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Constructive confrontation in education.

Conflict and confrontation are unavoidable in education, whether they exist between students, students and staff, staff, or administration and staff. Though unavoidable, confrontation is recommended and necessary for student, school, staff and district growth. The problem is that the word confrontation has received poor connotations, and is associated with other words that carry with them a negative experience like conflict, war, encounter, struggle, opposition and fight. Webster defines the word confront as "to oppose or challenge, especially in a direct and forceful way," (1) but confrontation does not have to be combative. The goal of confrontation is to change someone's behavior or attitudes toward something or someone. Both the perception of the word and the actual act of confronting bring with them unnecessary fear and anxiety. The purpose of this article is to help those who work in education to find comfort in confrontation, and the only way to accomplish this is through caring. Once you show the people you confront that you care about them, it becomes easier to confront them and achieve the desirable change.

Getting Started

There are many scenarios in education that call for some type of confrontation, such as with student discipline, parent contact and conferences, teacher remediation and peer conflict. All of these bring with them an associated fear and anxiety that create discomfort, especially before the time the conflict consultation begins. Many of us have experienced this pre-meeting anxiety only to find out later that it was unnecessary. It is these pre-meeting feelings that we wished we didn't have to go through, and in reality, if we understood the correct approach to constructive confrontation, we could avoid this.

Sometimes, constructive confrontation is about employing a more passive strategy, because in many circumstances, the person we are trying to constructively approach will feel the need to defend or guard against the unexpected. In many cases at the outset of the encounter, the individual will have no idea your plan is to speak to them in a caring and compassionate way, and that what you are about to communicate will help them immensely. A case in point is when parents come in who feel the need to advocate for their child. It is always best to let the parents vent and get their feelings out before broaching the issues concerning their child. This gives the parents power, a feeling of control and an outlet for frustration. At this point, the parents have decompressed and are ready to listen. All experienced teachers know that another good tactic when bringing parents in is to start off the meeting listing some of the child's positive traits. This sends a strong message that the child is valued and has potential, but needs some guidance and direction to achieve that potential.

Managing Student Behavior

In their book, Conflict and Confrontation in the Classroom, Sean O'Flynn and Harry Kennedy present six strategic steps in managing student behavior in a constructive confrontational manner.

1. State the facts.

2. State what you feel.

3. State why you feel that way.

4. State that there is a problem.

5. Exercise silence to allow the student to vent and express.

6. Plan together to fix the problem. (2)

By stating the objective facts, there is little a student can do to refute the behavior. A teacher needs to be careful here that the concern stated is indeed objective and not subjective. If a student is late, it is not enough to merely declare to the student, "You are late." A more objective way to state this would be, "It is 8:12 and class begins at 8:00." After this, you should then state what you feel: "I feel frustrated that I have to now go back and repeat the directions I had given to the rest of the class for today's assignment." This sharing of feelings humanizes the confrontation without the teacher relinquishing power. Sharing feelings like this does not minimize the teacher's authority, contrary to belief.

Following steps one and two, you are now ready to share why you feel this way in order to convey to the student why his or her behavior has a negative effect on you and the other students: "I feel this way because you have set my timing for this lesson back 12 minutes--not only for me, but also for the rest of the students, and we have a deadline for this assignment." Next you need to state that there is a problem and that you both need to work together to find a solution so that the behavior is not repeated. After this statement you should be silent and give the student an opportunity to express his or her feelings and perhaps vent about the reason for the tardiness. This is tricky as you need to do this without losing focus on the original problem.

The sixth and final step is to plan together to ameliorate the problem; most of the solution should come from the student. In this manner, the student will take ownership and buy into the plan.

Conflicts With Colleagues

Unfortunately, student behavior is not the only source of confrontation encountered in education. Quite often we find ourselves team teaching, co-coaching or coordinating extracurricular activities that partner us with someone whom we may develop a conflict with. There's always more than one way to accomplish a task, and depending on the experiences, training and delivery styles that each of you on the team may have, you may find yourself having to resolve issues through constructive confrontation.

Burt Bertram, a licensed counselor and therapist, devised a solid approach to working things through with colleagues. Initially, you need to set the stage for your comments by sharing your feelings with the other party and getting their undivided attention. This should be a scheduled meeting so that neither of you is distracted by any outside influences. You could begin the process by stating:

"I see this topic as potentially difficult, so before I jump in I need to ask you for your willingness to speak to me about this issue." Next, explain to the person in simple, nonjudgmental language your interpretation of what you have observed: "Let me tell you what I have been experiencing and observing ..." (3)

After you've explained the problem objectively, let the person now know how this impacts you, your team, the students or a project you may be working on: "I feel I have to share with you how this whole situation is impacting me and our team, and I find myself frustrated when I think about it." Then begin to explain the importance of the issue to you and that a resolution is crucial at this point: "This is very important to me, and I am fully committed to a resolution that will be fair and good for the both of us." (4) At this point you want confirmation from the other party that they fully understand your concerns, even if you have to have the person repeat them back to you. Clarify any misunderstandings without being defensive, as you just want to ensure the facts are clear and undistorted. Be persistent, as some people will try to change the subject, but it is your responsibility to draw the individual back to the initial concern. (5)

Bertram also states that the benefits of constructive confrontation far outweigh holding things in until you explode. Constructive confrontation is also beneficial in terms of "emotional freedom, increased relationship satisfaction and work productivity." (6)

This technique can be used between teachers, supervisor and teacher, and supervisors.

