How To Practice Confrontation—The Smart Way

A new method of inquiry that minimizes defensiveness and maximizes teamwork.

Very few people like confrontation. It often connotes negative reactions and poor outcomes, primarily based on previous experience with it. And the overwhelming majority of people, specifically leaders, shy away from it, hoping the other person will just “get it,” see the light and change their behavior. But, if we are to learn anything, we learn it by looking at the results from our actions. Specifically, look at social media: who ever really changes their behavior after being confronted digitally or passively? Virtually no one.

Enter “Inquisitive Confrontation,” a term that refers to confronting one’s own thinking and behavior, and then those of others, through curious inquiry. This technique alleviates defensiveness and, most often, the emotional reaction that typically follows confrontation.

From my experience as a corporate leader who used behavioral neuroscience in my own work, as well as in my programs with other leaders for two decades, this method can give us the results we want—if we use it in the right way.

Begin with Inner Reflection

Leaders can begin to confront their own thinking by asking themselves a few basic questions:

1. “Is this the best solution?”

2. “What evidence proves it is the best solution?”

3. “How can I find a better solution to this problem?”

Most senior leaders rose to executive positions because they were adept at identifying and implementing the best solutions within their organizations. The problem, however, is that once this leader ascends to the top, they operate in a vacuum by continuing with the same thinking and beliefs that got them there in the first place.

This can lead to problems. For example, if senior leaders keep doing things the way they always have because their brain equates it with past success, it can lead to significant opportunity costs; no company has ever disrupted another by doing things the same old way. Even for CEOs who are outstanding leaders and value feedback, Inquisitive Confrontation allows a communication platform that is not self-demeaning to anyone and opens dialogue.

Once a business leader has developed self-awareness by questioning their own thinking, they must be willing to act on new ideas and try something different. They can then use the method with others. By engaging with a sense of curiosity and interest, leaders can gain a greater understanding of the thinking that led to a particular action. Be sure to ask open-ended questions and be sincere in your discussion. Some examples:

• “What leads you to believe this is the best solution?”

• “What is the evidence that this is or isn’t the best solution?”

• “What could cause you to think there’s a better one?”

• “What is the success indicator we’re looking to produce with this solution?”

Practice Makes Perfect

This may feel chaotic or contrived at first, since you are switching to asking questions instead of dictating what to do; however, after some practice, you will see better outcomes. This creates a favorable response in your brain that leads to elevated success with Inquisitive Confrontation—and it snowballs from there.

When you interact with team members throughout the organization by asking questions, they become more confident in this style and are more eager to communicate with colleagues and senior leaders. As the top executive, the CEO is surrounded by smart, capable, accomplished people and should seek to leverage their expertise; the art of inquiry provides an excellent mode of communication for doing just that. Furthermore, having a CEO who utilizes Inquisitive Confrontation openly encourages team members to have an inquisitive voice with supervisors up through the C-suite level. That is, Inquisitive Confrontation can go from team member to leadership as easily as it does the other way around.

One other point worth noting: What we know from the science of neurolinguistics is that when we use the word “why” with other people, we’re generally going to get a defensive response instead of the clear answer we’re looking for. For example, if you ask a subordinate “Why did you make that decision?” it instantly puts the recipient in a position to have to explain and justify themselves and their actions. Instead, ask “what” questions. For instance, “What caused this?” or “What drove this?” or even “What’s underneath this?” For Inquisitive Confrontation, we should look to switch out the word “why” and replace it with “what.”

With practice, Inquisitive Confrontation will help your team generate better business decisions, stronger outcomes and optimal performance management.


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