The Profit And Loss Of Confrontation:
A Practical Model For Professional Feedback
“Personally I am satisfied about you, my brethren, that you yourselves are rich in goodness, amply filled with all (spiritual) knowledge and competent to admonish and counsel and instruct one another also” (Romans 15:14, Amplified).
Confrontation: A 13-letter dirty word nobody wants any part of. Webster may not have defined it quite that way but it’s still accurate. People will tolerate almost anything, personally or professionally, to avoid the interpersonal discomfort and the conflict too often associated with confrontation. Unfortunately for the effective team member or team leader (including pastors), the necessity of confrontation cannot be denied or avoided.
Actually, that’s only partly true. Many do succeed at escaping confrontation but in the process they put much at risk, not the least of which is the honest and open exchange of communication between all team members, the critical quality of communication that underpins team morale, unity and operational effectiveness.
The team leader who cannot confront is no leader and you can be sure the rest of the team members already know this, which is why they stop bringing problems to the table, why they seem less motivated and more ambivalent about new projects, and why systems have become less effective. By being unwilling to confront those whose actions negatively affect relationships or the organization, the team leader ultimately risks his own reputation as a leader who can be trusted to protect the interests and health of the organization.
It will help this discussion to recognize that confrontation is not a dirty word after all but means simply to “come face to face with; to bring together for purposes of comparison or examination.” Feedback, or corrective feedback, is the return of information about the result of a process or behavior to correct or improve upon that process or behavior. Whichever term you prefer to use, confrontation or feedback serves as a beneficial and necessary component of communication in any good relationship. What a wonderful world this would be if people would actively solicit feedback from their family members, friends and coworkers, welcoming this new perspective into their vision of self and gratefully accepting it as the precious gift the giver knows it to be! In reality, most people appreciate more when others keep their perspectives to themselves, which is why the rest of us must be particular about why and when we choose to confront or provide feedback.
In a team environment, including the church, confrontation or feedback becomes necessary whenever behavior:
- Hinders effective communication between individuals or threatens to destroy relationships, or
- Threatens the existence, reputation, or work of a particular department, program or ministry.
The purpose of confrontation or feedback must always be restorative, not punitive. Addressing and soliciting behaviors that restore communication, establish or strengthen relationships, and protect the interests and objectives of the church or organization must be our highest goal and priority. “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29).
Confrontation also becomes necessary whenever an individual’s behavior seriously harms or puts him at risk of harm and/or threatens his relationship with God and other people. “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently” (Galatians 6:1). The Scriptures are clear that the spiritual well-being of our brother and sister is indeed our business, regardless what anyone else may say. Those reluctant to challenge the protective individualism of our society need only review Proverbs 24:11,12, whose author admonishes and warns us to“Rescue those being led away to death; hold back those staggering toward the slaughter. If you say, ‘But we knew nothing about this,’ does not He who weighs the heart perceive it? Does not He who guards your life know it? Will He not repay each person according to what he has done?” James 5:19,20 also encourages us with this reminder: “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” Confrontation becomes the opportunity to gently admonish, support, and encourage the individual toward actions that will restore his relationship with God.
Some leaders (directors, administrators) have questioned whether it is appropriate for them to address sin issues with their Christian employees. Does it not cross the line of employer/employee relationships? I am puzzled that this would be considered a dilemma. A Christian has a spiritual obligation to address willful, ongoing sin in the life of his Christian brother or sister, regardless of where their names fall on the organizational chart. It may help both parties if this interaction took place somewhere more neutral than in the supervisor’s office, or at least being sure that the seating is side-by-side and no one is sitting behind a desk. A leader has no hesitation addressing the employee’s personal life when it threatens to affect departmental or organizational health. As Christian leaders, how much more should we intervene when spiritual health is at stake?
The avoidance of confrontation finds its roots in self-protection. The anticipation of the possible fall-out and our own discomfort often holds greater concern for us than what might happen to a person, or the team, or the congregation or anyone and anything else affected by the problem behavior.
“He will go ballistic… make life miserable for the team. What if she quits? How will we finish the project?”
In light of these threats there are any number of ways we can justify our inaction. Unfortunately, clever arguments do not diminish the reality that our unwillingness to confront will almost always lead us into sin. Most of us may be able to recall an occasion where, though lacking the courage to address the situation head on, we found no difficulty in voicing our complaints or concerns to others who had no real need to know (that is, gossiping and murmuring), harboring bitterness, withdrawing from the relationship, perhaps even plotting some subtle revenge or otherwise punishing this thorn in our flesh. God encourages honest confrontation not only for the sake of our brother and sister, but also for our own spiritual health.
In spite of the obvious necessity for confrontation there is no doubt that, when given a choice, most of us would still prefer to have all our teeth pulled without anesthesia. Gratefully, an effective feedback model exists that can make the process much less painful and, if not a pleasant task, at least the productive event it needs to be.
