How to stop being a reluctant confronter

March 31, 2014

Stuck moment: I’m kind of fed up. My boss takes the credit for my ideas. My coworker goes on and on about her boyfriend drama. My friend never returns anything she borrows… I want to say something, but I just can’t! 

* * *

When people behave in ways that bother us — a callous comment, an interruption, a self-appointed license to take what’s ours without giving back — why do so many of us find it easier just to let it go? We make excuses for the other person. Or we pretend to shrug it off, though the behavior continues to niggle us, deep in our thoughts. Worse, we start avoiding the other person. Complaining behind her back, resenting her. But we never speak up.

Those negative feelings don’t go away because we suppress them. Sometimes they poison a once-wonderful relationship. Or, our mind starts to run on a victim script: I’m always putting up with other people’s bad behavior. People are so inconsiderate. I follow the rules, why don’t they?

Here’s the thing: When we’re silent, we can become resentful, and then we don’t live the best life we possibly could. We make our voices tinier, our expectations smaller. And, in those gaps, insecurity sprouts. Our reluctant manner tells others that we care less about our needs and feelings than we actually do.

In short, we’re cheating ourselves.

Yes, confrontation can be scary, but let’s imagine we do speak up. Each time, it enhances our options, our confidence, our comfort in the world. It also demonstrates what we value and how we want to be treated.

In short, we open up our possibilities. 

Given the choice of shrinking or expanding your life, logic points to the latter. But our emotions might lean toward the former. (Trust us, we know the feeling!) That’s why we put together this guide, to show us all how confrontation can lead to far better things than a black-eye. 

Let’s get started.

“I was the queen of wimps,” says Barbara Pachter, a business communications expert with more than 18 years of experience. “But, when we understand the consequences to our choices — and this particular choice is not speaking up — it moves people to have the courage to try new behavior. When I realized that, I changed my day-to-day approach. And that eliminated a lot of the problems.” 

For the rest of us, Pachter wrote the book The Power of Positive Confrontation (a new edition will be released in July) with strategies that work for everyone. The key to handling any confrontation — whether work- or home-related — Pachter says, is to use her WAC’em™ dialogue, which consists of three essential parts:

the What = a specific description of the behavior that bothers you
the Ask = a request to change it
the Check-in = a question to make sure you’ve been heard and understood.

“The first part is about not labeling the other person’s behavior,” she says. “We’re so quick to label each other as jerks, and that can lead to aggression. But, when you choose to confront someone and get your words together in this way  — what comes to your mind is going to be polite, calm, direct, and non-accusatory. You know what’s bothering you, you know the other person’s point of view, you know what you want. And you ask for it.”

She adds, “Then you have to turn it over, get the other person’s response. Just because you’re asking for something doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.”

Our printable practice sheet, The Reluctant Person’s Confrontation Playbook, gives examples of how to apply this formula in four common conflict situations, and also what to do when the other person’s response is negative.

The situations include: 

The Takers: You’re giving and they’re taking.
Your friend doesn’t pay you back for movie night. Your sister calls you daily to complain your ear off. This is the second time you cooked dinner for your roommate and she hasn’t helped clean up. Your manager gives you all the work and takes all the credit…

The Rule-breakers: They think they’re above the law.
Your coworker is consistently late with deadlines. The girl you’re seeing texts 20 minutes before dinner to say that she can’t make it. Someone jams the printer and doesn’t fix it. He doesn’t remember your anniversary…

The Self-involved: They’re stuck on Planet Clueless.
Your mother insists on a Hawaiian family vacation, even though you can’t afford it. No one’s vegan but she’s making a tofurkey for the “fun” of it. Your friend’s Facebook post about your ex’s fancy holiday shindig makes you feel bad. Your sister knows that you won’t be in town that week, but guess when she schedules the baby shower? It’s your meeting, but he takes it over…

The Insulters: They think rudeness is just being real.
That guy thinks dumb blonde jokes are really funny. She calls you an idiot because you didn’t know how to work the coffee machine. Your dad puts you down at every family gathering. Your friend says you’re too fat to wear a bathing suit. Every time she gets mad, she swears at you…

Sometimes  — not all the time — it’s best not to confront. When you’re faced with any of these four scenarios, Pachter says to walk away:

• The other person is out-of-control (angry, manic, tearful, etc), or at risk of becoming so.

• The other person’s offensive behavior is simply out-of-character. It’s okay to dial up your empathy — everyone has off-days — and let it go.

• You’re in a bad mood. Even the littlest thing (an empty milk carton, a coworker correcting your grammar) feels like a huge deal. Save your words for when you’re more in control.

• This is one of those friendships where you give a little, you take a little. He puts up with your foibles, and you shrug it off when he invites himself over and drinks all your beer.

But in other situations where you’re bothered and beleaguered, speaking up is often the best way to solve the problem.

So let’s practice.

DOWNLOAD THIS: The Reluctant Person’s Confrontation Playbook 

Barbara Pachter is president of Pachter & Associates. She is an internationally renowned business etiquette and communications speaker, coach, and author who has delivered more than 2,100 seminars throughout the world. Pachter is the author of 10 books, including The Power of Positive Confrontation. Her client list boasts many of today’s most notable organizations, including Bayer, Campbell Soup, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Chrysler, Cleveland Clinic, Microsoft, Moody’s, Novartis, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Princeton University and Wawa. Pachter is also on the adjunct faculty in the School of Business at Rutgers University.

For more information, visit

Next week: Unstuck Hero: How a grilled cheese sandwich saved the day
Last week: An expert’s guide to being a beginner

More Unstuck Advice

If I have to spend one more minute with this person, I might scream! We all have “that” person at work, that one annoying coworker with an uncanny ability to get under our skin — even make the environment feel toxic. Wh...
How to get past rejection Getting rejected stinks, plain and simple. We wanted something — a job, a fresh opportunity, a relationship with someone — and we didn’t get it. What’...
Are you driven by love or fear? Life is complicated — but your motivation isn’t. Without exception, every action we take is motivated either by love or by fear. For example:• Acting ...