Making Confrontation Not So Confrontational

Some self-examination may help to smooth the waters with difficult personalities.

By Crystal M. Brimer, OD

Staffing concerns are a primary topic in practice management—how best to hire and fire, when to award bonuses, etc. One aspect of staffing that is a constant challenge is how to deal with problematic personalities. Sometimes people are difficult; sometimes situations are difficult; and sometimes both are difficult. We often look back on how we handled such situations and wish we had said or done something differently.

Responding appropriately to problematic personalities is a challenge, but, if we can learn to rise to the occasion, this is a skill that will serve us well.


Employers who wish to create a harmonious office may need to adjust their management tactics to act proactively and positively with employees.

This applies not only to staff, but also to patients, family, friends, and whoever else might be on the other end of the phone. Conflict derails productivity and morale and negatively affects relationships.

Some of the difficulty lies in how certain types of people deal with others whose personalities differ. People-oriented people tend to see task-oriented people as bullies; task-oriented people see people-oriented people as weak and ineffective.

What can we do about it? This article offers some pointers for smoothing the waters in our dealings with difficult personalities.


I recently attended a seminar presented by Fred Pryor, called “Dealing with Difficult People.” I expected, naturally, that I would learn how to deal with and manage difficult people. As it turns out, however, the course was about us—the attendees—not about those who aggravate us. It was a training course on how to respond to another person’s rants, laziness, or ineffectiveness.

“Hmm,” I said to myself as I sat in the seminar. “This is going to be a much harder task than I thought.”

Obviously, the way we respond is different according to whether it’s a patient, employee, boss, or family member. Alas, there is no silver bullet—no single way to manage all of those difficult situations. Still, proper responses to each may have more in common than we might think. By limiting our emotional response, for example, we may achieve more effective communication and more satisfactory outcomes.


We all have particular situations that set us off. But what may be a hot button issue for you, at its core, is your interpretation of someone else’s action. Situations can become emotional because someone else hits a nerve that connects to your own areas of sensitivity. When this occurs, it validates something of which your mind is already conscious.

How do you cool off a hot button issue? Recognize, for a moment, that your hot buttons are rooted in your own self-doubt. What if we no longer cared what people thought of us? If we did not care, we would likely change our reactions in such situations, and our hot buttons would disappear.

You give control to someone else when you allow the emotional snowball to start rolling. Quit taking it personally, and the snowball does not have the chance to form.

This is the first step in changing your response to your hot button issues. Think through your internal issues that influence your response, and recognize how a negative response could potentially hamper future success. Doing so can help you realize what is actually happening in the heat of the moment and prevent an outrage reflex from occurring.


Sometimes a lack of communication leads to built-up frustration and, eventually, to conflict. When employees feel that you do not have time for them, they will not come to you with issues. If issues are disregarded for too long, this can lead to an uncomfortable explosion in the workplace.

Active listening can help to prevent these situations. To listen actively, one must listen with more than the ears. Listen with undistracted, relaxed body language, engaged eye contact, and appropriate interjections. For example, if an employee comes to you with a problem while you are engaged in patient records, you must stop what you are doing, make eye contact, and give that employee your full attention. Alternatively, if you are engaged in a particularly important task, you can tell the employee to write a quick note and return to talk to you about it in 10 minutes when you are finished your task. If you do this, set your timer and keep your word.

Tell your staff members that they are welcome to bring any problem to you, as long as they also bring along two possible solutions. When a staff member comes to you with a problem and a set of solutions, you can then decide together on the best way to proceed. A fruitful conversation should include the employer delineating the specifics of a plan (“You’re going to do X, Y, and Z by next week.”), asking the employee to confirm this verbally (“Yes, I am.”), and then asking what resources the employee needs to complete the task (“How can I support you?”).

When the conversation occurs this way, the employee owns the agreement, and it is her word to herself. At this point, if you have a suggestion, you can add, “I think I have an idea that would help you get there.” These agreements may concern something as simple as cleaning the office by the end of the day or as complex as setting a long-term career goal.


Sometimes the employer can see a problem on the horizon. When you see an employee’s behavior as a potential problem that has not yet blossomed into a conflict, you should approach that employee as someone offering a solution. Rather than addressing the behavior as a complaint from a boss, the employer should address the employee’s behavior as someone who wants to help improve the employee’s professionalism and further his or her career. Say something like, “I see you doing something that may jeopardize your career. Can I offer some advice?” This approach may take some practice, but the desired result (a change in the employee’s behavior) is more likely to occur this way than through confrontation.


Generational differences certainly exist among employees, as do differences in work ethics and career goals. However, two universal qualities apply to employees of any age: They seek recognition, and they value accolades.

Make your employees experts at their jobs, and they will let you be an expert at yours. Do this by asking them to teach you how to do something, and they will be open to your teaching them something in return.

Crystal M. Brimer, OD
• owner, Focus Eye Care, Wilmington, N.C.