Owning Confrontation: How to Roll With the Punches.

I suspect every therapist has been there: your client sits down, and you already know, seconds before it begins, what’s going to happen, you felt it on the long walk to your consult room. They are about to play on your biggest insecurities of feeling inadequate and powerless.

“You don’t know what it’s like, you have never been to war/been horrifically injured/lost a partner/child. How are you going to sit there, and fix this? It will never, ever get better. The pain will never go away”.  They might say.

Perhaps they are crying, covering their face in angst, or perhaps they are gritting their teeth, suppressing their full blown rage, staring directly into your eyes.

Whichever it is, that shrinking, flushed, dropping feeling in your stomach is a horrible one. What do you do? You have seconds to make that person feel that you’ve got their back, somehow you’ve got to compose yourself, remain professional, all the while dealing with the fact you really have not experienced any of those things. Therein lies the answer: you just own it.

“You’re absolutely right, I have no idea how it feels, but I can see you are in terrible pain”.

They may relax a little, visibly the signs are there, they are not on the attack, but it’s not over yet. You are going to earn your dollars today.

“I’m just waiting for someone to say the wrong thing, and I will tear their head off”. I’m so angry!”

Oh Shit. Red flag. Is that person going to be you?

“I can see you’re angry, and I completely understand what you’re saying, how can anyone else understand it?”

“Exactly! I’m just furious/in pain.”

Bingo. They have acknowledged you understand them; now you are no longer the opponent, you are their ally.

It seems to me this applies outside of the therapy room. When someone is angry, or in pain, and looking for a fight, or seeing whether you’re the person they can trust, becoming their ally takes the target off your back, and goes some way to helping you both navigate the unfolding engagement. In therapy we often acknowledge physical sensations as the body’s warning signal that you are feeling anxious/scared. Often, we may challenge a client to sit with that unpleasant feeling, and help them grow by facing up to that anxiety (where appropriate), or learning how to manage it as best as they can with a variety of tools until their arousal levels drop. I suppose confrontation is not so dissimilar: when faced with that physical warning sign from your body, you’re entering a kind of arousal response of flight, fight or freeze. To your brain you are under threat, and it wants you to respond in order to escape that threat. Those first 5-10 minutes of an adrenaline dump are going to be the hardest, but once you can control your levels of arousal, you can respond using the more evolutionarily modern parts of your brain to evaluate the situation, and respond accordingly. Really then, responding to confrontation is acknowledging your immediate biological reaction as what it is: preparing you for battle. Now all you have to do is give yourself enough time to engage the part of your brain that helps us thrive as social animals, and negotiate with that person for a better outcome.  You need to let them know:  ‘I have your back’.


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