I first came across this feedback model at the Princeton Childhood Development Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. There, annual staff development protocol requires every employee to demonstrate continued competency in this procedure as a peer/professional feedback strategy. The model represents a clever adaptation of a corrective teaching interaction used by Girls and Boys Town (formerly known as Father Flanagan’s Boys’ Town) and which has proven over several decades to be very effective in shaping appropriate social behavior in children and young adults in a variety of educational and training settings. Fortunately, somewhere along the way, astute administrators also recognized this as an effective tool for improving communication among themselves.
I have continued to use the Professional Feedback Model for the past 14 years, introducing it in workshops and staff training events, eventually adapting it for Christian organizations, and can honestly say that I have not found anything better for reducing the pain and fear of confrontation or delivery of feedback. While we cannot control the reaction from the recipient, we can certainly do much to make the process less threatening and increase the likelihood of a receptive response. By focusing on the best interests of the person, the use of this model promotes the engagement of desired behavior while protecting or even improving the relationship.
The Professional Feedback Model
There are two primary components in the Professional Feedback Model: The role of the speaker (giver of feedback) and the role of the listener (recipient of feedback). Within each role, there are particular statements or responsibilities. We will begin with the speaker and the steps for giving feedback.
Part 1: Giving Feedback
The role of the speaker is to address concerns in a manner that teaches, supports, and otherwise promotes desired behavior and communication. The moment the speaker loses sight of these three responsibilities is the very moment confrontation moves from a restorative action to a punitive one.
Professional feedback for the speaker includes the following components which we will now review in detail:
- Point of Agreement or Empathy Statement
- Description of Undesirable Behavior
- Rationale / Detriments
- Description of Desired Behavior
- Rationale / Benefits
- Request for Acknowledgement
Point of Agreement/Empathy Statement
“Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18). Sometimes finding anything good or pleasant to say to a person who has been for you the source of great stress and sleepless nights painfully stretches the limits of our Christian maturity. You may have to dig harder to find that point of agreement or expression of empathy, but dig. The words we choose to begin our conversation with the recipient of feedback set the tone for the remainder of the interaction. Since we are approaching another in an attitude of love, to teach, support and promote communication, then we choose wisely when our words demonstrate our awareness of the individual’s accomplishments and/or understanding of his or her situation.
Avoid simple flattery and false graciousness; they fool no one and only serve to raise the ire of your listener whose intelligence you have now most likely insulted. Your statements will appear much more genuine if related to the feedback situation. Consider these examples:
- When dealing with a performance issue in an area of ministry, you might begin: “Your passion for this ministry is very obvious and I am so grateful for that.”
- To address inappropriate conduct that has just occurred: “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation with John just now. I can understand how easy it is to get so frustrated with him.”
- For the hard working staff member whose conduct or performance may also be disintegrating in the process: “You have a lot on your plate right now and you seem a little stressed. Is there anything I can do to help?” Addressing stressors and potential barriers up front will demonstrate genuine concern for their situation and promote their receptivity in hearing how these issues have been affecting their performance.
It is now time to specifically label and describe those behaviors that offend, have created conflict, or that you perceive as sin. It is essential that you describe specific behaviors (“you rolled your eyes”) and not just perceptions (“you were rude”). Specify times and dates, location, the people involved, etc. The more specific you can be in your examples, the more you reduce the recipient’s ability to deny or challenge the event.
Keep descriptions of the undesirable behavior brief and to the point. Focus on the most overt or obvious behavior and move on. Don’t beat them up with the list of wrong doings you’ve been collecting over the months.
- “Earlier today, I overheard you telling Brother Mike, in a loud voice, that if you wanted his advice on how to improve the Sunday School program that you’d ask for it.”
- “In our staff meeting this morning, I felt you were very disrespectful when you told me in front of everyone ‘all you ever do is complain’.”
- “When we were in class yesterday, I wonder if you noticed the hurt and embarrassed look on your wife’s face when you started making fun of her cooking or how uncomfortable others were feeling about your comments?”
The caution and the challenge at this point will be to avoid using “But…” as the transitional phrase from Point of Agreement to a description of the Undesirable Behavior. The recipient has been waiting for the other shoe to drop since you first opened with your empathetic remarks; let them be pleasantly disappointed. Try to move into the more unpleasant aspects of their behavior with the same level of empathy.
- That is why I’m a little concerned when…
- I wonder, though, if you recognize that…
- Obviously I couldn’t have been more surprised to hear that…
While none of the components should be overlooked, I am convinced that the rationales we offer to the listener carry the most persuasive power by far. An effective rationale explains how the individual’s behavior negatively impacts communication, the team members, the congregation or his relationship with God. An effective rationale focuses the listener on the things that matter most, such as his own personal or spiritual well-being, his future in the organization, his departmental productivity. It is never about the speaker’s personal interests, bias, pet peeves, or values. Effective rationales help the speaker say, “It’s not about what’s good for me; it’s about what’s good for you and/or those you influence.”
