As a therapist, I've long been aware that confronting clients only makes sense if it leads to self-confrontation. Unless a clinical intervention successfully gets clients to reassess their maladaptive assumptions, beliefs, or behaviors--and so moves them toward positive change--it's far more likely to impede than to advance the therapeutic process.
Regardless of theoretical bias, virtually all therapists have learned—sometimes painfully—that being too direct in their efforts to induce clients to change (i.e., by forthrightly confronting them) usually only causes them to dig in their heels and push back all the more. And after all, it's only reasonable to assume that almost anyone who enters therapy is, to one degree or another, ambivalent about change. Otherwise, they probably would have accomplished it on their own. So any therapist not recognizing or respecting the negative aspects of their client's ambivalence—or rather, their client's likely defenses against change—is virtually doomed to fail in their role as change facilitator.
To explore this almost routine resistance on another level, I should add that all of us need to cultivate a therapist-like sensitivity if we're to be as effective as possible in motivating others to alter detrimental behaviors. It's frequently essential that we develop the ability to understand—and understand compassionately—why another might defend against a change that to us would clearly benefit them. And it's precisely because we see such change asenabling them to resolve important personal or relational issues that it can be so difficult for us to appreciate this resistance.
Yet if we're to successfully persuade someone to change, we must first grasp just why they became "attached" to their dysfunctional behavior in the first place. Failing to comprehend how such behavior, despite its negative ramifications, came to be perceived by them as adaptive almost guarantees that critically confronting it will be useless. Or, I should say, worse than useless. For if the other person has experienced (though unconsciously) these self-defeating coping responses as somehow alleviating their stress, shame, or anxiety, then they may in fact feel necessary—or even crucial—to them. So to directly, and perhaps aggressively, challenge such "conditioned" reactions may be to activate their resistance and, however inadvertently, discourage just that change we're seeking to bring about.
In my experience, if confronting another can be done caringly—vs. critically—it stands a far better chance of being effective. And here I can hardly overemphasize that when I employ the term confront I don't mean "to oppose, provoke, or put down" the other person. Rather, it's to—non-offensively—present for the other's consideration an alternative behavior or viewpoint toward their problematic situation. Moreover, by neutralizing their probable defenses, this presentation is strategically designed to prompt them to assess their situation anew.
Done right, such confrontation is sufficiently encouraging and supportive that it's hardly experienced as confrontation at all. For in such instances, the so-called "confronter" is approaching the other with (so to speak) heavily padded, velvet gloves—not exactly pulling punches but doing everything possible to cushion each blow. On the contrary, confrontation done wrong would be to aggressively attempt to deliver knock-out punches—impelling the other either to desperately defend themselves or be brought to their knees ("knuckle under") as a result of such direct, antagonistic assault. Since, after all, the intention of the confronter is benign—not wanting to defeat the other but to productively engage him—it should be obvious how successful confrontation must operate if it's to facilitate positive change.
When, for instance, I have therapy clients who aren't living up to their potential, I might confront them by saying that, for reasons we might not yet fully discern, they've been cheating themselves, sabotaging themselves, or selling themselves short. Although I might well challenge them to begin questioning the negative assumptions about themselves that might explain their lack of achievement and (under certain circumstances) share some of my own frustrations about their continuing to talk to themselves in self-defeating, pessimistic ways, I'd refrain from judging or criticizing them. I wouldn't, for instance, admonish them for lacking self-discipline, compare them unfavorably to others who managed to achieve more with much less going for them, or suggest that maybe they didn't really deserve to succeed. Such interventions would be far less likely to move or inspire them toward positive change than to goad them into reacting negatively to me--their accusative, unsympathetic "assailant."
As another general example, I've confronted clients about not taking good enough care of themselves, or about not being sufficiently self-accepting, as a way of increasing their awareness of both the causes, and consequences, of their self-image deficits. But I wouldn't think of blaming or shaming them for such deficiencies, for no one can be faulted for their internal programming—derived in the first place to help them better adapt to their original family environment. Obviously, if children are led to believe they're not worth very much, they're not likely as adults to show a whole lot of caring or respect for their wants or needs. Or, if they were faulted for being selfish whenever they asked for something, then to be accommodating or generous with themselves later in life might induce uncomfortable feelings of guilt or anxiety.
So if clients harbor a negatively distorted sense of self, I might confront them about how they're actually being pro-active in maintaining this self-disparaging perspective through constantly judging themselves, as well as treating themselves in non-nurturant ways. Further, I'd challenge them to look at all the ways they've historically sabotaged themselves through this negative thinking (as in, "with friends like me. . . ").
Typically, my final confrontation here would be to have them look at how they've been treating themselves very much like their own parents did—parents whose woeful inability to make them feel competent, worthwhile, or attractive we'd already discussed. I might also challenge them to reflect on why they'd choose to validate the inadequacies in their caretaking by "parenting" themselves the same way. Such a confrontation almost always raises eyebrows, for they've frequently bemoaned how non-nurturing their parents were—expressed, that is, their regret over what they never got from them—without ever realizing that they were (to their great detriment) continuing to use their parents as role models in how they took care of themselves. Having regarded themselves as victims of their parents, they're now obliged to consider whether as adults they've become victims of their own self-denigration. How could they ever expect to feel better about themselves if their self-talk went on "imitating" that of their belittling parents?
Moreover, if they routinely rob themselves of their leisure time to do busy work, I might challenge their unrelenting self-discipline by asking whether their parents responded positively to them only when they were task-oriented and productive, but never when they were idle, relaxing, or simply having fun. Confronting them supportively (again, the only way confrontation is likely to lead to self-confrontation), I'll ask them to consider whether their never running out of things to do, never allowing themselves to slow down and really enjoy life, is really about the child inside them still striving to get their parents' (ever-elusive) approval.
Can they now face (and ultimately resolve) the buried grief they may have long suffered but never come to grips with?—the deep sorrow of never feeling valued or important unless they were doing something their parents (not they themselves) wanted? And can they tell themselves—with a love their caretakers may never have been able to provide—that they deserve to take care of themselves for their own sake, that they have inherent value (without at every turn needing to "prove" their worth)?
Note 1: Part 2 of this post will focus on a more complex example of confronting others—namely, going face-to-face with an alcoholic (though this approach would apply equally well to all addicts).
Note 2: I've written an additional 2-part post on how, specifically, a non-therapist might best confront someone they're having problems with. Entitled "Criticism vs. Feedback: Which One Wins, Hands-Down?", here are the links to both Part 1 and Part 2.
Note 3: If you found this post informative and believe others might as well, please consider passing on its link to them. Additionally, if you'd like to check out other posts I've done for Psychology Today—on a broad range of topics—click here.
© 2008 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.
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