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When Confrontation Arises
By Mike Roberts - 10/25/2004 - 06:08 AM EDT

The context of my last article was assertiveness. In my examples, I focused on asserting one’s self when differences arise. The idea is to keep your opinions as just that: opinions, which others are welcome to disagree with, but nevertheless express how YOU feel about a situation and how you must therefore proceed. Whether the difference in question is minor or life-altering, the idea is to diplomatically reach a conclusion that clearly respects everyone’s point of view, while not ignoring the facts (if there are any) and not suppressing your internal needs (assuming you have identified what those needs are). In the end, you hope to have made your point clear in a non-confrontational way.

But what about when confrontation is in order?

Let’s take for example the firing of a band member or collaborator. Let’s say you’ve come to the place where the termination of the relationship is imminent. Now, when someone has clearly dropped the ball and blown it in a major way, this duty may come very easily. When the bass player misses three rehearsals in a row and then shows up drunk for a crucial gig, the band can't wait to utter the Trumpian “you’re FIRED.”

But what about when no one’s done anything monumentally bad, but things just aren’t working out relationally? Maybe there’s an incompatibility issue or you're simply no longer happy. Perhaps the collaborator hasn’t contributed anything for some time, despite several conversations to that effect. Progress has come to a halt. Or maybe a band member has displayed that their focus is simply not on your project, or that they’re focused alright but just not cutting the mustard talent-wise. In each case, the individual is likable and the situation is relatively peaceful, but you undeniably feel that change is in order.

Change, therefore, must take place; you must take decisive action. Just because you don’t have any negative catalyst to get your blood boiling, you’re still going to have to do the unpopular, the unpleasant, the undesired task of… what shall we call it… Firing? Terminating? Letting go? Moving on? Downsizing? Outplacing? Call it what you will, you’ve got to bring this chapter to a close so you can both move on to the next one.

I was recently asked by a close friend for some input in just such a situation. Although there was a long-term friendship involved, and no “hard feelings” had arisen, he was faced with the need to replace a musician in his band with one that was more qualified for the role. Yuck. What an awkward conversation that was going to be. Actually, it was a conversation that needed to take place a lot earlier (like months and months earlier) but, again, when there’s no fuel of animosity this can be a hard fire to get lit.

I had two suggestions for him, the first of which I will give in this article. The second one will continue in the next article. These are based on my own experiences of having to place and replace people over a ten year management experience in two similar non-profit organizations. Sometimes these were paid staff and sometimes they were non-paid. And believe me, the latter were really difficult (after all they were volunteers!) but nonetheless just as important. Most of the time, none of these situations involved hard feelings or bad attitudes, but rather the improper placement of human resources. This made the duty a particularly sensitive one.

Number one, most importantly, first and foremost: start the conversation off by stating your intentions in calm, clear language. Don’t hem haw around for 10, 15, 30 minutes and then finally get to it. You’re colleague will only feel like you’ve led them on. Also, you may not be as clear-headed when you finally do state it, and it could end up coming out in a way other than how you wanted it to. Worse, if you’re setting up the problem with the idea that in a moment you’ll present your solution (which is to fire the person) you’re likely to start getting suggestions by the other person as to how you may both solve the problem together. Or even worse than that, you talk for so long that you realize you’re out of time! Now you’ve only got five minutes left and you say to yourself “that’s not enough time to drop this kind of a bomb." And then it gets put off to yet another time and place. Bad move.

It’s like eating your spinach first. Remember that advice when you were a kid? Eat the worst thing on the plate first, then you have everything else to look forward to. When you sit down with your associate, say right off the bat “This has been a tough discussion to prepare for, because I’m going let you go from the band/songwriting team, and I want you to know why I’ve made that decision.” As Emeril would say: BAM! There it is, it’s out, it’s in the open, it’s on the table. It’s a chorus without a build up. Why tease them with idle talk? Why create a false sense of security? After all, no one would appreciate it if after chit-chatting with the doctor for half an hour about kids and golf he suddenly says, “by the way, the reason I wanted you here is to let you know that your condition is terminal.”

So, point one is “just say it.” You’ll find that the delay of the ultimate statement only serves to further pressurize the situation, even if only inside of you. Sticking a pin in a balloon makes a lot worse racket when it’s inflated to maximum pressure. Don’t lead up to it. Don’t “get around” to it. Just say it. You may need to practice the opening line if this kind of thing doesn’t come naturally. “Sue, we need to go our separate ways.” Say it out loud to yourself over and over and over. Practice in front of a mirror if necessary. It’s just like preparing for a recital. Practice by repetition until the movements are habitual, because you won’t be able to think straight once you hit the stage. C’mon, we’re all performers here! We should know that already! I think we don’t always associate these kinds of things with performance though. But it’s really the same thing.

One more thought to add. Notice that the line in the preceding paragraph didn’t read “Sue, I think we need to go our separate ways.” Once you’re at the point of no return, you’d better not still be “thinking” about it. That’s a good way to get talked right out of it. You need to be clear and concise so that the other person doesn’t take the discussion down the “now how can I change your mind” path. Think of it like ripping the bandage off and getting the pain over with as quickly as possible. When you speak, speak decisively, speak clearly and, for everyone’s sake, speak quickly. Then you’re ready for the next stage…

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