A Foundation of Care

In David Augsburger's book, Caring Enough to Confront, he defines care confronting as two words that are no longer distinctive and mutually exclusive, but that are complementary and not contradictive. Ausburger believes you should care enough to recreate the relationship. This is the case whether you are confronting a student or another staff member. Also, to move an organization or class forward or away from mediocrity, it may be necessary to caringly confront. (7)

He states:

"When unchallenged, human beings often become self-centered, individualistic and self-absorbed. When unchallenged, human groups tend to drift, wander or stagnate. When unchallenged, relationships tend to repeat, become routine, become stale or stuck. Life without challenge and confrontation is directionless, aimless, passive, selfish, self-serving, empty. Confrontation, uncomfortable as it can be, is a gift. Confrontation is a necessary stimulation to jog one out of mediocrity, or to prod one back from extremes. Life without the balance provided by constructive tensions is flat ... and undesirable. Confrontation is an art to be learned.

John Hoover and Roger P. DiSilvestro advocate in their book, The Art of Constructive Confrontation, that "constructive confrontation is grounded in careful planning and preparation." (9) When you exercise silent withdrawal to a dangerous flashing point, it is unlikely that confrontation will be caring and well-planned.

In this situation you may say things you don't mean in the heat of anger, and this can be very self-destructive. It's very important to think things through and plan well so that you can speak objectively and with moderate to little emotion. (10) The authors also assert it is important to engage in constructive confrontation as early as possible. The earlier this is done, the less courage it takes to confront. When intervention is done early enough and in a caring manner, it can be very conversational and amicable and can sometimes even be delightful. (11)

Augsburger recommends using "I messages" rather than "you messages" when you are angry, upset or frustrated. He writes:

"When angry, I want to give clear, simple 'I messages.' 'You messages' are often attacks, criticisms, devaluation of the other person, labeling or ways of fixing blame. 'I messages' are honest, clear and confessional. 'I messages' own my anger, my responsibility and my demands without placing blame." (12)

Growing From Confrontation

I leave you with another quote from Augsburger that speaks to how we can grow from caring confrontation:

* Of course I differ from you (To differ is not to reject).

* Sometimes I disagree with you (To disagree is not to attack).

* When necessary, I will confront you (To confront is to complement).

* When confronting, I will first connect (To confront well we must be connected).

* When it matters I will invite change (To change is to grow).

* We can grow through conflict (And confrontation is a healthy part).

* So let's explore where we differ and complement (If we agree on everything, one of us is unnecessary,) (13)

Think of men like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., who, if not for them engaging in caring and constructive confrontation, our society would not be where it is today. Think of Ann Sullivan and her constant caring confrontation of the blind and deaf Helen Keller. Sullivan transformed an otherwise incorrigible and enabled young girl into a woman who met her full potential.


(1.) Definition from Webster's Dictionary. (2013). Retrieved from: dictionary

(2.) Kennedy, H., & O'Flynn, S. (2000). Conflict and confrontation in the classroom: Reflections on current practice. (4th ed.). Cork, Ireland: Gortnaclough, Ballinhassig, Co.

(3.) Bertram, B. (2013). Construction confrontation: How to talk with someone about something difficult. Retrieved from: articles/Constructive_Confrontation.pdf

(4.) Bertram, B. (2013). Construction confrontation.

(5.) Bertram, B. (2013). Construction confrontation.

(6.) Bertram, B. (2013). Construction confrontation.

(7.) Augsburger, D. (2009). Caring enough to confront: How to understand and express your deepest feelings toward others. (3rd ed.). Ventura, CA: Regal Books.

(8.) Augsburger, D. (2009). Caring enough to confront.

(9.) Hoover, J., & DiSilvestro, R.P. (2005). The art of constructive confrontation: How to achieve more accountability with less conflict. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

(10.) Hoover, J., & DiSilvestro, R.P. (2005). The art of constructive confrontation..

(11.) Hoover, J., & DiSilvestro, R.P. (2005). The art of constructive confrontation..

(12.) Augsburger, D. (2009). Caring enough to confront.

(13.) Augsburger, D. (2009). Caring enough to confront.

I Versus You Messages

Author David Ausburger recommends using "I" instead of "you" messages when confronting.

For example:

* I am angry vs. you make me angry.

* I feel rejected vs. you're judging and rejecting me.

* I don't like the wall between us vs. you are building a wall between us.

"I messages" are positive and affirming, and they convey you are a precious person who demands respect and validation.

Thomas Viviano, Ph.D., received his doctorate from Penn State University, his master's from Chestnut Hill College, and his bachelor's from Temple University. He received National Board Teacher Certification in CTE in 2001.
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Author:Viviano, Thomas
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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