The Courage of Confrontation and Accountability Contrasted with the Hostility of Accusation and Blame
© 1997 Michele Toomey, PhD

A confrontation takes courage for many reasons, not the least of which is the self-revelation it requires. In a confrontation, we make a deliberate decision to reveal in an honest, straight forward way, how something has affected us. We are always vulnerable when we reveal how we have reacted to something that has been said or done to us. Sharing our reflections on what we are thinking and feeling as we ponder our reactions is a very intimate process. It means leaving ourselves unprotected as we tell the person we are confronting how they have hurt, angered, intimidated, insulted, or disappointed us. If they cannot hear what we are saying without getting defensive and attacking us, we are vulnerable to their hostile reaction.

If, on the other hand, they treat the information we've shared in a respectful way, an exchange can take place and self-revealing by both the confronter and the confronted can lead to greater understanding of each other. Needless to say, we would hope the latter response would occur, but, the risk is there and the uncertainty is another reason why we need courage to confront.

The potentially hot situation of confronting another can easily backfire or explode. Both the confronter and the confronted must be willing to reveal and claim why they said and/or did certain things that are hard to claim. Both must be courageous and honest and dare let go of their defensiveness or any other self-protective mechanism as they dare reveal themselves so they can understand and be understood. They must reveal what was going on for them that prompted them to say or do what they did.

A confrontation is an encounter that takes place on fair grounds between equals, and it requires that both the confronter and the one being confronted expose what they were thinking and feeling when the exchange took place and be accountable for those thoughts and feelings. Accountability is an essential ingredient in a confrontation. It keeps the confrontation honest and fair. To be accountable is to claim one's part and in the claiming to begin to understand what needs to change in order to interact fairly and respectfully. If a confrontation is successful, the honest accountability and the clarity it brings, will move things in such a way that the issue at hand can be dealt with differently. Greater understanding of what's going on for both the confronter and the confronted will lead to greater respect and care for their feelings. This, of course, yields an intimacy that allows relationships to become a special gift to be treasured. Confrontation requires courage but it can yield the very desired results of deep intimacy with true caring and mutual respect.

Since a confrontation calls for exposing a deeper level of one's self in an interaction, it addresses what's going on for a person underneath the words being spoken. It is not a conversation about the content of what is being said, but about one's relationship to what is being said. It begins by having the confronter reveal the underlying thoughts and feelings she/he had in response to what was said or done, and then moves to the one being confronted. The one being confronted is then called on to respond on that same level, and reveal what was going on for him/her when the exchange took place. As the conversation goes back and forth on this deeper level, each person continues to claim what was going on for them and be accountable for how they expressed themselves when unspoken thoughts and feelings were being triggered by the exchange.

The conversation goes back and forth with revealing, claiming and accountability on each person's part, providing clarity and understanding of what was going on for each person. The confrontation ends with accountability being established for the thoughts and feelings and words and behaviors that contributed to the confusion, hurt, anger or fear experienced by either person. As an outgrowth of the clarity that comes from claiming what was going on underneath the words or the behavior being confronted, a certain intimacy occurs between the persons participating in the confrontation. They have communicated on a deeper level, closer to their core, and they are better known to each other as a result of the confrontation.

Future encounters should reflect what has been understood and learned from the confrontation. There should be accountability marked by mutual respect for what has occurred. This sets the stage for further encounters that are not as potentially stressful or hurtful, and not as dependent on intimidation or blame. Accountability calls for claiming with respect and fair play whatever goes on, went on in the past, or occurs in the future. It does not stop with one confrontation, it only begins there.

In contrast, an accusation rips away at the other person's layers of protection and attributes bad motives to what lies underneath. The purpose is to blame, judge and punish. It yields defensiveness and guilt, and has neither fairness or respect in it. Instead of an exchange, it is an attack. Battle lines are drawn and casualties occur. Rather than an encounter between equals, it is a power struggle to establish the superiority of the victor and the inferiority of the defeated. Someone wins and someone loses. Righteous indignation rather than respectful exploration characterizes an accusatory attack. Intimacy and clarity are never an outgrowth of such antagonism.

In an accusation, attack and blame call forth defensiveness and counter attack. Ridicule, sarcasm and anger are the weapons, and the encounter leaves the embattled participants gloating or guilty. If guilty, then there is shame and punishment to deal with, not accountability and integrity. Communication is not the purpose of accusation and communication does not transpire. Altercation does.

It is, therefore, not acceptable to rely on accusation and blame to protect ourselves from feelings of hurt, confusion, fear or anger. However, neither is it acceptable to just ignore what we are feeling and then build up resentment and walls. The withdrawal that results from not addressing unresolved feelings is also a hostile act. It is both hostile to the one withdrawing and to the one being withdrawn from, because it closes the door to one's self and to others at a time when conversation to resolve the feelings needs to take place.

Intimacy can not occur when unresolved feelings are left unaddressed and a protective distance behind a silent stony wall separates the self from itself and from others. The barrier is not a friendly one. It is meant to keep something and someone out. Feeling shut out and shut off when the integrity of our system calls for being connected and flowing in and out means our system is violated by the withdrawal of communication within ourselves.

It also means that the other relevant person who is being shut out is being violated as well. There can be no understanding or intimacy without communication and the alienation that occurs with a "shut out" is uncomfortable or even painful if the person values intimacy. Unfortunately, a withdrawer has had to shut itself down in order to find safety in withdrawal. It may seem to the withdrawers that there is no price to shutting down, but what they will one day discover is that they are no longer able to be present. That is a painful outcome. They are, therefore,eventually only a shell of themselves, alienated, never intimate with any depth of intensity because they have systematically shut themselves off to their own intensity.

The first violation of shutting down, therefore, is to the self who shuts down. The subsequent violation, however, is to the other who desires intimacy with the withdrawn person. Withdrawal is the ultimate weapon. No intimacy can occur as long as the withdrawer stays withdrawn. The only recourse is to withdraw as well. This resolves the issue, but at a great cost, an alienating distance that cannot be bridged by anyone but the one who chose it, leaving others powerless.

It is, therefore, in our best interest to learn to confront and to be confronted, and to be accountable and demand accountability. We can then experience intimacy with ourselves and others in a way that fulfills our greatest need, the need for knowing and being known, for caring and being cared for, and for feeling a true sense of belonging and intimacy. Neither accusation or withdrawal will provide this. So once again life takes courage. In this instance, the courage to confront.

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