My work with clients often involves supporting them in their struggle to confront the reality of their lives – either how they are experiencing life today or how they experienced life at significant points in their past. The word ‘confront’ can seem intimidating, perhaps suggesting aggression and unpleasantness; in other words, something to be avoided. But this can be a narrow view.
Many years ago I was managing and appraising teams of staff in a busy workplace. Each individual appraisal would determine how the staff member’s training would be organised for the following twelve months, and – perhaps of more immediate interest – what financial reward they would receive for the twelve months just ended.
Something in particular about this process really stuck with me: there should be no surprises at appraisal time. In other words, the timing of when we confront issues is important.
I remembered this because it applies to many situations outside the workplace as well. It reinforced the importance of acknowledging both successes and disappointments in a timely way. In other words, not storing them up to be regurgitated at appraisal time, typically some considerable time after the occurrence in question.
Instead, such instances should be acknowledged in way that is both timely and proportionate. These two adjectives are not unconnected. If confrontation is not timely it is also unlikely to be proportionate. Leaving it too long to acknowledge success can diminish celebration to an inappropriately muted level. The recipient may well feel that due recognition has not been given. Conversely, a significant delay in addressing failure may result in negative attitudes being fostered in the meantime, resulting in an unduly harsh judgment when the matter is finally confronted.
There are parallels in counselling. Firstly, people come to counselling when things feel wrong for them and they want something in their life to change – and they feel ready (albeit unsure in many cases) to take some steps towards dealing with this. In this sense, confrontation can mean facing up to something when the time feels right or finally gaining the courage to deal with a long outstanding personal issue. This is healthy confrontation.
Confrontation also happens during the counselling process itself. This does not (or should not!) mean that the counsellor forces his or her view of something on to their clients. Instead, the counsellor offers a relationship within which the client can become sufficiently confident to initiate his or her own self-confrontation. The counsellor can then reflect back to the client – when the client is ready to receive it – the reality and implications of what they are saying in a way that recognises the sensitivity of the subject matter. Similarly, the counsellor might offer alternative perspectives, again tentatively, gently and respectfully.
Of course, for the client, this can sometimes be difficult and challenging, but it can also potentially be liberating. Viewed in this way, confrontation doesn’t always have to be something to be avoided.