Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and writer who specializes in helping clients—as well as their family members and professional caregivers—deal with the emotional impact of chronic and life-threatening illnesses.
It’s frustrating when someone else doesn’t seem to be listening. Or just isn’t trying. Or when they’re doing something really annoying. And so it’s human nature to want to jump in and let loose on them, pointing out in no uncertain terms what’s wrong and what needs to change. Often followed by a stream of accusations and criticisms. And maybe ending with an ultimatum.
Yikes! Pretty confrontational, right?
If someone has been that confrontational with you about something they thought you were doing or not doing, I suspect it wasn’t all that effective. Most likely, you felt defensive. Which results in shutting the other person out so that you can protect yourself from their critical words. Maybe you reacted to being confronted by shutting down. Or with your own show of force. Probably not doing what you were asked (or told!) to do, or doing it grudgingly.
Chances are, you have also found yourself in the position of being one who is doing the confronting, acting out of your own frustration.
What kind of results did you get? Most likely, the confrontation wasn’t very productive.
Chronic conditions can cause stress that leads to confrontation. Keep it gentle.
Getting confrontational just results in more conflict. Angry words lead to more angry words. We risk alienating people we care about. And it can take a long time to repair those wounds.
Living with a chronic condition like diabetes can present all kinds of reasons to want to confront the people in your life about their behavior. You ask over and over and feel ignored. You don’t get the kind of support you need even though it should be obvious what you need. Unhelpful comments get tossed in your direction.
Feelings like disappointment, anger, and fear can build up over time until you snap. All of a sudden, they get released in a torrent of: You didn’t. You don’t. You won’t. You never. You better.
And then, you and your family member are off to the races. And going nowhere.
There is a way to say what you need to say. And to say it in a way that the other person can listen. A way that can actually help you to clarify your feelings—and maybe even to encourage positive changes—without the risk of a breakdown in communication. It’s called gentle confrontation.
The goal of gentle confrontation is to make your needs known in a way that actually brings you and your family member closer. Gentle confrontation promotes increased understanding as well as a deeper connection with each other. Gentle confrontation can lower the stress level at your house and make it a nice place for everyone. And maybe even bring about change for the better.
Here’s how to use gentle confrontation at your house:
Express appreciation. Everybody likes to know they are appreciated. And we can all benefit from a reminder or two. It’s as easy as: “I just want to let you know how much I appreciate you. Every day.” Appreciation opens doors.
Reinforce the positive. Remind your loved one of something they do that benefits you and tell them how it helps you. Try something like: “Every time I ____, you are always there to ____. That really helps me a lot because without your help, I ____.” Fill in the blanks with specific examples. Is it possible that you’ve never actually put into words what it is your family member does for you?
Introduce your intention. Now, here is where the confrontation needs to be especially gentle. Rather than dropping the issue in their lap like a hot potato—which probably hasn’t worked in the past—introduce what you hope to accomplish in the conversation. “I just wanted to talk about something that has been on my mind. Talking about it would help me a lot, and I hope it will make our home even happier.” If your partner starts to put up a wall, then you may want to save this conversation for a later time.
Provide an example. Use a specific example make your point. You might even want to tell a story, e.g. “Last night…” And then fill in the blanks with your description of the situation. Keep this factual. For example: “I was in the kitchen cooking dinner. You looked in and saw what I was cooking. And what I heard you say was, ‘I see we are all stuck with your stupid diet.’ From the look on your face, you seemed pretty angry.”
Avoid accusing. Be careful about using “you” when you talk to your family member. That word alone can make people feel like they are being confronted, especially if it is said in a way that seems at all accusatory. Avoid words like “you always” or “you never,” which can make the other person feel they are being backed into a corner and scolded.
Be clear about the impact of the other person’s behavior. Take ownership for your own feelings. “When you said that, I felt really bad. It was like telling me that I am making everyone else miserable because of what I have to do to take care of myself. In turn, this can spoil the evening. And it’s not good for the kids to see us so unhappy.”
Suggest an alternative way to deal with these situations. It can help to have an idea in mind for how to communicate better in the future. Try something like: “I don’t expect you to like everything I do. And I know you’ve had a long day. But it would help me a lot if you would not make angry comments about what I’m cooking. Instead, maybe you could say something like, ‘Honey, I don’t want that tonight.’ If you said that in a kind way, I wouldn’t feel like I was suddenly two inches high.”
You might also ask your family member to suggest an alternative. Again, just ask: “This has come up before. How can we work together better?” Being specific can help: “I know you aren’t happy with my diet. What can we do so that you don’t feel like you have to eat food you don’t enjoy?”
Explain the benefit. For you and your family member. “When we both speak to each other in a kinder manner, it makes for a nice evening. And the kids are a lot happier when they see us in a good mood.”
Be open. Your family member may remember it differently. The best way to know is to ask. “Can you tell me how you were feeling when I ____?” Keep in mind that memory can be selective, and your loved one may have a completely different recollection. Also keep in mind that there may be a lesson for you somewhere in here, too.
Offer help. When one person is living with a chronic condition, everyone in the household is living with it. Sometimes negative behaviors, like snide comments, can be a way of expressing the same feelings that you may be experiencing, like fear and disappointment. So see if there is something you can do to help. “I know this isn’t easy for you, either. What can I be doing to help you?”
Confrontation doesn’t have to cause conflict. When you use gentle confrontation, you express yourself in a manner that clarifies how your family member’s behavior is impacting you, while also enlisting them to help you find a solution. Talking and listening!
Change takes time. Get the ball rolling in a positive direction. It’s all about being on the same team!