The Power of Positive Confrontation by Barbara Pachter


The Power of Positive Confrontation by Barbara Pachter

Read the summary below and get the key insights in just 10 minutes!



[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]Do you need to confront people about their behavior, but you just aren’t sure what to say? Don’t put it off, says communications coach Barbara Pachter. Writing with Susan Magee, Pachter shows how to use the “WAC technique” to tell someone constructively exactly “what” is bothering you, to “ask” for a behavior change, and to “check in” to be sure he or she heard you. Pachter sketches a variety of scenarios that might require you to confront a co-worker, neighbor or family member – and she equips you with the vocabulary to address the situation in a “polite and powerful” way. Updated for social media, Pachter’s guide explains how to navigate sticky situations at work and home. It includes tips on vocabulary and body language. Not every confrontation will be as tidy as she implies, but as you read her scenarios and savor her down-home advice, you might recognize people you know and moments you’ve lived through.[/text_block]

In this summary, you will learn

  • How to practice “polite and powerful” behavior,
  • How to use the “WAC” technique – “what, ask, confirm” – to resolve difficult conversations, and
  • How to handle other people’s reactions when you confront them about their behavior.


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“Polite and Powerful”

Whether it’s the co-worker who lets her food spoil in the office refrigerator or the neighbor who lets his dogs roam on your lawn, you probably have someone in your life who’s getting on your nerves. How you handle the situation is up to you. Some people avoid confrontation. They seethe quietly, which drains their energy and productivity. Others vent their frustrations to a third party who has no power to fix the situation. Others suppress their feelings until they blow their top, which just makes things worse.

Why do people avoid confrontation? Maybe they don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings or they fear the other person’s response. Perhaps they worry that they won’t be able to discuss their feelings of aggravation without losing their temper. Sometimes people refuse to confront others because they rationalize that the other person already knows his or her behavior is irksome. However, avoiding confrontation holds you back. Putting off difficult conversations can keep you from advancing in your career or it can interfere with your relationships with your friends and relatives. If someone’s behavior bothers you and you don’t do anything, you often feel powerless.

Some people turn to “assertiveness training” as the answer, but it doesn’t work unless you also understand good manners and know how to get along with others. The polite and powerful formula for a “positive confrontation” that helps you navigate sticky situations is to combine assertiveness with etiquette. You need both qualities: Leave out “polite,” and you’ll seem aggressive, which only makes things worse. Omit “powerful,” and you will come across as timid. Having these two qualities makes you a positive role model “at work…and in life.” You’ll address conflicts constructively and you may even prevent them. You’ll also discover fresh mental and physical strength because you’re no longer wasting energy complaining or trying to avoid conflict.

“Don’t Attack’em, WAC’em”

To prepare for a positive confrontation, gather your thoughts with a simple acronym: WAC’em. Here’s how it works:

  • “What’s really bothering you?” – As you plan what you need to say, be as specific as you can and avoid generalizations. Don’t use labels such as “selfish” or “inconsiderate.” Focus on the behavior: Your colleague arrived at a meeting 20 minutes late or your roommate doesn’t put clothes away. Explain why the behavior matters to you.
  • “What do you want to ‘ask’ the other person to do or change?” – Be ready to request exactly what you would like the other person to do. Be specific and ask for something achievable. Asking your roommate not to play music late at night is less specific than setting a certain time for silence to begin. Decide whether it’s appropriate to “state a want” or “take a position.” A want articulates a “desired outcome”; a position carries a “consequence.” A want can be as simple as “I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t play your stereo after 10 p.m.” A position adds a consequence, such as: “If you’re not able to do this, I’ll have to move out.” Don’t shift carelessly from a want to a position. The latter limits your ability to negotiate a solution and commits you to following through on your position.
  • “Check in with the other person” – This step invites the other person to react to what you’ve said and to share their thoughts or opinions. They may have good ideas of their own. After you make your request, you can also ask, “Is that OK?” or “Can that happen?” Depending on the behavior about which you’re confronting the person, your C may need to be stronger, such as, “Are we clear?” and “Can I count on you for this?”

You may find that it’s more appropriate to preface your WAC’em with “softening statements” to make other people comfortable, allay their anxiety and make it easier for them to listen. You might say, “I’m sure you don’t mean any harm by this” or “I can see this was an oversight.”

When you put all the elements of WAC’em together, you have an appropriate way to address troubling situations. For example, consider how you’d talk to a team member who hasn’t done his or her share of the work. You can WAC’em with phrases like, “You may not realize it, but I had to finish the part of the report that you said you’d do. I know we’re all busy, but in the future, please have your work in by the deadline we all agreed on or speak up sooner. Will you do that?”

Think about your WAC’em wording in advance. Analyze the problem and focus on the specific behavior that bothers you. Just concluding that “my boss is a jerk” isn’t enough. Zero in on the behavior you want the person to change. Prepare by writing what you want to say. Don’t read your statement to the person like a script, but use it to gather your thoughts and grow comfortable with your message. Then, when you have the conversation, your words will come naturally.

Once you know how to practice positive confrontation, you need to decide when it’s worth confronting someone and when it’s not. Ask if the problem actually affects you? For example, Melissa found it annoying that her sister-in-law didn’t cook for her husband. That situation didn’t directly affect Melissa, so addressing the problem wasn’t her responsibility.