- “It is important that the Youth Minister serve as a role model and when you — it may appear that — [harmful potential or real consequences of present behavior].”
- “I wonder what kind of message you’re sending to our middle school students when you arrive to class late and are not prepared? More than just modeling tardiness or irresponsibility, I also worry that they might get the impression that what you’re going to teach that day is not very important, or that they are not very important.”
Problems in past confrontational experiences may have been the result of failing to provide any meaningful rationales for our feedback or failing to provide any suggestions on what or how to do differently. Effective confrontation or feedback is more than just “stop it and shut up.” We cannot always assume the other person knows a better, more appropriate behavioral alternative or else he or she would already be doing it. This point in our interaction provides the opportunity to share with the individual explicit information about our expectations and a description of an alternative, more effective or appropriate behavior.
- “In the future, when you need to correct my performance, I would appreciate if you could share this feedback with me in private.”
- “A better way to handle Brother Mike’s criticism of the Sunday school class may be to….”
The rationales we provide offer such powerful support to our interaction that we are well served to repeat them, this time in support of a proposed alternative behavior. This rationale reiterates and defends how a proposed alternative behavior will specifically benefit communication, the team members, the congregation or his relationship with God. It is typically a restatement and rephrasing of the rationale provided earlier, only affirming the positive outcomes rather than the detriments.
Request for acknowledgement
Regardless of how quiet or receptive our listener has been, we silently offer up thanks to God as we arrive at the end of our interaction and prepare for one last step. Our request for acknowledgement gauges the individual’s understanding of our concerns and, hopefully, promotes discussion. Unless you are particularly bent on self-sabotage, avoid condescending and dictatorial phrases such as “Do you understand?” or “Are we clear?” Preferable alternatives include:
- “Do my requests seem reasonable? Can we come to some resolution here?”
- “I know you may not agree with all I’ve said, but it is important to me that you at least understand where I’m coming from.”
Part 2: Receiving Feedback
“He who neglects discipline despises himself, but he who listens to reproof acquires understanding” (Proverbs 13:32, NASB).
As difficult as it is to confront, the role of the Recipient may arguably be the more difficult. It requires us to:
- Listen, without argument or rebuttal;
- Attempt to understand the concern of the speaker;
- Honestly acknowledge any part we may have played in the conflict.
The listener’s response to the speaker’s request for acknowledgement makes or breaks the feedback session. Regardless of how well (with love) or how badly (punitively) someone confronts us, when we find ourselves on the receiving end of feedback, we have both a Christian and a professional obligation to receive it gracefully. “The heart of the righteous weighs its answers, but the mouth of the wicked gushes evil” (Proverbs 15:28). We must apply Matthew 7:5 to our lives and take a moment to get the log out of our eye and thoughtfully examine our actions from the speaker’s perspective. In addition, Professional Feedback for the Recipient includes the following statement:
Appreciation / Acknowledgement Statement
An appreciative response demonstrates a receptive attitude, our own professionalism and our interest in wanting to improve or resolve the situation. At the very least, we must acknowledge to ourselves that the speaker must feel very strongly about the situation to have put himself in the uncomfortable, ever-dreaded position of confronter. You may not agree with everything the speaker had to say but that need not close the door for dialogue nor prevent a receptive response. Some suggestions include:
- Thank the person for being open and honest, desiring to resolve differences, and their concern for the ministry.
- Acknowledge the legitimate feelings and interpretations of the Speaker: “I understand what you’re saying and I’m sorry that my behavior made you feel disrespected.” Or: “While that was not my intention, I can see how my behavior could have been seen as uncooperative.”
- We can discuss what we are willing to do differently and unconditionally, independent of the other person’s behavior. For example, don’t say, “Well, I’m willing to… if you….”
As a receptive listener, whether we agree with the assessment or not we should affirm our willingness to work on the issues presented. Resist the urge to offer a rebuttal (for example, “I don’t do that!” or “Boy, you’re a fine one to talk!”) and instead, let us open our mind to the possibility that perhaps our vision of self could benefit from another perspective. “I sure didn’t think I was out of line in that situation at all, but obviously I need to re-look at how I handled that. Are there other situations that you’ve observed where I’ve reacted similarly?”
The Unreceptive Listener
Oddly enough, listeners are not always willing to hear, let alone work on the issues we’ve presented. They will tell us we are over-reacting, making a big deal out of nothing, and they have no intention of changing their behavior. Space prevents a more lengthy discussion, but typical unreceptive responses are highlighted in the sidebar along with some possible strategies you may find helpful for dealing with them.
Speaking honestly to another person about behaviors that may be hurting himself or others socially, professionally or spiritually is the obligation of the Christian, the team leader and the team member, and the kindest thing one person can do for another. Gratefully, following the outline presented above with much prayer and deliberation will make the process less threatening and more productive for both parties.