I was on a flight to Chicago last week where the flight attendant had made the announcement for us to put our devices in “airplane mode.” He made yet another announcement about the cabin door being shut and had politely walked down the aisle to remind all of us, a few rows at a time, “Airplane mode, please.” Being seated in the front, I could hear that near the back, she was still on the phone.
He calmly walked to the back of the plane, stopped and simply, directly said, “We can’t leave until you’re done.” And she told the person goodbye. No scene; no attitude. Problem solved. Crisis avoided.
There’s a lot that’s been written and said about effective confrontation. At Convene, we once heard from Nancy Ortberg about how it always confused her when people would say that Jesus was always “nice.” When in actuality, she points out, He stepped right in to confront the things that were not right in the world (If you don’t remember her talk and are a member, you might ask your Advisory Board Chair about this content piece or another one that John Townsend did on growth through confrontation. Additionally, you might want to check out “Crucial Conversations” by Kerry Patterson et al.).
When I think about times where a tense exchange of ideas went well – when someone spoke with me or when I’ve needed to speak to others, a number of factors seemed to be present:
- Clarity: It was objectively clear what the issue really was. The person bringing the issue took the time to think it through and look at it from different angles. They probably tried a few other solutions before deciding a more formal talk was warranted.
- Contribution: That same person had thought about how they had contributed to the issue. They checked their emotions – and with some awareness of how they were wired, had considered how they might react. They also had reviewed what they knew about the other person and had prepared for what might come.
- Change: They were also clear on what they felt needed to be different.
- Communication: While I’m not sure if this was true of others, I found it really helpful to rehearse what I was going to say to begin. I was also open to their feedback on what had happened and that I might be wrong.
- Courage: It’s not easy to step into these situations. Most of us don’t want to confront others. We know that we won’t enjoy it and aren’t exactly sure what the outcome will be.
- Calm: Even though the situation was tense, at least one voice remained measured, and there was space to talk it through.
However you view these situations, as a leader, they are a necessary part of what you do. If you won’t step into these and do them well, who will?