Silence, Violence, or Confrontation?

Silence, Violence, or Confrontation? by Dr. Scott Yorkovich

Photo by Tom6788, Available at

Situation 1: Your employee files the report on time, but it doesn’t contain the information that was promised and is not formatted properly even though you agreed upon the content and layout in a recent meeting. Situation 2: Your manager asked you to lead a committee to research a solution for a mission critical problem. After months of research and collaboration with key stakeholders your manager gives explicit support for the recommendation. Yet, when the final report is submitted, your manager rejects the solution.

Disappointing performances and broken promises are common in organizational life. Certainly, there are many excellent performances and kept promises. These are easy to deal with and give cause for celebration. Bad performances and broken promises, though, leave you with three choices: silence, violence, or confrontation.

The book “Crucial Confrontations,” by Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, and Al Switzler (McGraw-Hill, 2009) takes a look at these situations and offers help to anyone desiring more effective relationships and organizations. Let’s explore their ideas.

When you are disappointed with someone’s performance or on the losing end of a broken promise, silence is a frequent choice because of fear. There are many sources of fear, but the result is always the same. Things don’t change.

Another option is violence, which may take the form of rudeness, sabotaging others’ performance, and perhaps more overt and dangerous actions. Again, the result is the same; things don’t change and might even get worse.

A better choice is a “crucial confrontation.” This is a constructive way to address issues that inevitably arise in organizations. Before you engage in a crucial confrontation, two critical questions must be explored: What? and If?

What? You need to identify what the real problem is.
If? You need to determine if you are going to address the problem.

To answer those questions you must be able to accurately capture the problem in a single sentence. The clarity that comes from fulfilling the one-sentence goal will help you stay focused on the real problem and not get side tracked with very real, but peripheral issues (yours or the other person’s).

In addition to the one-sentence goal, it helps to understand the “fundamental attribution error.” The fundamental attribution error is based on the principle that it is much easier to observe others’ actions than it is to understand the motivations behind them. It is easy to observe the coworker who has been leaving early everyday for the past few weeks. It is hard to know that their spouse is hospitalized and they are taking care of kids and a multitude of other responsibilities. It is easy to observe that the new team member has been taking individual credit for the team’s work. It is hard to know that this individual has self-esteem problems and grabs at any attention and source of affirmation available. When you commit the fundamental attribution error you forget that others rarely do something crazy or foolish on purpose.

Counteracting the fundamental attribution error is very difficult. You must withhold judgment. You must ask objective questions. You must create an environment of safety for the other person to open up. You must be willing to be vulnerable and to encourage reciprocation.

When approaching a crucial confrontation, you need to:

  • Clarify the issue in one sentence
  • Avoid the fundamental attribution error
  • Think “CPR” – content, pattern, and relationship

The first time a crucial confrontation occurs, focus on the content. “Jerry, you weren’t at the meeting this morning with our new client. We laid out important plans for launching the project. What happened?” Stay focused on a single event in this crucial confrontation. The one-sentence description of the issue will help you stay focused.

If the event happens again, focus on the pattern. “Jerry, this is the second time you’ve missed an important meeting with the client and you promised it wouldn’t happen again. I’m growing concerned that I won’t be able to trust you in these situations. ” Here again, it is important to stay focused on the problem. Jerry may be tempted to shift the focus to another, peripheral issue. Stay on target.

Future occurrences of the problem have an impact on relationships. The focus is now on us. The attention has shifted from disappointing performance to the effect on the relationship. “Jerry, I don’t like how this is affecting how we work together. I fear not being able to trust you to follow through on your commitments. ” In this crucial confrontation, despite all the circumstantial evidence you have collected, it is important to remember the fundamental attribution error. Jerry might have been dealing with a difficult personal or professional problem and felt he could get things under control. Now that trust is being undermined, he might be able to open up. Ideally, you can work with him to create a workable solution!

Of course, we all hope that focusing on content in the initial crucial confrontation would be enough. Sometimes it is enough top solve the problem. Sometimes it is enough for a long while and you, as the manager, can wipe the slate clean. Then it happens again. Start at content again, but you will have to use your wise judgment whether that is enough if the cycle continues to repeat.

The authors of “Crucial Confrontations” believe that with the right kinds of discussions we can experience significantly higher levels of performance in our organizations. I believe this is true, too. Recently, I have been practicing the first step of CPR, focus on the “content.” I can report it has gone very well in most cases. In those cases, performance has shown good or significantly better performance.

I would like to see your comments about similar problems and your own experiences in crucial confrontations. What tips do you have?

2 thoughts on “Silence, Violence, or Confrontation?

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