When watching others confront problems, most don’t even notice one of the big differences between the best and the rest of us. The best people at holding confrontations raise different topics. They confront different problems.
We noticed this as we conducted our original research. We spent ten thousand hours watching people who are gifted at crucial confrontations and noticed they tended to zero-in precisely on the right thing to discuss.
One of these experiences was in a meeting that was a swirl of activity and discussion. At one point I watched the individual I was observing stop the whole discussion and say, “You know what? I think there are three different issues that we’re discussing here. And this, I believe, is the most important one.”
It organised the entire conversation.
Everybody immediately agreed. That capacity—the ability to unbundle this complex set of issues and pick precisely the right one to discuss is essential.
The people we studied had a way of unbundling using a little acronym that I’d like to share with you.
How To Solve Any Confrontation with CPR
There are three different kinds of issues that you can confront. The first is content. This has to do with the immediate problem.
Here’s the mistake most of us make: we tend to deal with the immediate pain or issue at hand at the expense of the more important one.
I watched a mother in Puerto Rico at the swimming pool of a hotel I was staying do exactly this. She was sitting with her four-year-old son who’s playing at the pool. After a couple of minutes, she said, “Let’s go.”
He said, “No!”
She packed up her bags, started to walk away, and said, “Come on, come on, come on.”
He yelled, “No!”
As she started to walk after him, he started to walk away. As she started to run after him, he started to run. Finally she grabbed him, picked him up, and left. Problem solved. Right?
Wrong! The problem here is that she confronted the immediate pain—the fact that she wanted to leave and he wasn’t complying.
But what was the real issue here? It wasn’t content, it was something deeper. The real issue here was obedience.
The next time she tries to get him to leave, is he going to? Absolutely not! He just learned that she is responsible, because she didn’t confront the right problem.
The second kind of problem you need to learn to confront is a pattern problem.
This is entirely different from content. It’s not about the single instance, but a pattern of concern—a pattern of behaviour.
Once, A manager I used to worked with needed to have a crucial confrontation with her boss.
She said, “My boss cuts me off in meetings. Sometimes when I make a comment he snorts. It’s insulting. The last meeting I went to, we had organised the agenda in advance but when I got there, everything on my list had been moved to the bottom.”
What’s the right issue to confront if you were her?
She was ready to go in and say, “I’d really like for you not to cut me off in meetings. Please don’t cut me off.”
This situation is a pattern issue. There’s a habit that’s formed— a pattern of behaviour.
Here’s a quick tip: when you try to hold a pattern confrontation, nine times out of ten, the other person will try to drag you back to the content—to the most recent instance.
If you say, “Your reports are characteristically sloppy and you’re often late,” they’re going to revert back to the last report and try to explain it away. If you let them change the topic, you lose because you’ll walk away dissatisfied.
There are three signs that you’re confronting the wrong problem:
- Escalated Emotions
If in the course of the crucial confrontation you’re getting more and more upset, it’s a sign you’re probably on the wrong topic.
- Repeated Confrontations.
If you find yourself having the same conversation over and over again, you are having the wrong conversation. You’re confronting the wrong problem. If you’re confronting content it’s probably pattern. If you’re confronting pattern it’s probably relationship.
If you walk away with a solution that you don’t believe is going to work and you feel dissatisfied, then you probably held the wrong confrontation.
The manager with the boss that snorts, cuts her off, and moves her agenda items down had a relationship confrontation to hold. These come in three types:
- Trust – I don’t trust you anymore.
- Competence – I don’t think you’re competent. This is a different kind of confrontation than, “You’ve made mistakes in the last three reports.”
- Respect – I don’t think you respect me.
That’s the crucial confrontation she needed to address. If she had confronted problems with the boss cutting her off and moving agenda items, she would have walked away feeling entirely dissatisfied.
Learn this skill. Learn to unbundle. Learn to step back from the crucial confrontation and tease apart the content, pattern, and relationship concerns.
Then select the right one by asking, “What do I really want?”
What do you really want that prioritises all of the issues and helps you find the right one to confront? Learn the skill, apply it, and it will make a profound difference in your capacity to hold crucial confrontations.