Small Biz Advice: The Art of Confrontation



Holly Howard runs Ask Holly How, a small business consulting company based out of Williamsburg, Brooklyn that works with a wide variety of businesses from restaurants to retail to art studios and pretty much everything in between. Her clients report increased income and profit, decreased expenses and a significantly better quality of life. Holly heads up the Small Business Book Club at McNally Jackson Books.

Want valuable insight into how to grow your business?  Holly hosts FREE 30 minute strategy sessions at The Yard in Williamsburg.  Email her to set up a time or to ask a question for the next Ask Holly How.

Dear Holly,

A few years ago, I “fell into” running a business.  I manufacture clothing and handbags.  At first, I was just doing it for my friends, but then my clothes gained a lot of popularity and all of a sudden, I found myself running a small business with a small staff.  I love my business, but here’s the problem:  I hate confrontation.  I always avoid situations like this, and I’m starting to realize that it’s ruining my business.  I’ve never been good at confronting people or speaking my mind, and when I started my business, I never thought that this would become such a big part of my job.  But, now I have employees, and I’m having a really heard time managing them and being clear about what I need.  Do you have any advice for me so that I can address the problems I see in my business and not be fearful about confronting people? 


Soft Spoken 

Dear Soft,

I think everyone, including myself, struggles with confrontation from time to time.  No matter how often we do it, we can always improve on our skills.  And, if we don’t learn how to confront situations that are bringing our business down, we may eventually lose our business altogether.  The good news is that you can learn these skills, and employees and customers always value feedback that is delivered tactfully.  The more you practice this, the easier it becomes and the better leader you become.  Learning how to communicate effectively with your staff will transform your business.  It will save you time, money, and headaches in the future.

The first thing you can do is reframe the situation.  The word confrontation seems to carry a negative connotation, and we tend to be more fearful of negative situations.  But, if we think about this in terms of educating your staff and helping them to improve their work, the situation will take on a much more positive light.  Refocus the way you’re thinking about this, and it will immediately start to shift the way you feel about it.

Second, know that the scenarios you create in your head are generally much worse than the reality that actually plays out.  So often, we avoid confrontation because we imagine that the other person is going to get really mad, or fly off the handle, or not like us anymore.  But, the reality is that if we deliver the feedback in a really supportive way with the other person’s best interest in mind, none of this will happen.

Third, take action.  Be sure to start with what’s working, be crystal-clear and direct, and never make it personal.  When you need to address something that isn’t working well, it’s best to first state something that the person is doing well.  For instance, if you have an employee who isn’t cutting the patterns correctly but he is great at keeping the station organized, you could say, “Hey Bill, thanks so much for keeping your work station so organized and clean.  I really appreciate that.  I wanted to talk to you about the way you’re cutting the patterns…” Recognizing what an employee does well is equally as important as talking about what they need to improve upon.  They will be much more receptive if you keep it balanced.  Now, there are scenarios that happen abruptly, and you may need to call out a mistake in the moment.  Just make sure that the employee’s overall experience is filled with both feedback and recognition.  When you do deliver the feedback, you must be crystal clear.  In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath point out that what looks like resistance from an employee is often a lack of clarity on the owner’s part.  As business owners, we must make sure we are being crystal clear with our directions if we want to see the desired results.  Also, be sure to frame the conversation as in what’s best for the business.  Never make it personal.

Fourth, ask for feedback and listen.  Part of the reason confrontation doesn’t go well is because owners tend to take the “my way or the highway” mindset.   They tell an employee what they’re doing wrong and how they need to do it, but they never ask for feedback on the situation or for the employee’s perspective.  This is a sure way to lose an employee’s respect and interest.  To continue with our previous example you could say, “Is there any reason that you haven’t been cutting the patterns the way I want you to?  Do you have the right tools?  Do you have enough time?  Do you feel like your training was adequate?” And then listen to what the employee says.  You want to make sure you’re giving the employee everything they need to succeed.

Five, follow up.  Make sure to follow up on your conversation, and don’t just let it die.  Check in a week later and see if the employee has improved or not.  If you make it a habit to follow up, they’ll know you’re serious about change.  If you let it slide, employees will be less likely to receive your feedback in the future.

I’m sure when you started designing clothes you never thought this would become such a big part of your day to day job.  And, I’m sure you didn’t realize that this could be what would make or break your company, not necessarily the designs you were creating.  Learning how to deal with confrontation early on will greatly benefit your company.  Just remind yourself that learning how to communicate well is just like learning how to sew well.  You just have to embrace this part of your job and invest in learning these new skills.

Good luck!


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