I get dozens of emails every year from folks asking how to effectively confront disturbed characters about their behavior. And it’s not uncommon for folks to express grave reservations about confronting at all. Sometimes they fear an unhealthy “defensive” or coping response on the part of the person confronted, or possibly even a vindictive or destructive “retaliatory” response. But even though I have sometimes been guilty of failing to heed my own guidelines, I know from years of experience that there are some general, helpful rules that can really assist a person in the “art” of benign but powerful confrontation.
Something needs to be made clear from the outset. There is nothing inherently provocative or detrimental about confrontation. True, one can spark conflict by engaging in aggressive, hostile, confrontation. But the essence of confrontation lies in meeting or addressing an issue or problem head-on as opposed to dancing all around it. And we expect nothing less than this kind of laser-beam type focus when we’re confronting social problems like poverty and injustice. Confrontation, done well, ensures that the spotlight falls where its light needs to shine the most: directly on a behavior of concern.
Now how one goes about confronting the issues in a dysfunctional relationship is another matter entirely. When it comes to dealing with disturbed characters, truly artful confrontation is a must. So, for the sake of both clarity and simplicity, I’d like to outline the three most important rules:
- Be very sure of the need and your motivation to confront. Many times, people have it in their heads that it’s their responsibility to point out to the disturbed character in their life what that person is doing wrong so they will “see the light” and then modify their behavior. This, of course, assumes that the person doesn’t already know what they’re doing, or why they’re doing it, and will somehow be motivated to take a different course if someone just points things out to them. But disturbed characters are usually well-aware. What they need – and more importantly, what you need to empower yourself – are firmly established limits on behavior. And it’s simply not necessary to “red flag” the behavior you want to target, limit, or consequent. To illustrate this point, I might use the example that many introductory psychology students exploring the realms of behavior theory might be familiar with. A class of students asks one student to leave the classroom and remain in the hallway while the others decide upon a special task. The class decides that the secret target “task” will be to have the student, upon re-entering the classroom, place their foot in a trash can at the front of the room. The only clues they will offer the guinea pig in this experiment about what is expected will be to clap (more loudly or softly) as the person tries out various behaviors in an attempt to figure out what the class wants him or her to do. Then the person enters the classroom. As they move around from location to location, clapping ensues in various degrees of intensity and frequency, getting louder and/or more frequent as the person moves nearer the trash can. It becomes even more pronounced as the person experiments with various types of activities near and about the trash can, eventually erupting into a roar of approval when the person tests out placing a leg in the can. No one had to tell this person what to do or to spell out the behavior that was expected. As those versed in behavior theory know, behavior is influenced by its consequences. Anyone can “get it” with respect to what is expected, when the expectations are made clear and consequences (in the form of recognition or reward or withdrawal of recognition or reward) are put into place (this is called shaping behavior). So, the most important thing to remember is that the most effective way to target a behavior is to make sure the expectations, limits, and consequences are clear. Besides, if you’re dealing with someone who simply refuses to modify their behavior despite clear limits, expectations, and consequences, you’re probably in a situation you’re best getting miles away from as opposed to wasting time and energy “confronting” the person and their behavior all the time.
- When you do confront, take all the emotion out of it. As I mention in both In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance, it’s easy for focus to be lost when attention is diverted to one’s emotional responses – or anything else for that matter. So you have to do your best to remain calm, cool, and collected. Besides, it’s easier to think clearly when you’re not worked up. The ideal situation is when there is absolutely nothing except the behavior in question that anyone can point to as the issue that needs attention. It needs to be clear: it’s not about me as a person and it’s not about you as a person; it’s not about my feelings or your feelings; it’s about a particular behavior, purely and simply.
- Don’t wait. When a problem behavior occurs, address it quickly. Behavior often occurs in “chains,” and disturbed characters frequently exhibit destructive escalations of their behavior when those chains progress in an uninterrupted fashion. The time to walk out of the room is when the first verbal character assault is hurled in response to your addressing of a problem. Things can get ever so much more risky if you allow yourself to think you can simply wait until the insults get “bad enough” that you simply have to do something in response. If you really want the spotlight to shine on a behavior, respond to it the very moment it first occurs. And if you don’t want things to escalate, you’ll establish a track record of responding reliably and quickly to a problem behavior.
Several of the blog readers have rightly pointed out the risks always involved in confrontation. Aggressive personalities and other disturbed characters do not take “no” easily for an answer and there is almost always a price to pay for enforcing a limit. And in the more problematic situations, the most dangerous time is when the limits are most clearly defined and enforced. That’s another reason why it’s so important to address behavior issues early on and to enter relationships with a focus from the beginning on empowering oneself as educating and improving the behavior of the other person.