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Blog Short #141: How to Confront Someone When Something’s Bothering You

Photo by fizkes, Courtesy of iStock Photo

This question comes up a lot because it’s a common problem and difficult to handle. That said, some people have no problem saying what’s on their mind when they’re upset or don’t like something, but not always in a way that’s well received. Others feel timid to voice their concerns or feel guilty, and sometimes even afraid.

Today we’ll go through some basic guidelines you can use that help and also talk about when you’re overstepping.

Let’s start with the guidelines. There are two scenarios to consider.

Scenario #1: You don’t like what someone’s doing that directly affects you.

This is the most common scenario and one you should address. However, there’s a way to do it and not do it. To be successful, you need an approach that doesn’t feel like an attack. Try these things.

  1. Use “I” messages only. Never start with “You . . . .” You’ll put the other person on the defensive. Say, “When you do (blank), I feel (blank).” This wording takes the sting out because you’re taking responsibility for your feelings, even though the other person stimulates them. You might think this is just semantics, but it’s more than that. It helps the other person hear you.
  2. Explain. Once you’ve stated the issue, you can explain it but continue to use “I” messages throughout so that you avoid a direct attack, even if you think they deserve it.
  3. Now offer an alternative. Say how you’d rather they behave or how you would rather it be. What do you want or need from the other person? Again, stick with “I” messages. You’re not telling someone how they should or shouldn’t be or what they should or shouldn’t do, but you are letting them know how their behavior affects you and what you need, and sometimes where the limit is. That’s far more powerful. If the person cares about you, they’ll take it in and consider it.
  4. Don’t hold them to an immediate response. The last guideline is giving the other person time to digest your words. You could say, “I don’t expect an immediate response. Take some time if you need to think about it. We can talk more later.”

What if?

What if the other person doesn’t respond well? Here are two possible negative responses.

1. They get angry and blow up.

If this happens, you have two choices: Either work on diffusing the anger or opt out.

To diffuse, you could say,

“I can see you’re upset. That wasn’t my intention. Please tell me what’s bothering you about what I’ve said.”

Let them talk and voice their thoughts. The more receptive you are to what they say, the more the anger will diffuse, and they’ll calm down.

You might find it annoying to switch gears and listen to the other person because, in effect, they’re changing the focus from you to them. However, the goal is to reduce defensiveness so you can return to the issue and have a more reasonable discussion.

You can also opt out. You could say,

“I’m sorry you’re upset. That wasn’t my intention. Maybe we need to take some time before talking about it more.”

Or, if you get an unacceptable counterattack, you can immediately let the other person know you’re not willing to continue under those circumstances. You might say,

“I can see you’re angry, but I’m not okay with the direct attack. Let me know when and if you’re willing to talk. Until then, let’s put it off.”

2. They defend by changing the subject.

You initiate a topic, and the other person jumps in with five other issues. These are called “kitchen sink conversations.” They never work.

In this case, point out that you’re moving off the original subject and need to handle only one issue at a time. Let them know you can deal with the other issues they’ve raised but at another time. Most people will hear that and come back to the original topic. Those that won’t are naturally more defensive. If that happens, refuse to move on and opt out for now if necessary.

Make use of time.

Keep in mind that time is an asset when talking about complex issues. You don’t need to resolve everything right now. If you just get out what you need to say, that’s enough for the first round. If the subject triggers the other person, you can suggest taking time on both parts to think through the issue before attempting to resolve it.

You could say,

“Let’s just try to understand each other’s point of view in this first conversation without agreeing to anything. Then we’ll take a break and return to it tomorrow after we’ve both had time to digest it all.”

That seems to work best for most people. Break it down into two or three separate conversations.

Scenario #2: You’re concerned about someone.

In this case, you’re concerned about the path someone’s going down, or you know their unhappiness is due to avoidance of some kind or another.

There are several things to think about before launching a confrontation or giving advice.

1. What’s the nature of your relationship?

Is the relationship close and strong enough to withstand what you have to say? Is it appropriate to bring up the subject or discuss your concerns?

2. What’s the level of receptivity?

If there’s little to no receptivity to what you have to say, you should think carefully before going forward. You may say it anyway because you believe the other person is headed down a dangerous road. Yet, if there’s no receptivity, or you’ve said it all before to no avail, reconsider.

Sometimes people need to learn things on their own in their own way.

3. What’s your investment?

Usually, when you’re concerned about someone you love or are close to, your investment is substantial. The question to ask yourself is, do you want to pass on your advice or concern to help the other person or to relieve your anxiety about it? Maybe it’s both, but you must ensure your primary objective is what’s best for the other person. Know your motivation.

Guidelines for This Scenario

Once you go through the above questions and decide to go forward, use these guidelines.

  1. As in the first case scenario, stick with “I” messages. You can start with, “I’m concerned about something I’d like to run by you.” Or, “I’m worried about something I’d like to talk to you about.” Follow-up with, “This is not a criticism, but genuine concern. Are you willing to hear it?”
  2. Be direct, but deliver your message without judgment or blame. If the behavior directly affects you, say how it does.
  3. Check in as you go to see how it’s going down. If the person becomes defensive, you can decide whether to push on or let it go for now.

You can always say,

“I don’t mean to make you feel attacked or defensive. I am concerned, but we can let it go for now. Maybe you might think about what I’ve said when you have time to digest it.”

Whatever you decide to say or not, make sure you’re allowing the other person to have the time needed to process it and that you’re not launching an attack.


To summarize, stick with these four rules:

  1. Avoid attacking or criticizing, even if you feel it’s warranted.
  2. Use “I” messages, and if appropriate, say how the behavior in question affects you.
  3. Be empathetic, especially for the second case scenario.
  4. Don’t expect to resolve everything in one conversation.

I’ve attached a PDF called How to Stop Being Defensive if you haven’t already seen it before. It provides some extra info you can use.

That’s all for today.

Have a great week!

All my best,


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