This’ll fly in the face of what you may think – a good confrontation, which is a conversation where you are able to challenge someone regarding a boundary they’re intruding upon, is actually very beneficial. Crudely speaking, a boundary is a protection line ensuring health in our relationships, so we neither hurt others and they don’t hurt us.

Cloud and Townsend assert the importance of good confrontations in their highly acclaimed book, Boundaries Face to Face. They say that even a poor confrontation can bring good in the form of relief to one or both parties. It’s something not to be resisted. It can resolve alienation between parties and bring healing to that “lost” feeling, if it’s done properly with the correct mixes of grace and truth.

Let’s tack a side-road for a moment. Tile Technology Roofing Company, a business featured in the best-seller of Christensen et al “Fish Tales,” has an outstanding reputation for its positive attitude and ethos of “Choose Your Attitude.”[1] They have a special room in the back of their administration facility called “The Pond.” It’s a room with little other than sand, a pond, and two chairs – it’s a beach scene. It’s somewhere you can take someone and have an honest word with them, without either taking offense. You can go there for 15 minutes or two hours, it doesn’t matter. People are encouraged to go there and have the confrontation in sanctuary. It could even be with the CEO, director or president! There is a rule that no offense is taken, and once you leave “the pond” the people concerned bear no ongoing grudge toward each other. Mutual respect is upheld.

The “Relationship Curve” is another fascinating phenomena, hinging on conflict. All close relationships feature this relationship curve. As the relationship forms, there is characteristic high tolerance and relatively few boundaries set … it’s the ‘honeymoon period’ where all seems absolutely perfect. It’s a so-called perfect match. Yet, how many romances fizzle after the “gloss” of this time has faded? Give it 12-months to two years and the relationship will inevitably get to conflict stage. This is where the rubber hits the road and the real work of the relationship begins.

We have formation, then conflict. Now, the relationship can go either of two ways; it grows or dies. This is fundamental. Firstly, if the conflict is seen as abnormal and something to avoid, the relationship will begin to stagnate. This might seem at the time the best way to ‘keep the peace’ but in the end it will bring less peace and infinitely more frustration to either one partner or both. We can’t hide what we feel, and what ticks us off. It’ll surface eventually. Another characteristic of this stagnant relationship – if both parties decide to live with the dysfunction – is death; the relationship will be dead. There will be no life to it and no life springing from it; both partners will feel estranged, disconnected, and “missing something.” This will continue until one or both partners wants more. And this can only be 1) good via confrontation, resolution, healing, and life; or, 2) not-so-good, via a separation of the partners in the relationship in preference for something “new.”

The second option is much healthier, yet more painful up front for both parties of the relationship. It views conflict as a normal part of the relationship curve. How could this be true you might ask? It’s about curiosity. What transforms the relationship and makes it chock full of life is curiosity. Such a little word with such power for the positive is curiosity. It asks, “What are the possibilities?” Where there is conflict AND curiosity, and preferably in both partners, there is the real possibility of transformation because of the conflict! In this incredible way, the conflict actually brings more life to the relationship. This is one situation where “normal” is not good.

Confronting conversations acknowledge that while we can’t make someone change, we can do much to create the right environment, promoting change. Confrontations also clarify reality; a shared reality. Avoiding people reinforces fear of not treading on toes. Confronting attends to the reality of the proverbial ‘elephant in the room everyone can see.’ Tile Tech recognised the need to confront things in honesty, and sought to build a culture and a physical environment where conflict could be the catalyst for upwardly spiralling interpersonal and relational growth. This was a key part of their success in ‘choosing their attitudes.’

For confrontations to go well, we must be emotionally present and in tune with one another. This means being warm and careful not to lecture, respecting differences, and limiting discomfort for either party. We must be careful not to injure the other. We must also learn to observe ourselves. We should speak from our need not theirs (or what we think might be their need). This is where “I” statements are crucial. Commence the stating of needs with, “I need … [the thing, support etc] … from you.”

Here are some tips from Cloud and Townsend:

  • Be clear about the nature of the problem, its effects on you, and your desire to see change. The “I need…” part of the conversation comes after this, as it is framed in a way that makes it possible to see the issue in the correct light.
  • Balance grace and truth. “Many of us live in two worlds. In one we have connection without truth; in the other, truth without connection.”[2] With a vast number of our friendships and valued relationships we avoid truth so as not to hurt the other, and in other relationships we “bulldoze” others in truth because we have no valuable connection to maintain. We need to address both types of situations with proportional amounts of grace and truth.
  • When faced with one approach versus the other, viz grace and truth, and there’s doubt about when, how and why, think conservatively and give the benefit of the doubt in grace. Delay the confrontation or choose to believe the your partner/the other person. This is grace, which is “undeserved favour.”
  • Stay on task: be ADULT; this is being reasonable, responsible, rational, realistic, and logical. This requires diligence, vigilance. Attend to the entire conversation this way.
  • Whilst not getting emotional, focus on describing your feelings (how you feel) and not thoughts. This will help you get to the heart of the issue, whilst communicating caringly.
  • Make sure you affirm and validate the other person you’re confronting, being especially careful to actively listen and re-phrase with empathy what they’re saying prior to responding yourself.
  • Don’t be afraid of apologising first. If you say sorry they’re less likely to feel defensive; you are then more likely to be able to confront the issue in a helpful environment. Be genuine.
  • We must balance grace and truth in all our communications if we want to be effective. It is never more important to balance grace and truth than when handling a delicate situation. Be wise and think “win/win,” being careful not to shut the other party down.

    Confrontation means in Latin, “to turn your face toward, to look at frontally.”[3] Don’t be afraid to have the strength of courage to confront the loved one, friend, or co-worker you’re having trouble with. This sort of courage is manifested from a love that supports both grace and truth. It could mean the difference between life and eventual death for your relationship.

    © 2008, Steven John Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

    [1] Christensen, J., Lundin, P.C., Paul, H., & Strand, P., Fish! Tales: Real-Life Stories to Help You Transform Your Workplace and Your Life, (New York, Charthouse Learning, 2002), pp. 107f.

    [2] Cloud, H., & Townsend, J., Boundaries Face to Face: How to Have That Difficult Conversation You’ve Been Avoiding, (Sydney: Strand/Zondervan, 2003), p. 16.

    [3] Cloud, H., & Townsend, J., Ibid. p. 19.