Thursday, July 28, 2011


I had one of those disconcerting experiences the other day that I have been processing ever since. I was speaking with someone who was commenting on a mutual acquaintance of ours. It wasn't gossip or criticism as much as it was an observation of how this particular individual operates. One of the things this person mentioned to me is that the other individual had a 'list' - a list of people that they absolutely could not stand. I jokingly replied "I sure hope you let me know if I ever get on that list!" There was silence.

I was brought up short. "Really? I'm on the list?" The response was No, I wasn't but the truth was that the other person didn't like me at all. When I asked why, the response was that, according to this individual, I was "confrontational and argumentative."

I admit to being initially surprised, perplexed, curious and, of course, a little hurt. I don't know that many of us want to be on someone else's don't-like list. Of course, as a teacher you have to get used to it -- all sorts of people don't like you on a pretty regular basis and are not afraid of letting you know. But it always gives you a bit of a pause when it's someone who is a peer.

Whenever someone criticizes me, I try to objectively look at what they're saying. So, since this conversation I have spent time reflecting on the comment and evaluating its veracity. Am I those things? Have I shown that behavior in my interactions with this person? The answer is - it depends upon how you view Confrontation.

It's my opinion that the word gets a bad rap. People see or hear it and they immediately perceive it as a negative thing - a conflict full of raised voices, angry comments, and unsurmountable obstacles. But if you really examine the meaning of the word, it doesn't have to mean any of those things.

If you look at a reference source, there are many definitions of the word. The definition that I believe is most helpful and useful is this one: "conflict between ideas, beliefs, or opinions, or between the people who hold them." Personally, I view a confrontation as an opportunity to explore those differing ideas or opinions in order to try to understand the other party and to try to come to a resolution to those differences with which everyone can be satisfied.

I realize my understanding and use of the word comes from my training. In Interpersonal theory, we encourage the idea that burying or ignoring differences is usually less than productive and helpful and that successful and healthy conflict resolution usually requires facing (confronting) the issues that are before you and addressing them openly.

So as I look back over my interactions with this person I have to conclude that this person's definition of "confrontational" and "argumentative" are different than mine. I also, to be very honest, conclude that perhaps this individual needs to grow a thicker skin.

I have had a very limited number of interactions with this individual - I'd be stretching to call it a dozen over the period of a year. The situation in which we most often interact is one where we are representing opposing interests. As such, we often have differing opinions. While I haven't been overly vocal in this setting (as there are many others present who are much more vocal and assertive and, quite frankly, argumentative), I am generally direct in expressing my views while taking care to communicate in ways that are respectful. I don't raise my voice. I don't use sarcasm. I don't snip. I don't roll my eyes. I don't use the 'heavy sigh.' I use phrases such as "I see your point and I'd like to share a different perspective," or "tell me more about this," or "can you give me a specific example of what you mean" or "I understand your position and I don't agree" or even "I don't think we're as far apart in our positions as you might think."

If that behavior is 'confrontational and argumentative' then I guess I am guilty.

People differ. We have different interests, opinions, thoughts, skills. I find those differences to be interesting. While they can sometimes be frustrating, more often I believe those differences are what create new ideas, new approaches and new possibilities. If we are willing to talk openly about them, and thoughtfully and open-mindedly consider the opposing viewpoint, I believe those differences can move us forward and result in positive change

I suspect that maybe this individual might be one of those who defines and categorizes anyone who holds an opposing opinion, and is willing to express it, as confrontational and argumentative. Personally, I don't find this approach particularly helpful or - quite honestly - particularly professional or adult. But for now, I guess I'll have to be content to be on someone's list.

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