Arm yourself with these expert etiquette tips to get through any uncomfortable exchange.
There are some difficult conversations you simply can’t shy away from—no matter how good you are at avoiding confrontation. You may be a people pleaser, but what happens when you need to approach a roommate who’s been leaving the door unlocked; address a parent or relative who’s overstepped; or give less-than-sparkling feedback to a colleague at work?
If someone in your life is causing you emotional, physical, or ethical distress, at some point you’re going to need to gather the courage to speak up. There’s a way to approach confrontation in a healthy and constructive way without coming across as weak and wishy-washy, or tipping over into overt aggression.
Thankfully having a few tricks up your sleeve will help ease the discomfort of confronting someone. Here, Jodi R.R. Smith, president of Mannersmith etiquette consulting and author of The Etiquette Book: A Complete Guide to Modern Manners ($10; amazon.com), offers must-know advice and practical tips for making any confrontation (at least a little bit) more manageable.
1. Know when it’s time to speak up.
Some people don’t know how to pick their battles—it’s just fight, fight, fight all the time. But others let too many things slide by, which can make them extremely likable and easy to work with (or live with or date), but which can also lead to long-suppressed grievances that ultimately cause harm.
“There are a wide range of reasons why it is important to speak up, even if it is a difficult conversation,” Smith says. The two big ones: safety and development. “At the most basic of levels, there are times when we need to speak up to ensure safety,” she adds, while at a higher level, without addressing the issue, the person who needs to hear it will never learn and may continue their behavior. It’s a vicious cycle. If avoiding confrontation will either perpetuate a lack of safety or wind up doing both you and the other person a disservice, it’s time to talk face to face.
2. Consider your timing.
Are you at a big neighborhood potluck with lots of people around? Now’s probably not the time to call out your neighbor for parking on your rose bushes everyday. Did your roommate just get home from a gruesome day of travel? Maybe confront her about not paying you back for last month’s rent tomorrow. “Ask to schedule some time when the person will be most open to hearing from you,” Smith says. This will help you avoid blindsiding them too.
3. Find a neutral location.
Not every confrontation will be large enough to warrant a scheduled meeting on neutral ground—but when they are, timing and location matter. “In their space, the person may feel attacked; in your space, they may feel like you have the upper hand. For example, “find an empty conference room or quiet coffee shop to speak,” Smith says.
4. Be specific.
No matter what you’re trying to address, try to get to the core of the issue as quickly as possible. Beating around the bush or using vague examples can makes things unclear and prolong an already awkward conversation. “Be sure the other person will be able to understand what you’re talking about. Use specific examples and ask questions to make sure they are understanding.” Smith says. Need to confront a direct report about their recent behavior? Saying, “You are rude to clients,” is too general—and an unnecessary attack on their character. Instead, Smith suggests starting with something like: “Remember how yesterday the client came to meet us, you were texting on your phone and did not stand up to shake their hands?....”
5. Don’t be too polite.
Counterintuitive, we know, but Smith insists this can turn into a kind of “false diplomacy that masks what you’re trying to say and leaves the other person confused as to what the problem really is about.” She also says to avoid the feedback sandwich: the “praise, criticize, praise” formula that many people use to soften a harsh critique. It’s safest to be “kind but direct.” Smith offers some good phrases to employ:
- “I know this may be difficult to hear….”
- “There’s something I need to speak with you about and I hope you’re able to listen so that we can work together….”
- “This is a difficult conversation, but I would rather you hear this information from me than from someone else….”
6. Give the other person a chance to process.
“If this is the first time someone’s hearing this information, allow them time to process and think,” Smith says. It’s also important and courteous to offer them the floor. Ask if they have anything they want to add or ideas for how best to deal with these kinds of things moving forward.
However, depending on the situation and other person, once you’ve opened the floor, you risk inviting defensive accusations from their end. In that case, resist the urge to be pulled into a fight. “There are some people who’ll become defensive and try to make the conversation about you. Note their objections (‘Thank you for letting me know, that’s another conversation I’m happy to have with you, but for today we need to address X’),” Smith says. Acknowledging what they’re saying lets them know you’re listening, empathizing, and willing to work together to restore balance.
7. Don’t keep pushing if things escalate.
If the conversation takes a real turn—they start yelling or getting too upset—don’t push it. “Table the conversation to be continued later,” Smith says, or even consider bringing in a third party, whether that’s your landlord to settle a rooming dispute, a supervisor or human resources representative at work, or another friend who can offer an objective take on the situation.