You expected “X,” but the other person or team did “Y.” This “pulls your trigger” or “pushes your button” and you emotionally flood.
Your emotions instinctively, instantaneously initiate survival thoughts and actions, moving you into fight or flight mode. This activity sends cortisol to your brain and temporarily eliminates any problem-solving capability.
You’re ready to “kill,” or “run.”
However, there is a third option: Pause, control your emotions, and focus on how to relate to the person rather than attack or disengage.
To stop the drama from unfolding and the subsequent “Blame Game,” hit “PAUSE” on your emotional remote control to stop your habit sequence.
Start the resolution process by controlling your emotions.
Overpower any habit of anger and/or fear with a new, more powerful system of habits:
First, breathe deeply. Reverse your natural reaction to tense up, have short quick breaths, accelerated heartbeat, and tensing up to look threatening. Slowing or stopping these reactions stops the cortisol rush to your brain, which enable you to solve problems.
Second, don’t react. Try to avoid instinctive or uncontrolled, negative words, facial expressions and body language. Your mind may be racing, but your response can be intentional and controlled.
Third, master your emotions. Don’t let your emotions control you. Instead, don’t just control them. Master your emotions to behave wisely. This may mean you walk away if you are feeling emotional. Politely excuse yourself from the meeting, online discussion, or phone call. If it’s a text or email, then pause and don’t send a reply.
When it’s not an urgent matter, consider if you have enough information to make a wise decision. Therefore, if you’re emotionally stable, then ask questions. Listen. Take notes. Then you can say, “Give me 15 minutes and I’ll get back to you on that.” (Ask for any reasonable amount of time. It might be a day. Or don’t specify a time.)
Some people can regain their composure, confirm they have complete information to make a wise decision, and think clearly to solve a problem in 5-15 minutes. Other situations may delay your response by days.
Avoid venting because it’s unhealthy, a bad habit, fuels assumptions, intensifies emotions, and wastes time.
Whatever you do, NEVER rush to write a condemnation and immediately send it. No matter how many versions you edit, your written communication will almost always be received negatively.
If you emotionally feel the need to write a response, then draft something and set it aside. Keep it brief. When you are ready, then talk with the person. AFTER the conversation, review and edit the email to confirm the conversation you had with the person, and next steps agreed upon.
If the person who upset you reports to you, then require them to email you after your discussion with her/him. Agree to a deadline of when they will email you. Their email should explain:
#1 - Briefly, possibly in one statement, what went wrong.
#2 - Confirm how they will resolve it.
#3 – Explain how the mistake or misunderstanding will not be repeated in the future.
Their email confirms you both have the same understanding… or not.
Verbal Is the Best Approach
"There is a time to confront someone and a time to be nice. May God grant us the wisdom to know the difference and the courage to do what is right." (Life Application Bible footnote)
Great leaders never emotionally sacrifice a relationship to be right. Our relationships are an irreplaceable asset. This is one reason why the comment on an ancient teaching (above) states effective confrontation is a combination of wisdom and courage. Not just one or the other.
If you have wisdom about a situation, but not the courage to address it, then the toxicity of the problem gets worse as the damage continues.
If you have courage, but lack wisdom to confront effectively, then you expand the problem as your drama creates more emotion, confusion, and pain.
Find a balance rather than avoid confrontation too long, or confront someone too quickly, emotionally, and/or unprofessionally. When a problem occurs, big or small, first calm yourself down. Then follow these three simple relational steps to resolve the situation.
The following process can resolve any situation.
In this example, you are on a project team of four people. You are all peers. You are not a team leader or manager. The person who upset you, or is not working hard enough, is your peer and you have decided to address it.
#1 – Meet 1:1 Privately
The first action is to meet with the individual 1:1 privately to ask questions about the situation. Be empathetic, sincere, and respectful. Focus first on building the relationship stronger through the issue, and second on resolving the problem. Being relational requires you to be intentional in your approach.
You can be nice and still resolve a situation efficiently and effectively.
Start by understanding their perspective before offering advice or solutions. Ask questions and listen. See if the person understands what’s going on. If appropriate, can she/he accept some responsibility? Are they open to change?
The person may be the problem. They are not working smart or hard enough. They made a mistake. They are doing something incorrectly. They are not communicating…
It may not be apparent at first, but the issue you initially think is their fault may be caused by someone else or something out of their control. For instance, maybe they had poor training and thought they were doing it right. Or, they missed a deadline due to a part not being available. Possibly their primary error is not communicating the problem soon enough, or at all, rather than being late.
