science of us

Your Fear of Confrontation Is Probably Unfounded

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Look, nobody normal likes confrontation. It’s normal to be nervous about delivering bad news or painful truths, particularly when you must do so to someone you actually like. Unfortunately, confrontation is a pretty unavoidable part of life; you might be able to avoid it for awhile, but generally speaking, what needs to be said will get said — it’s just a matter of when, and how. (Personally, I have found that the earlier the confrontation is made, the better it goes.) You don’t want to be that person who lets their feelings fester for months and years only to blow up at a weird, unexpected time and venue. That is helpful for nobody.

Besides, most confrontations will probably go better than you expect, because, contrary to A Few Good Men’s most famous line, people (usually) can handle the truth. (By the way, I thought this was a pretty good joke — at least as far as social-science humor goes — until I saw that the title of the research paper is also “You Can Handle the Truth: Mispredicting the consequences of honest communication.” Ugh!) Researchers from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business asked their participants to be more honest with every person in their lives over a period of three days, and then questioned them about the consequences. They found that “focusing on honesty (but not kindness or communication-consciousness) is more pleasurable, socially connecting, and does less relational harm than individuals expect.”

In another study, researchers asked participants to honestly share negative feedback with a close relational partner, and even then, participants were surprised by how much more positive the experience was than they expected. This is not to say that such conversations are necessarily easy, but they do generally feel productive, and likely contribute to longer term concord in these relationships. “These findings suggest that individuals’ avoidance of honesty may be a mistake,” the authors write.

So the next time you have to have a Big Scary Talk, remind yourself: usually, almost always, even, these things go better than you expect them to. Just as you appreciate hearing the truth (in a diplomatic fashion, of course), so will others appreciate hearing it from you. It may not be easy, but it’s worth it in the long haul.

Your Fear of Confrontation Is Probably Unfounded