciousness after two months in intensive care and spent another year in rehab. I spent most of my summer with him in the rehab ward. And that’s where I met Khalid (name changed). He and two others shared the room with my cousin. Khalid was in his early twenties. A car accident had left him quadriplegic. For someone who had suffered such huge loss, Khalid was incredibly composed and pragmatic. One day we talked about his accident.

He used to work as a telecom support engineer. The job involved a lot of travel on the desert highway that connects Doha to the surrounding satellite townships. His colleague doubled up as the driver. Khalid noticed that the driver would occasionally doze off at the wheel during the long drive, usually just for a few seconds. He raised the issue with his colleague, but the problem continued. Khalid chose not to escalate the issue with their manager because that would have caused his colleague to lose his job. His colleague was killed in the accident. There was no bitterness or anger in his voice as he narrated the story. Khalid’s only regret was that if only he had escalated the issue, his colleague would still be alive.

There are times when being nice is not good. When there is a gap between what we expect should happen and what actually happens, a healthy confrontation is necessary to resolve the issue. The consequences of avoiding it can be serious. Unfortunately, most of us have never had the opportunity to acquire the skills required to effectively confront such difficult situations. Often we remain silent, or react in a way that does nothing to resolve the issue. This is why I am really excited about a new training program at work called Crucial Confrontations developed by Kerry Patterson and others. Here’s a brief summary of their approach to effective confrontation.

Before entering a confrontation, you first need to work on yourself. Ask yourself WHAT is the issue. Is it a ‘Content’ issue, something to do with what the other person did (or did not do)? Is it a ‘Pattern’ issue, something that repeatedly does (or does not do)? Or is it a ‘Relationship’ issue, where the pattern of behavior has become a threat to your relationship with the other person? Think of it as three levels – if this is the first time it’s a content issue, if it is a repeat issue it’s a pattern, if the other person is not willing to address the pattern it become a relationship issue. When you have a pattern or relationship issue, focusing on the content alone, as most of us often do, will not help. Then, you also need to ‘unbundle’ the issue. Often we confuse consequences with intention. It is necessary to identify if your issue is with the intention of what the other person did or with the consequence of what was done. And then you need to prioritize. Interpersonal issues are often complex. You need to identify which issue is most important for you to address.

Now that you have a clear idea of what the issue is, you need to decide IF you actually want to go ahead and have this confrontation with the other person. We often downplay the consequences of remaining silent or exaggerate the consequence of speaking up. We may fear retaliation, or be afraid that the other person will be hurt, or that the relationship will suffer if we speak up. In such situations it helps to consider the consequences of silence. What harm would remaining silent cause me, am I setting up the other person for greater failure by not speaking up now, will somebody else be harmed if I remain silent, will the relationship go from bad to worse if I remain silent, etc. Sure there are some rare situations where avoiding confrontation may be the best option. But in most scenarios, the best outcome can be reached only through constructive confrontation. Another mistake that we often make is to assume that we are helpless, to think that there is nothing I can do to change things. Or to unfairly put the entire blame on the other side (eg: It all started when he hit me back). And finally it is necessary to choose your battles. Some things can be ignored.

After having figured out WHAT the issue is and IF it should be confronted, you need to master your STORIES. This is where the concept of ‘Fundamental Attribution Error’ comes in. When we see a person do something, we tend to be biased towards believing that she is doing it because of some inherent quality in her, and discount environmental factors that may be causing the behavior. (Eg: He took two days to fix the bug because he is lazy.) As Patterson et al. put it – “The stories we tell help justify our worst behavior.” Tell the rest of the story. Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person do that? (Eg: He took two days to fix the bug because he was working on another higher priority bug.) Consider alternate explanations for what happened and do not jump to conclusions.

Now you are ready to move on to the actual confrontation. Relax. Focus on the process of having a constructive confrontation, nothing personal. First you need to find an appropriate private place where you can raise the issue. It’s usually not helpful to have a confrontation in public. Start by asking permission to raise the issue (Eg: There is something that is bothering me. Can we talk about it?) Then describe the gap – what the other person did vs. what you expected. Tentatively share your story – say what you think, but make it clear that it’s just your point of view. End with an honest question. The idea is to create a feeling of safety by establishing mutual respect and mutual purpose.

Iterate over this process of sharing your respective points of view and asking honest questions till you both understand and agree on what is causing the issue and how to resolve it. Use the ‘Six Sources of Influence’ model to understand the reason for the issue and also to find a way to resolve it. Patterson et al. classify the factors that influence behavior along two axes, Motivation/Ability and Individual/Social/Structural. In analyzing the issue, use this model to keep things objective and avoid cognitive biases like the Fundamental Attribution Error. In trying to find a solution to the issue, resist the temptation to use your power or charisma (if you have any) or provide rewards as a means to motivate the desired behavior. Instead, explain the natural consequences of the behavior that is at issue and you are more likely to have a genuine buy-in for change. Examine the barriers preventing the person from doing what he should be doing and figure out how they can be removed.

Stay focused and flexible. If a new problem emerges during the confrontation, you need to recurse. Ask yourself WHAT exactly the new issue is and IF you need to confront it now. If you do need to confront the new issue now, bookmark the current issue, address the new issue, then return to where you left off. If you do not wish to confront the new issue now, acknowledge it and reassure the other person that we will address it later.

If a sense of safety is at risk use a ‘contrasting statement’ to clarify your intent. (Eg: I DON’T mean to question your decision, I DO want to understand the thought process behind it.) Anger and silence are the main indicators that the other person does not feel safe. If necessary, step out of the conversation about the issue, rebuild mutual respect and mutual purpose to create a sense of safety, and then return to the issue once the other person feels safe.

And don’t let anything the other person does affect your emotional state. (Eg: Whatever the other person says, don’t get angry.) Focus on the process. At the end of it you should both understand and agree on what is causing the issue and how to resolve it. Create a plan – ‘Who’ will do ‘What’ by ‘When’. Decide of a schedule for follow-up to review if the issue is resolved.

Knowing the consequence of Khalid’s silence has not prevented me from remaining silent on more than one occasion when I should have spoken up. Confrontation is emotionally draining and often ineffective without the right skills. The ‘Crucial Confrontations’ process gives you a tool to effectively handle confrontation and achieve a constructive outcome. It is not going to make confrontation easy or fun, but it does make possible what might otherwise seem impossible to many of us. Being effective at it requires effort and practice. And as someone once said, you can’t learn to swim by reading a book about it.