As much as possible, try to use the pronoun “we,” not “you” when discussing the situation. We have certain standards. How do we get through this? How can we avoid this in the future? When we do this, then our clients have that problem…
“You” points the finger at them and is judgmental. “We” comes alongside them to resolve the issue. A sincere “we” communicates they are safe and thus can be less defensive.
Come alongside the person to help them see the light.
If the individual is willing to admit a mistake, then build on that to discuss more details of the situation, ways to resolve it, and the process to avoid similar mistakes moving forward.
People have limited emotional capacity due to their life experience. It may not be important for them to own everything they did wrong at this moment. For instance, they may only be able to handle so much information or change. It may be irrational to expect too much of them now. You can address some issues at another time when the person will be more receptive.
After the meeting, watch for times when the person is doing “it” right, or at least better. Sincerely compliment them. Not once, but often because the person’s new behaviors need reinforcement for at least 90 days to become a habit.
#2 – Bring Others
If your 1:1 meeting cannot resolve the situation, then bring 1-2 others on your team, or the entire team to meet with the person.
Again, be empathetic, sincere, and respectful. However, the boundaries are firm. There are quality standards to meet. Deadlines to achieve. The work of this individual impacts others, including clients and other third parties.
Ask questions. Listen. Ask more questions. Have a candid discussion of the issue, possible resolutions, and ways to avoid repeating the problem.
Talk in “we” statements. If the person is open to change, then discuss what that looks like. Possibly train them, and then ask them to do the task to demonstrate they understand.
Follow-up with encouragement.
#3 – Escalate
If your 1:1 and group meeting fail to bring about improved behavior and results, then escalate the situation to management. Don’t delay if you’ve given the person a fair chance to improve.
It’s foolish to let one person, or a few people, behave unprofessionally or unproductively and bring down a team or a company.
If you’re a manager, then move the person to a performance improvement plan after 1-2 verbal warnings. You can do a single write-up without a plan after the verbal warnings if you prefer. Most leaders do not enforce boundaries and so poor performance continues for months or years before the issue is resolved, or the person is terminated.
Jesus taught this process in Matthew 18:15-17 (NIV):
“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.
Do you see the process?
#1 – Meet 1:1
#2 – Bring others to meet with the individual
#3 – Escalate to management
#4 – Remove them from your team/company
As leaders, part of our responsibilities is to judge situations and people. However, we don’t make assumptions. We do the following:
1. Stay focused on the issue and the facts.
2. Treat everyone equally.
3. Put relationships first.
4. Don’t think we are better than others.
5. Make tough decisions in a Goldilocks timeframe.
We are nice, but our boundaries are firm.
One last suggestion
Problems happen. Issue resolution is a good thing when done well. Here are some key attributes of healthy confrontation when expectations and/or standards are not met:
#1 – Think the situation out carefully in advance so you have a solid foundation of understanding.
#2 – Your approach is respectful, and based on facts, not emotions or your personal bias.
#3 – Conclusions are measured against clear standards of performance and ideal outcomes that were communicated in-writing prior to the event(s) in question. People can only be judged based on established, written standards and expectations.
#4 – Issues are verbally communicated calmly, without insulting language. No flaming emails because they reflect more negatively on the author than the recipient. (Written confrontation is necessary when the situation is or may become a legal issue. At that point it is even more important to be careful what you say. In most situations it’s best to talk first and then send a written communication.)
#5 – Avoid assumptions. Ask questions. Listen. Ask more questions. Research if necessary. Discuss options to resolve the problem now, and avoid repeating it in the future.
#6 – Kindly determine the cause. Own your mistakes, even if minor, such as your tone of voice, lack of follow-up, unclear goals or policy, … Encourage others to take responsibility for how they may have contributed to the issue.
#7 – Focus on being encouraging through a process of acknowledging the mistake(s), learning from it, and motivating all parties to move forward with a well-thought out solution as a mutually respectful, co-dependent team.
Problems are part of life. Successful people resolve issues so they don’t repeat mistakes.
If you have any questions, please email us. We are available to discuss your challenges and possible solutions. (We do not provide legal advice.)
David Graham Russell
Leadership Activist, Author & Consultant