In a sense, my title reflects a false dichotomy. For it’s also possible that confronting another might be for both your sakes. But far too often when we criticize or give feedback to another, we’re not considering how our requesting (or demanding!) that they change will actually benefit them. Rather, in the moment our sole concern is for ourselves. And this is the case whether our encounter with them is contrived to offer us an advantage, advance our particular preferences, or simply make us more comfortable with them.

This post represents a kind of addendum to an earlier 2-part post I wrote on the subject entitled “How To Confront Others to Confront Themselves” (click here and here). In those writings I discussed ways in which you can induce others “to look at their deficiencies, insensitivities, or rigidity—without at the same time provoking their defenses”—an approach that requires a good amount of skill and patience. The present post actually stems from a comment I received on part 2 of that piece, which pointed out that confronting another should also involve considering the motive of the confronter. For what if the encounter was designed to serve only their self-interested agenda? In the commenter’s words: “Unless we can demonstrate actual harm to ourselves from the behavior of others, the problem is with us and not with them, so confrontation is inappropriate [giving as an example a strongly biased person’s trying to argue someone out of a gay marriage].”

This caveat is, I believe, well-taken. And so I’ll be expanding here not on the how of confronting someone (amply elucidated, I think, in my prior posts) but on the when and why of such confrontation. The fundamental point I wish to make is that if you’re to be ethical and follow the golden rule, it always makes sense to confront yourself about why you have such a need to confront another (especially if it’s your partner!) in the first place.

And here you might want to ponder something I pinned to my office corkboard many years ago:

The main reason we confront others is that we’re too afraid to confront ourselves. But the growth and change we really want and need comes much more from self-confrontation than from confronting the person we’re having problems with.

Obviously, confronting yourself represents much more of a psychological challenge than confronting someone else. If you’re like most people, your defenses (most of which aren’t even conscious) are likely to get in the way. After all, by definition, your defenses operate to reduce or eradicate feelings of anxiety or shame that we’re all subject to. So, it’s only human that—emotionally—it feels much less distressful to criticize someone else for what’s bothering us than to experience ourselves as the object of another’s criticism. Still, if your relationships are to be successful and satisfying, you ought to be sure that whenever you challenge, criticize, or otherwise sit in judgment on somebody, your key intent warrants your own respect.

If you can confidently determine that the other’s behavior is maladaptive or dysfunctional for them— or the relationship—it would doubtless serve them (and secondarily, you, too) to tell them so. But you’d also want to make every effort to be tactful and restrained in how you disclose this information, so as not, inadvertently, to hurt their feelings or arouse their resistance.

There are, however, many gray areas in figuring out what’s really in the other person’s best interests—and what’s simply in yours. And deciding this will require a lot more discrimination on your part. You may need to ask yourself such questions as:

  • Are you trying to impose your values on them? Say, you’re a saver and your partner is a spender. As long as they don’t go over the budget the two of you agreed on, it’s neither kind nor fair to confront them whenever they make a purchase that, in your particular value system, is unwarranted.
  • Are you seeking to get them to succumb to your personal ideology, or religious beliefs? So if, for instance, you’re a practicing Catholic and they’re atheist—and totally content in their unbelief—you really have no right to confront them about their predilections in the endeavor to make yourself more comfortable by getting them to espouse your own religious convictions.
  • Are you wanting to persuade them to make your dislikes theirs too? If you don’t like one of their friends, unless you have compelling evidence that this person exerts a negative influence on them, confronting them about the affiliation is hardly justified. And it’s also likely to damage your own relationship with them.
  • Is your objective to gain some strategic or practical advantage over them? Might you, for example, be trying to talk them out of competing for a position that, to be honest, you desire for yourself?
  • Are you attempting to discourage them from pursuing something because their obtaining it would hinder or be inconvenient for you? Say, your spouse wants to get a part-time job, do volunteer work, enter a graduate program, etc., but honoring their choice would require your taking significantly more responsibility for household chores or the needs of your child(ren)? For the sake of your partner—and your relationship generally—you ought to defocus from what merely serves your particular interests and inclinations (golden rule again) and factor in your spouse’s interests as well.
  • And so on . . .

Certainly, it’s legitimate to keep your own wants and needs in mind when you’re dealing with another individual. But doing so to the detriment of all other considerations is hardly reasonable if you want to cultivate a relationship that’s just and fair. So it’s almost always a good idea to confront yourself before deciding to confront another.

And your motives hardly need to be completely disinterested or altruistic. With relationships in which you’re personally invested, such a self-sacrificial approach isn’t realistic or, for that matter, even healthy. But if you wish to see yourself as caring and truly concerned about the welfare of others, you need to consider whether what you’d like to change in them isn’t simply to benefit yourself. For you also need to ask yourself whether it’s in line with their own aspirations, needs, and desires.

Note 1: In case you missed it earlier, these are the links (click here and here) to my earlier 2-part post on the subject, “How to Confront Others to Confront Themselves.”

Note 2: I've written an additional 2-part post on how you might best confront someone you're having problems with. Entitled "Criticism vs. Feedback—Which One Wins, Hands-Down?", here are the links to both Parts 1 and 2.

Note 3: If you could relate to this post and think others might as well, please consider sending them its link. Additionally, if you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today generally, click here.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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