Yesterday our boys were out of school and I stayed home with them all morning. They invited friends over, so we had nine boys running around the house most of the day. At 9:00 the man in charge of maintenance on our house – I’ll call him Bill – showed up with his crew to install new doors to the room on our deck. I’d put Bill somewhere in his late-50’s or early-60’s. He’s got a deep, booming voice and tattoos on his forearms. He’s shaped like a construction worker: massive hands, broad shoulders, thick chest. He has the look of a guy who probably spent a lot of time on a submarine or driving trucks. A real man’s man. He and his crew started removing the old sliding glass doors and within an hour had new french doors up, awaiting a frame. They left to get framing supplies and when they returned I noticed something – Bill had a cigarette in his mouth.
Christina and I are not smokers. We are friends with people who smoke, and we love them despite knowing they’ll die young in a phlegmmy-coughing-fit. Nevertheless, non-smokers know that even 2nd-hand smoke lingers. It gets in your clothes and stays in the air long after the cigarette’s gone.
Not only are we not smokers, but our 4-year-old has a history of asthmatic-like symptoms and has been to the ER twice with inflamed airways. He used to receive breathing treatments twice a day, and cigarette smoke only makes breathing worse.
I had a decision to make. Our boys and their friends had all migrated to the room where the crew was working. I watched for a moment as Bill worked with the cigarette dangling from his bottom lip. I was on the fence about saying something because he was technically outside. But then, for a half-second, he stepped inside to check the door, cigarette still lit. So I made a decision.
I hate confrontation. I’m not the alpha-male, my-way-or-the-highway type. I’m not an analytical thinker or quick on my feet. At barely six feet, I’m not exactly intimidating, and my look says more “mathlete” than “athlete.” I’ve forced myself to confront others only a handful of times, when there was absolutely no other choice. Those moments were tough and I was scared out of my mind, but I was always – ALWAYS – glad I did it.
Healthy confrontation is a must. We cannot survive without it. Imagine our world without healthy confrontation; it’s horrifying. But we fear confrontation because we don’t want to make things weird. We fear the other person’s response. We fear our own ability to stick to our guns. We fear that we ourselves lack credibility to make such an argument.
So we say nothing. Our fear forces us to go on accepting what we do not like in order to avoid what we will not do. But that’s not a good trade. It’s never better to accept something bad because we’re afraid to make it good.
So, as one who is terrified of confrontation but brings myself to do it anyway, here are a few things my experience has taught me about good confrontation:
1) BE PREPARED – If possible, set an appointment to speak with the person. If you’re afraid they might know something’s up, great! Something is up. It’s better to be able to thoughtfully consider your words, and giving yourself a deadline by setting an appointment is a great way to force yourself to be prepared. Know exactly what you’re going to say, and stay on script.
2) HELP THEM FEEL SAFE – Avoid confronting people in front of others, especially their children, spouses, co-workers, bosses, etc. The person being confronted will already feel defensive, so the last thing you want to do is add embarrassment or shame by calling them out in front of people they care about.
3) CALL A SPADE A SPADE – I love this old southern phrase. It means have integrity when talking to others. If you need to confront someone because they offended you, don’t pretend the discussion is about how they offended “your friend.” Or, if a person is not performing well, don’t pretend you’re firing them because corporate is making you downsize. Have the integrity to call a spade a spade, or else the actual issue will never go away, and you’ll just need another excuse next time it comes up.
4) WORK TOWARD A SOLUTION – This one often gets lost because in our defensiveness we just want to win the fight. But when we’re only interested in winning, we miss out on finding healthy, sustainable solutions. Go into your confrontations ready to work toward a solution whether you win the fight or not. By doing so you’ll minimize the need for future confrontation and acknowledge that you value your relationship and want it to improve.
Now, my showdown with Bill…
I decided I didn’t have time to set an appointment with Bill or even pull him away from his crew. So, in violation of Point 1, I went to him and said, “Bill, would you mind not smoking? Our 4-year-old has asthmatic symptoms and cigarette smoke can inflame his airways.” Bill’s face went expressionless, and one of the guys on his crew stared at us, bug-eyed. I don’t think they’re used to hearing anyone “order” Bill around.
Bill took the cigarette out of his mouth and said, “Those kids can’t be out here while we’re working.” Then went back to sawing the frame. He was obviously annoyed, but I was so glad I confronted him. Our 4-year-old’s health is more important to me than Bill’s approval, and that was the bottom line. We didn’t work toward a solution, but in the future I’m happy to let him smoke in his truck or out on the street. He’s the handy man our landlord has chosen to care for his house, so we’re going to deal with him whether we like it or not. But now he knows where I stand and will, hopefully, not smoke near our house. Sometimes a little confrontation is all a relationship needs to muscle through.