Conflicts with supervisors or people in positions of authority seem to come up frequently in my work. People often ask me how to confront their supervisor or manager to address frustrations and irritations.
I start by recommending caution. Confronting someone who has the positional authority to retaliate against you presents some very real political risks. That being said, here’s one approach I have found that often works well, and it significantly reduces the risk of retaliation:
Use an apologetic attitude.
The apologetic attitude starts when you Deliver the invitation to meet and it continues throughout your discussion of the conflict. In practice, it goes something like this as you Deliver the invitation:
- “Apparently I have done something to create some frustration for you. I’m not sure what it is, and I would like to speak with you to resolve this frustration.” or
- “I think I might have done something to irritate you. I think I know what it might be, but I'm not completely sure. I would like to speak with you to get things smoothed out between us.”
Notice that the person in the subordinate position takes responsibility for the supervisor's frustration and irritation in these situations.
The people who come to me with the question of how to address this type of situation often really do not know what has caused the frustration, irritation, or disconnect with their supervisor. That is why I recommend this type of approach. It creates the space for an open discussion without putting the other person on the defensive. This is a practical application of using the power of apology.
I have noticed that people usually have a very difficult time remaining angry with you when you are apologizing. When you use this approach, you listen to their frustration first and then you share your concerns. This apolgize and listen approach improves the odds that the other person will eventually be willing to listen to what you have say.
The approach will not work in every situation or with every person. It is often better than a more direct approach that runs the risk of triggering a negative or retaliatory response.