Shift How You Think About Confrontations to Impact the Outcome

Shift How You Think About Confrontations to Impact the Outcome

The following is a guest blog post by Erika Garms, PhD, a friend and a truly insightful neuroscientist that has some very good ideas for you.

I’m sorry to say that I’ve worked for plenty of dysfunctional and inefficient organizations. Perhaps many of you could say the same. As a result, I developed a burning desire to build healthier, and higher-performing workplaces for the sake of organizational results but also for the individuals who spend a third of their days within them. Five years ago, I founded consulting firm WorkingSmarts, Inc. to build healthy and high-performing workplaces.  More specifically, I help organizations to become brain-friendly by applying simple truths about how the brain works, to management and organizational dynamics.

What’s Underneath Hesitancy to Interact?

One area I am often called on to assist with is helping people get along better – both to lower stress and to improve productivity. What’s often at the root of this issue is hesitancy to interact with others for fear of confrontation. Let me offer a way to shift the way we think about what we think may be unpleasant interactions in order to approach them readily and use them to actually improve relationships and our anxiety levels. As you may guess, lowering anxiety at work is brain-friendly since increases in anxiety, fear, and threat correlate with lowered ability to access the part of our brain that we use to make decisions, create, innovate, negotiate, problem-solve, and plan.

Simple but Powerful Mindset Tweak

When there’s a conversation that you need to have with someone but you’re putting it off because the thought of having it makes your stomach go sour, try this mindset tweak that an audience I recently spoke to found really helpful. Instead of thinking about the upcoming interaction as a potential “confrontation”, think about it as a “conversation” – nothing more, nothing less. We know that language is powerful and words do affect outcomes. The word “conversation” doesn’t feel nearly as loaded as a “confrontation” does to most of us.  A conversation is neutral and has many possible outcomes. The most likely outcome is additional future conversations.

That’s not a bad thing, that’s a healthy thing. Further interaction means continued opportunity to understand each other better and strengthen the relationship.  So even if the conversation does not go the way you’d hoped for – if it’s not ideal or it ends up in a place you didn’t want it to, guess what? The only place to go from there is another conversation.

Many folks that I work with feel so much pressure around each conversation that they have at work – that they need to get every word right. They get stuck getting overprepared. They end up not holding the meeting because they never feel ready. Perhaps crafting an eloquently worded meeting script doesn’t draw on their strengths and may well not even seem like a good use of time. This is overwhelming for many and becomes paralyzing.

Rethink the Finish Line

Think instead about the conversations and meetings as being iterative. Set the expectation that they won’t be ‘perfect’ or ‘done’ in one shot. Set the model for imperfection and iterate or discuss the parts that don’t go exactly as you’d planned.


You can go back to the person you met with and say something like, “I was thinking about our meeting and I thought that some of the words that came out of my mouth didn’t come out the way I meant them to. Can I try again?” or “I wasn’t sure how our conversation landed with you and I wanted to check so we could make sure we both ended up feeling clear and like we understand each other.”  This opens the door for open, direct, and honest communication and also for you to get some feedback on the impact of your word choices and body language and tone.

The goal of a conversation is rarely to close off future possible interaction. In fact, if this is your goal going in to the conversation, it will likely come across in your body language, word choice, and tone. All three (body language, word choice, and tone) will send the message that you want to ‘get this over with.’ If the person you are interacting with is a colleague, is this a useful message to send for the long-term? Even for the short-term? Probably not.

It’s easy to burden yourself with the fear of what could go wrong in an interaction with others – either at work or in your home life.  Remember that it isn’t a confrontation that you’re looking ahead to. It’s one of many . . . an installment in a series of conversations.  The first one is not the last, and you get to review, rehash, and recast the meeting after it happens. It’s wet cement. Take a deep breath and go forward. Bonus: the more you do this, the more this style of interaction becomes the norm for your work unit, your division, or your entire organization. You can be the start of a culture shift toward more open and respectful and effective communication.

For more on building brain-friendly workplaces, download this tipsheet

Erika Garms, PhD is a cross-industry consultant who helps leaders and teams work, manage, and innovate smarter. As CEO of WorkingSmarts (, she uses her gift for translating powerful scientific theory to everyday workplace practice.

Garms is a popular speaker and facilitator and the author of, “The Brain-Friendly Workplace: Five Big Ideas from Neuroscience That Address Organizational Challenges” and the upcoming, “ManagementSmarts.”

About the author

Mike Gregory is a professional speaker, an author, and a mediator. You may contact Mike directly at and at (651) 633-5311. Mike has written 12 books (and co-authored two others) including his latest book, The Collaboration Effect: Overcoming Your Conflicts, and The Servant Manager, Business Valuations and the IRS, and Peaceful Resolutions that you may find helpful. [Michael Gregory, ASA, CVA, MBA, Qualified Mediator with the Minnesota Supreme Court]