Frank Delano and Jill C. Shah
For most of us in the Child and Youth Care field the word confrontation brings an uncomfortable twinge in our stomach. For those who enter a helping profession, confrontation is not usually in our nature and we often see it as a tense, negative interaction. We somehow choose to forget that differences of opinion, expectations, and misunderstandings are inevitable among critically thinking people. When you factor in that in Child and Youth Care work you get people who care passionately about the children they work with, it is clear that confrontations will develop naturally. When these confrontations are resolved in a positive way, relationships will be strengthened.
Very often supervisors seem to want to avoid confrontation. Perhaps there is a shift to fill and they are fearful that the confronted worker will not be willing to do the overtime. Maybe they think if we are just “nice” it will get better by itself. Perhaps the supervisor feels they have already waited too long to confront and now they will also have to own their inaction about the issue with their human resource people. Worse yet, maybe they are going to confront about something they are not modeling well themselves. This reluctance to confront grows geometrically as supervisors feels unconfident about their ability to confront” and likely they have not built the skills needed to confront in an effective way. It often becomes easier to just “let it go” and avoid the confrontation.
But what happens when supervisors don’t confront? Does an issue get better by itself? Chances are, it gets worse. If supervisors keep delaying the inevitable confrontation, passive aggressive tensions can occur; tensions which may show up in attacking tones, subtle hints, or lack of respect for self or staff member. If the supervisor has waited too long, Child and Youth Care workers can feel entitled to their behavior. After waiting too long, when it is eventually addressed staff may feel that the confrontation is “personal”. Rather than managing long overdue tensions, lack of respect, and feelings of entitlement, a better route is to confront the issue early and in a direct and constructive manner.
Part of the struggle for supervisors in confronting workers is that most of the standard definitions for confrontation are framed with negatives. One hears in discussion of confrontation words like “clash”, “face to face”, “hostile”, “bold”, or “challenging”. Supervisors in Child and Youth Care programs should focus on the fact that confrontation does not have to be negative, nor reflect any of these words. A working definition of confrontation for workers in our field, we would suggest, is: a proactive intervention to intercept and provide direction to behavior that requires change, as well as to create a forum to better understand and guide the judgment and practice of Child and Youth Care workers.
So how do supervisors learn to develop the ability to confront in a more constructive way? First they should begin by following two golden rules of confronting–never confront attitude or work habits. If the supervisor focuses the confrontation on these it will immediately lower self-esteem and raise defensiveness in the person concerned, since attitude and work habits are not clearly definable. As a way to avoid this, the supervisor should try to develop what we call a “professional package”. The effort to build a “package” does not imply a standardized response, but rather the supervisor should use their creative skills to put the confrontation in a professional and non-personalized framework when raising the issue. The idea would be to frame the reason for confrontation in a logical, professionally accepted way so that the average sane person could not dispute the premise of the confrontation. For instance, for a worker who is late to work: the “professional package” is simply “you are paid to be here at three o'clock and you were not”. The worker may tell you “why” they were late, they may tell you they were there but in another place, they may say that others were late on that day also - but they cannot dispute the premise that they should be there at the time they are paid to be. This “package” can be tightened by framing the result of the worker being late, for example, there is less supervision of kids which can create a safety issue. Now, if one looks at the “package” it is “You were not here 3 o'clock as scheduled and that created a potentially dangerous situation with children not supervised as well as they should be”. Of course the words and tone would not be as terse as they sound here, but framed in this way the person being confronted cannot reasonably object to the need to address, or clarify, the issue of being late.
This professional package can be developed for all issues that may arise in a Child and Youth Care setting. The more the supervisor can frame and tighten the package to safety, good client service, or a generic, professionally accepted protocol, the better the chance for a constructive confrontation. The supervisor should start to develop the professional package by a making a number of assessments:
Trust your “gut” but back it up with facts. If you don’t have the facts and it is not an immediate safety issue try to “observe and interview” to get the facts.
Is it an “ability” problem or an “effort” problem?
Were proper resources and information available?
Once these assessments have been made the supervisor can develop a professional package following some basic guidelines:
Frame the confrontation in a manner that states a protocol - that a “sane person” could not challenge
Never confront “attitude” or your perception of the worker’s effort - confront quantifiable behaviors
Be sure your package avoids “attacking” self-esteem
Keep it simple
Confront what you saw or heard directly
"Help me understand “,“Can you please explain why “ are wonderful ways to begin the confrontation
It is OK to make “how you feel” part of the package - and lead into the behavior later. For example, the supervisor says to the worker - “When you spoke to the child in that way I felt you came across as disrespectful - was that your intent?” as opposed to saying “That is not a good way to talk to children".
Once the “professional package” is built the supervisor can follow a simple model for actually doing the confrontation:
Develop your “professional package"
Strategize when and where to confront - try to avoid confronting in public unless it is an immediate safety issue. Regular supervision is the best time to confront. It becomes a regular part of the relationship of supervision
Confront using the “package” - facts, outcomes, your feelings - not attitude or your impression of effort
Clear opening: “Help me understand––
ACTIVELY listen - get help “understanding" - a good confrontation is a mutual process. Be prepared to accept your impression or information may not have been accurate.
Stay on course - allow the worker to explain and clarify but stay with the issue at hand
Close with a mutually agreed upon plan: who is responsible for what and when - also what supports the supervisor will offer
Set a clear time frame to review: the next supervision session would be ideal. Be sure to review the confrontations where the behavior changes successfully just as thoroughly as those that may fall short of the 100% desired outcome.
Using these guidelines to develop a direct and concise “professional package” should yield positive results. As mentioned, when the outcome is reviewed it is important to determine whether the confrontation was successful. The first part of evaluating this is to determine whether the behavior has changed in a form that is acceptable. This may not be a 100% solution, but rather needs to be some form of improvement acceptable to the supervisor and the agency. The Child and Youth Care worker may require several confrontations before the behavior is at the appropriate level, but with each confrontation a positive result should be yielded. In addition to positive behavior change, another evaluation criterion is that the relationship should remain relatively intact. Third, as discussed before, self esteem should be preserved on all sides. The last two criteria are very important for your working relationship in the future. If you have affected self-esteem, or changed your relationship with the staff member significantly, it will be very difficult to regain. If all three criteria are met, the confrontation was successful. In some cases, staff may feel even more committed to their work because you may have provided the tools and resources needed for him/her to do the best they could.
When workers want to enjoy the privilege of professional judgment they must be willing to take on the responsibility of looking at their practice reflectively in an honest way. One of the main roles of any supervisor is to get the workers to look at their work with a critical eye as a way to improve their practice. The supervisor who continually avoids confrontation, or confronts in a destructive manner, will eliminate that crucial process from the supervisory relationship. By confronting regularly, and in a constructive way that does not damage the self esteem of the Child and Youth Care worker, the supervisor encourages and creates a clear forum for workers to reflect on their work. The supervisor who learns to confront constructively will also be modeling something that the worker can reciprocate in other relationships. A supervisor who creates an atmosphere of acceptable and constructive confrontation will dramatically increase the chances of the worker feeling comfortable making reasonable judgments that will not result in them being belittled if it turns out wrong. The best Child and Youth Care worker is willing to “ask the next question” when faced with a difficult situation on their own. This work is an art, not a science, and the supervisor who confronts constructively will allow “the art” to flourish. When child and youth care work remains primarily an art, the result is better quality of care for children.