To Confront or Not to Confront: Follow ‘The Rule of Three’.


Picture yourself seated at the bar of your favorite local eatery. Ryan, the unequivocally beloved bartender places your favorite cocktail in front of your chair without you needing to say a word. You exchange a few hugs and pleasantries, and tuck into your drink…

… Ryan asks if you’re having your usual. You smile, offering a bare nod, slightly embarrassed you’ve become so predictable. But that beet salad and lobster bisque cannot be topped. It comes, and Ryan, as usual, has a lovely place setting waiting to host your highly-anticipated meal. You sink right into the bisque. Instead of the typical perfection you’ve come to expect, you find it’s already cooled down and semi-congealed. You skip the usual ‘mmm’ sound effect and turn your attention to the most perfect salad ever created. Before taking a bite, you notice the spinach is looking intensely unappetizing, and there’s only one beet and just a tiny bit of feta. Deep breaths followed by a decision to not say a word, and write it off to an odd, off-night in the kitchen.

It’s not that easy to provoke a ‘confrontation’, to express your dissatisfaction out of fear of provoking discomfort. It has great potential to be awkward and unpredictable. The inclination to avoid them when possible is a good one, but sometimes this simply can’t be done.

Almost everyone falls into one of two categories: those who confront far too often, and those who don’t confront frequently enough.

If you are someone who will avoid confrontation to your detriment, examining the reasons you resist are important. Typically, the answer falls somewhere in the realm of not wanting to piss anyone off. But what if you’re pissed? Do you land firmly on it’s okay for you to feel uncomfortable, but it’s not alright to cause anyone else some degree of unease?
Conversely, is confronting others practically your hobby? Or, even if you don’t confront most people on the regular, is there someone in your life with whom you pick fights over every perceived slight or misstep?
It’s important to know not just where you fall here, but why. If you’re prone to speak up every single time someone does or says something you don’t like, or doesn’t do or say something exactly the way you would have, studying your reasons and desired outcomes is crucial to figuring out the utility of each individual showdown.
There are certainly those very emotionally healthy individuals out there who walk the line, and confront a situation when it’s needed but are able to discern between what’s worth discussing, and what’s best to just let go. I admire those people and strive to be one of them. Here’s what they know:
  • They don’t have the goal for everyone to like them. Straight up, they are not people pleasers and embrace the fact that everyone won’t respond to them with giddy enthusiasm. And they understand that’s exactly how it should work. When we aim to please everyone, we smack up against inauthenticity. This feels lame to everyone, and honestly, people see through us when we’re insincere. You can be honest and kind at the very same time, even if you’re delivering difficult to digest information or opinions.
  • They know what they want. If they choose to acknowledge a conflict, they know their reasons for doing so. They stay away from accusatory language, character assassinations, and blame. They ask questions and they don’t make assumptions. They desire a peaceful, productive outcome. Their aim is never to cause harm but to provoke a better relationship.
  • They have a keen understanding of what’s worth it, and what’s not. They can fairly easily decipher if it’s best to address an issue, or if the better choice is to let it roll off their strong, self-aware backs.
  • They know their audience. If the person in question whom you’re considering discussing an issue with is highly defensive, and typically unable to do anything but get aggressive and angry, your decision to bring something up has to be weighed more carefully. If the individual is open to feedback and a good listener, the likelihood of a positive outcome is much greater.


Sometimes, no matter how desperately you want to avoid a confrontation, it simply has to happen. You’ve identified a pattern that is detrimental and negatively affects you and possibly others. Leadership expert Peter Bregman discusses “the rule of three” in the Harvard Business Review. This suggests if you’ve noticed a particular habit three times, that’s when you address it. Bregman also advises being very specific, avoiding the impulse to bring up everything that’s irksome. If an employee is chronically late delivering on a project, and you’ve observed this behavior three times, that’s when you bring it up, specifying each incident and the consequences. But leave other annoyances out of the confrontation. If this employee also interrupts others regularly, address this concern at another time.
Delivery is key. Asking questions and offering assistance typically will be better received than a punitive condemnation or threat.
Practice what you want to say before you say it. Bounce it off someone neutral and ask them if that’s a good way to word your feelings. Listen to their feedback and make adjustments. You chose them because you trust their opinion, right? If they tell you it ain’t worth it, consider that possibility.
If confronting someone feels less appealing to you than a broken limb, examine what exactly you’re afraid of. What’s the worst thing that could happen?

A while back, I was avoiding a confrontation with a friend because I didn’t know how I wanted to word my concerns. I didn’t trust she’d receive my opinion well. So, I ignored the problem and eluded spending time with her, demonstrating classic conflict avoidance behavior. Eventually, she kindly confronted me over email. I realized I couldn’t get out of dealing with it any longer, so I admitted I was upset and asked if we could find a time to sit down. Furthermore, I requested that we form an agreement to be non-defensive and open to the other’s point of view. That’s when a vile storm erupted. I said the exact wrong thing, and was called out for not addressing something that was bothering me. My avoidance and her defensiveness led to the end of our friendship. I’ll never know what might have happened if I’d been the one to bring my concerns up to her. Maybe it would have ended the same way, but I’ll always have to wonder.

Determining the worth of the discussion, and what you hope to achieve is a healthy guideline to follow. Sometimes it’s not worth it. Sometimes it is. And other times, no matter how much you want to avoid a conflict, you simply cannot. But you can control your side of the narrative.

Take the time to get curious about yourself. The questions you’re looking to answer are where you fall on this spectrum, and how it serves you.

Lara Falberg

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