When I was first introduced to the Confronting Model * by my colleague Claire Genkai Breeze many years ago I found it immediately helpful. Even without the need for any further explanation of the model, the way I had previously viewed confrontation was turned on its head when it was revealed to me that the etymology of the word ‘confronting’ itself suggests that it is the act of facing (fronting) with (con) as distinct from facing against each other. The simple idea that by confronting something with someone else, you get alongside one another and turn towards it together (whether the ‘it’ is an issue, a challenge, a question or indeed anything else); this immediately separates the ‘it’ from the individual which I have found to be a consistently helpful act.

One of the best pieces of parenting advice I ever received was that difficult topics with teenagers are best reserved for car journeys when you are literally all facing in the same direction (of course, being strapped in and unable to escape might also have something to do with its effectiveness).

As the need for collaboration in organisations has grown, the need for improved confrontation skills has similarly become more important. The cost of our inability to confront situations effectively is wasted time, missed opportunities, hurt feelings and as often as not a slide towards the mediocrity of the lowest common denominator. “When confronting an issue it can be tempting to skip into a pussyfooting or hammering style which at the time may seem to be easier than risking hurting someone’s feeling or having them disagree with you. The problem of course is that this will usually lead to confusion and the issue is unlikely to be resolved.” (The Challenger Spirit LID Publications)

The word ‘face’ has another meaning in this context, as in the things we do, often unconsciously, to save face. All the time that an issue is being avoided you could argue that face is being saved. By pussyfooting around an issue we keep ourselves safe from the possibility of not being liked, a fear that many of us carry around and dread. Alternatively, by hammering, we can save face by avoiding the difficulty of really engaging with others and perhaps discovering that the truths we hold so dear might be flawed or mistaken when they are really examined. Both pussyfooting and hammering are forms of self-protection, they reduce the risk of exposing ourselves and letting others in. Neither of these positions is healthy when challenge is so badly needed in many organisations.

I used to hold the belief that the tendency to hammer was more detrimental than pussyfooting. I thought it had the impact of encouraging others to retreat to their shells and hide. However, I am much less convinced that this is the case having seen the impact of excessive tiptoeing too often. I could argue that hammering, which might feel overtly aggressive, is at least visible. I recently had the view expressed forcefully to me that “hammering empowers me, I know what’s going on and I can argue back, I find it much easier to work with that than pussyfooting. When someone is pussyfooting I don’t think they are taking me seriously, I consider it to be disrespectful; it’s an act of passive aggression and I prefer to be dealing with something much more overt.”

These are the words of a self-confessed ‘hammerer’ and perhaps we all prefer others to behave in our own mould because we consider it to be right. Indeed, my willingness to accept pussyfooting and criticise hammering is most likely a reflection of my own preferences and unconscious bias for surface harmony.  There is no doubt about it, the middle line described in the Confronting Model as  “being on the razor edge between compassion and power” is the one we need if we are to find ways of working with diverse opinions; one of the critical skills for effective collaboration.

The capability to work with diverse opinions has led me to link the Confronting Model to the practice of Dialogue because the latter has been one of the most effective tools that I have encountered to help teams work generatively with differences. Caryn Vanstone and Hugh Pidgeon who first introduced me to the process of Dialogue, describe it as “an experience of paradox”, being simultaneously passionate and curious, standing up for what you believe in and at the same time allowing it to be altered by others through a willingness to enquire. They suggested some questions which I find helpful when I notice myself pussyfooting around an issue:

·      What matters to me about all this?

·      What do I feel passionate about?

·      What is important to me that I want this other person to hear?

·      What about what I believe is right is not being understood here?

And for those of us who are more prone to hammering our opinions (or other proponents) it might be helpful to pause for a moment and consider these questions (again courtesy of Caryn and Hugh):

·      What am I missing?

·      What am I failing to understand in the other person’s world?

·      What am I over-attached to?

·      What could I be wrong about?

We protect our beliefs with a ferocious devotion at times. This is understandable because if they are chipped away we fear losing sight of who we are and what we stand for, and in many organisational cultures standing for certainty, decisiveness and strong opinions are seen as vital leadership traits. But at what cost? The path to collective wisdom is ignored as we seek to protect the sanctity of our own beliefs. We save face but we sacrifice so much in terms of creativity, idea-generation and energy by failing to confront our issues side-by-side and choosing instead to avoid them entirely or to confront each other eyeball-to-eyeball.


* This blog does not explain the model but if you do want to know more then please get in touch through the website.

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