3 Steps for Confronting Without Conflict

Last Updated Jul 28, 2009 3:12 PM EDT

Yesterday, I wrote about the challenge of knowing when to speak up or shut up. But chances are, you've had your share of uncomfortable situations in which something had to be aired out, and neither you nor the target of your talk enjoyed it.

No one claims that addressing a problem face-to-face is easy. But there are ways you can defuse the situation and approach nearly any issue without creating a bigger conflict.

As you may know already, I'm not a big fan of the compliment sandwich -- you know, the old "stick the negative inside two positives" approach. Happily, I've stumbled across what I consider a much better approach.

Sarita Maybin, author of If You Can't Say Something Nice, What Do You Say?, suggests you "A.I.R." it out during workplace confrontations. The nifty acronym (easy to remember, yes?) stands for awareness, impact, and request -- three simple steps to guide you through the encounter.

Step 1: Awareness. Start by assuming that other people aren't aware of the trouble their actions are causing, says Maybin. Most likely, no one has told them and they're genuinely unaware of the impact. To begin the conversation, choose an "awareness" phrase. Maybin suggests some of the following:

  • "I don't know if you're aware of it..."
  • Perhaps you didn't realize that..."
  • "I'm sure it wasn't your intention to..."
Step 2: Impact. This is where you explain how the other person's behavior is negatively affecting you, the team, or the workplace. Impact phrases may include:
  • "I'm concerned that..."
  • "I feel that..."
  • "When you do/say ____ the way it affects me/the team/the office is ___."
For example, you could tell an employee, "When you turn in your part of the project late and we miss the deadline, I'm concerned that it makes us both look unprofessional," says Maybin.

Step 3: Request. This is where you ask -- not demand -- that the behavior change. Be clear, specific, and direct: What would you like the person to do (or not do) the next time? You should offer alternative behaviors; for instance, if someone is a chronic complainer, you might suggest they find a more positive way to express themselves, complain to the boss or someone in a position to change things, or figure out solutions, says Maybin.

Request phrases include:

  • "Would you be willing to..."
  • "Could you please..."
  • "I would rather you..."
And if it's a sticky problem and you're not sure of the solution, invite collaboration. Ask, "What are our options?" or "How can we resolve this?", says Maybin.

For more insights on confronting without conflict, read Maybin's full article about the A.I.R. approach. Or check out her book about practical solutions for getting along in the workplace.

Have any tips of your own? Share them in the comments section!

  • CC Holland

    CC Holland is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and a number of national magazines. Online, she was a columnist for AnchorDesk.com and writes regularly for Law.com and BNET. On the other side of the journalism desk, she's been a managing editor for ZDNet, CNet, and KCBS-TV in Los Angeles, where she earned an APTRA Best News Web Site award.