Keep Confrontational Language Out of Critical Conversations

When confrontational language is used during a critical conversation, the conversation spirals out of control. Confrontational language in a critical conversation blocks each party from listening to the other’s interests and needs. The focus becomes protecting or standing your ground rather than finding a common and agreeable ground.

Confrontational language is often emotionally charged or even defensive, and lets the other parties in the conversation know that you’re not there to help build relationships and create something better; you’re there to win.

Here’s an example of a critical conversation that starts as a simple misunderstanding between two peers about who was responsible for doing a final review of a proposal document before it went to a customer. Notice how one piece of confrontational language can belly flop an entire conversation.

Erin: “Julian, I’m not sure if you knew this, but the final proposal that went to the client didn’t include all the answers we had developed. What were you thinking?”

Julian: “What do you mean, ‘What was I thinking?’ I’ve been at this company 15 years, and in all my life I’ve never seen such a mess. The lawyers changed the meaning of all our responses in the document. It wasn’t my fault. It was their fault. You really need to tone down your attitude and stop accusing me of things.”

Erin: “Attitude? I don’t care how long you’ve been at this company; if you read the proposal before it went out to the customer, this wouldn’t have happened.”

Julian: “It isn’t my job to proofread what the lawyers said.”

The goal of the conversation was to find out what happened to the document, where the process broke down, and perhaps even solve the problem. All Julian heard was that she was wrong (“What were you thinking?”), and so the conversation tumbled downward from the beginning.

So what language triggers a confrontational response?

Spotting Confrontational Language (And Turning It Around)
Confrontational Triggers Examples Why It’s Confrontational Better Alternatives
One individual or party thinks she’s unconditionally right “What were you thinking?”
“If you read . . .”
Because one individual thinks she’s right, that person is unwilling to consider other opinions, ideas, or positions. “Are you willing to work together and explore other ideas that may work?”
A lot of blame “What were you thinking?” Because the individual believes she’s right, the only solution is for the other party to agree. This ultimatum leaves little room for finding a common ground in a solution all parties can agree to work with in the future. “Let’s focus on the solution. What can we do to avoid the situation from happening again?”
Attacks “Fine, talk with my supervisor.”
“I don’t care.”
“You’re wrong.”
Confrontational language that’s emotionally charged puts people on the defensive and shuts down collaboration, period. “I want to resolve the issue, but if you do want to talk with my supervisor, I can help you do that.”
“I may not agree with your actions, but let’s talk about how we can create a positive solution.”
Absolutes (“always” and “never”) “We always do it this way.”
“You never show up to work.”
Saying something always happens or never happens leaves no room for discussion or interpretation. It is better to state a fact in place of absolutes. “That’s different from how I usually solve this concern.”
“Based on this week’s time report, I noticed that you didn’t come into work all week.”

In the previous example, Erin and Julian are going back and forth with negative force in the conversation. The conversation goes in a completely different (and better) direction when Erin starts the discussion like this:

Erin: “Hi, Julian. We just sent out that proposal to the client, and the final version wasn’t the same version we created last week. Can we sit down and find out how we can correct it?”

Julian: “Yes. Let’s sit down and find out how we can fix it.”

Erin may also choose to use an “I” statement, like “The proposal just went to the client, and after it was sent, I noticed it wasn’t the same version we created last week. Can we sit down and find out how we can correct it?”

Unless Julian saw Erin rewrite the proposal and press send, blaming her for the error is not only premature, but also does nothing to correct the situation now or in the future.

In almost all critical conversations, what’s done is done — the parties can’t go back in history to redo the events. Instead, you should try to cCreate an open and honest environment to help direct the future rather than try to find out who should be blamed.

The good news is that even if one individual begins to use confrontational language, the other individual can respond in an equal but more positive manner. You can turn confrontational language into accommodating words that get results.

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