Choose “the right time and place” for your WAC’em conversation. Remember to honor people’s privacy. Don’t WAC someone after a meeting when others are standing around. Ask the person to talk with you privately later. However, if you are a supervisor and it’s your responsibility to correct someone’s actions and you don’t do it, that lapse might hurt you professionally.

The Way You Say It Matters

Don’t undercut your WAC’em message with poorly chosen words or “verbal vices” such as:

  • “Self-discounting language” – Avoid words that undercut your statement before you make it. This kind of language – not to be confused with softening statements – suggests you’re unsure of your message. Don’t open with, “I don’t know if I’m wording this right and it’s just my opinion…” If you’re not sure your point is valid, others won’t buy it either. Never say “I’m sorry” when you have nothing to apologize for.
  • “Curse words” – Don’t use vulgar terms or swear words. It hurts your reputation and can undermine your professional advancement.
  • “Filler words” – Avoid excessive use of words like “OK,” “uh” and “all right.” Meaningless syllables or words make it hard for people to follow what you’re saying. Next time you leave a voice mail, use the feature that lets you play it back. You may be surprised at how often you use verbal fillers.
  • “‘You’ instead of ‘I’ statements” – When you describe behavior that bothers you, phrase your description with “I” instead of with “you,” since that would make people defensive. Consider the difference between “You’re always late” and “I need you to be on time” – or between “You talked back to me” and “ I need to have your respect in front of the team.”
Body Language Matters

Adopt a courteous but straightforward stance. Keep your feet parallel, about six inches apart, with your shoulders back, your chin up and your hands at your side. Look the other person in the eye; speak clearly and loudly enough to be heard.

Do you tend to jiggle your legs, play with change in your pockets or lick your lips while you’re speaking? Such behaviors undermine your message and show people that you’re uncomfortable. Avoid “aggressive gestures” such as finger-pointing, fist-pounding and arm-crossing. Equally bothersome are “passive gestures” that convey nervousness, like playing with pens or rubber bands, cracking your knuckles, or partially covering your mouth as you speak.

Handling Reactions

Know exactly what you’re going to say when you WAC people, and be aware that you can’t control their reaction. You can, however, prepare for a range of responses, including:

  • “The person agrees” – People often feel surprised when this happens. They may agonize over their WAC’em conversations for weeks, before finally getting up the courage to talk – only to hear the person agree to what they’ve asked for and perhaps even apologize. Often this happens because the person being WAC’ed had no idea his or her behavior was causing a problem.
  • “WAC’em leads to a discussion” – Maybe the person has a different opinion about what should happen or has information you don’t have. If you find yourself in a discussion, listen carefully, ask questions to gain understanding, and “explain what you can or cannot do and why.” Arriving at a solution together is a great outcome. But if you need it, ask for more time to think, and agree to meet later for further discussion.
  • “The other person gets defensive” – Resist the impulse to turn up the heat with an aggressive response. Instead, ask for clarification: “I understand that you think this is a dumb idea. Please explain specifically what is bothering you about it.”
  • “The other person gets aggressive” – Breathe deeply, remain calm and never counterattack. Sometimes letting the person vent defuses the tension. You may also need to suggest finishing the conversation later. You can say something like: “I cannot talk to you when you’re screaming at me. I’d be happy to continue this discussion when you can talk to me calmly.”
Avoiding Minefields Online

Social media, for all their benefits, offer many ways to launch and escalate conflict. People tend to be less inhibited and more outspoken online – where a single click broadcasts a message to thousands of people on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. Lack of body language can muddy a message. If you’re not sure whether something you’re about to post is appropriate, don’t post it. Once you’ve hit “send,” you can’t take it back. Potential employers will search for you online and find negative comments you tweeted about your last boss or the inappropriate joke you posted to Facebook.

Posting about a controversial topic, such as religion or politics, can also backfire – especially if you’re reacting to a news development without thinking through the implications of your response. Before posting, ask yourself: “What’s my motive? What do I want to accomplish by sharing my opinion?” If you must join a debate because you feel strongly about the issue, craft your comments thoughtfully, such as: “I may be in the minority here, but it’s my opinion that…” Avoid political in-group jargon and a strident tone. Don’t insult those who may not agree with you. Remember that posting politely and respectfully doesn’t guarantee that others will respond the same way.

Being polite and powerful in the social media age means not going online to make negative comments about others or about your organization. Be vigilant about keeping your online work life – and your responses to it – separate from your personal life. Stay out of other people’s online arguments.

Averting Conflict

Another polite, powerful secret to handling conflict is to prevent it in the first place. You’ll never be able to banish conflict from your life, but you’ll have less of it if you “connect with others in a positive way.” Greet other people pleasantly. When introduced, shake hands firmly but not crushingly. Learn the art of “small talk.” Look others in the eye, and don’t look down at your phone while talking to them Avoid interrupting.

These may sound like elementary rules of etiquette – and they are – but they build rapport and prevent conflict. You’ll feel good about yourself, and others will feel good about you.[/text_block]

About the Author

[text_block style=”style_1.png” align=”left” font_font=”Raleway”]Barbara Pachter is a coach and speaker on business etiquette who has conducted more than 2,100 seminars. She has written 10 books, including New Rules @ WorkSusan Magee is an author and an assistant professor of communications.[/text_block]
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