More on the “Art” of Benign Confrontation

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Confrontation doesn’t have to mean making judgments about character, and it doesn’t have to mean putting people on the defensive.

For far too long, the very notion of confronting someone, especially within the context of a therapy session, carried some very negative connotations. But the reality is that no problem has ever been solved until it has been directly confronted, including problems involving a person’s behavior. So the secret to helping people change is not to avoid confrontation altogether, but to ensure that when you confront you do so in a manner that gets to the heart of issues without unduly disparaging or alienating the person with the behavioral problems, and therein lies the art of benign confrontation. (I first wrote about this in “The Art of Loving — And Benign Confrontation”.)

Like many therapists my age, I was initially trained to avoid creating a climate that might invite a client to unconsciously raise their defenses and therefore shy away from developing that all-important “therapeutic relationship.” In that regard, there were some things a therapist just wasn’t supposed to do: ask direct, probing “why” questions; make interpretations about a person’s behavior that reflected a “judgment” about the moral character of those behaviors; or “put someone on the defensive” by calling direct attention to (and therefore “exposing”) their less functional way of coping. Instead, you were supposed to primarily display compassion for the hurt that must necessarily underlie their maladaptive behavior; build a trusting, empathetic bond; and then slowly and systematically help the person “work through” both their feelings and their issues. And of course, you would never say something as direct and potentially provocative as “it appears you think of yourself as entirely too special and this causes problems in your relationships,” not only because that is an inherently negative, hurtful thing to say but also because while it may be true that the person acts in a haughty way, they’re presumed to be unaware of what they’re doing, presumed to feel insecure and inferior underneath it all, and they’ll therefore experience unhelpful shame and guilt. By saying such a thing you only pour salt on an already substantial wound and damage any chance you have to form a potentially therapeutic bond.

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But after years of experience working with disturbed characters, I came to recognize two very important realities: first, to assume that everyone’s actions are driven primarily by unconscious motives and that those motives are always rooted in fears and insecurities is folly; and second, when you don’t confront a character impaired person on what they already know they’re doing, they not only hold you in low regard (sometimes even in disdain or contempt) but also deem you both untrustworthy and easily manipulated. So, I began to craft a manner of confronting that was direct yet clearly devoid of hostility — a matter of fact, dispassionate calling of attention to behaviors of concern coupled with both encouragement and reinforcement for a person’s willingness to take a different course.

Readers of my books In Sheep’s Clothing and Character Disturbance have always told me that they were once afraid to confront their emotionally abusive relationship partners for the very same reasons therapists have avoided confrontation. “I was afraid he’d feel attacked and on past occasions when I did say something, he’d act offended and get all defensive, making me feel really bad about having said anything at all,” one woman reported. The problem is that in backing down from confrontation, and especially in buying into the notion that the abusive party is both unaware of what they’re doing and primarily struggling with fears and insecurities, the aggrieved party inevitably ends up tolerating, and thus “enabling” problem behaviors to continue. Moreover, if the parties just happened to seek counseling from a therapist firmly aligned with traditional perspectives, such a pattern is likely to get heavily reinforced and neither will get the help they really need. I’ve witnessed this kind of thing happening time and time again.

Recently, a gentleman contacted me who had been involved in couples counseling with a therapist familiar with the newer perspectives and well versed in the art of benign confrontation. “At first, I was stunned when she (the therapist) confronted my now ex on her behavior. My ex acted so outraged when confronted that I immediately thought to myself ‘the therapist has gone too far and now I’m actually feeling sorry for her because she’s wounded and feels like I’ve been a party to an attack on her.’ But to my surprise, the therapist got her to admit not only what she was doing but also that the “outrage” she displayed was just a tactic to make us question ourselves and back off. In that moment, I came to see her and our whole relationship in an entirely different light.” I’ve gotten reports similar to this from hundreds of individuals over the years, and it’s always edifying to learn of someone’s positive experience with the process of benign confrontation.

Few problems in life are easily solved. Some problems are harder to solve than others, especially in the arena of human behavior. But no problem has ever been solved without first being correctly identified and then appropriately confronted and dealt with. That’s why, in the age of character disturbance, perhaps there’s no more necessary or valuable resource than a therapist well trained in the art of benign confrontation.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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