Confrontation: the dark mirror 

by Judy Harrow

When somebody tells you they've had a confrontation, do you think about a tense, angry argument or possibly even a brawl? Most people do. Even my trusty American Heritage Dictionary tells me that "confront" means "to come face to face with, especially with defiance or hostility." In radical contrast, my old counseling textbooks refer to confrontation as "an act of grace" or "a true act of caring." This is one of those annoying times when a specialized, professional use of a word is nearly opposite to the way people normally use it. Still, the concept of "appropriate" or "loving" confrontation is critical to what counselors, and priest/esses, do. 

Remember, counseling is helping people make and implement good decisions about their own lives. Good decisions grow out of good information about our situation, our resources, and our feelings. Feelings can be elusive. Sometimes there are things we don't yet understand or even have hidden from ourselves, shadow areas inside. These often give rise to behavior that seems inconsistent with what the client is saying. Most likely, the client is describing how it is with them the very best they know how. 

Exploring the inconsistencies can be a fast track to better self-knowledge. Confrontation, for counselors and priest/esses, means telling clients about inconsistencies that the clients may not yet have spotted for themselves. It's hard to do, harder to do right. Here are some things to think about: 

Timing is critical. Effective confrontation can only happen after the counselor and client have had a chance to get to know each other. As a counselor, you know that first impressions are often off base and almost always superficial. It takes some time to feel into another person's experience, and even more time to sense when they are ready to face and work through their more difficult issues. Clients need some time to size up whether the counselor is competent, caring and honest. It takes time to build trust, but only trust can allow the client to accept and integrate information that might be frightening, even painful. Appropriate confrontation can only happen in an atmosphere of trust. 

There are two main circumstances in which priest/esses and counselors might offer confrontation, two very different kinds of inconsistencies: those between what we say and how we feel, and those between what we say and what we do. 

Sometimes a person tells you they feel a particular way, but their voice, facial expression, posture and the general feelings you are getting from them seem to be saying something else. If you feel the person is ready to take another step in self-understanding, you might choose to tell them what you've noticed, and what you think it might mean. This is what I discussed in an earlier essay as "additive" or "imaginative" empathy. If you offer additive empathy, remember to be sure to own your inferences, present them tentatively, and gracefully accept correction from the client. Your role is to invite self-exploration, not to compel it. 

Other times, a person tells you they want or believe one thing, but their behavior seems unlikely to bring them to that goal, or to be inconsistent with those beliefs. They don't seem to you to be walking their talk. Again, confrontation means telling them about the inconsistency that you perceive, caringly and as gently as possible. 

Here are some sensible guidelines for confronting inconsistent behavior. Pick a calm and grounded moment for both of you. Speak gently. Only address one or two key areas at a time. More is more than a person can process at once. Only discuss things the person realistically could change. Be as specific as you can about how the behavior is interfering with the person's stated beliefs or goals. Check that communication was clear. Have the person restate what you said if possible. Allow time for discussion of what you have presented. Be prepared to handle a defensive or angry initial reaction. Be as firm and as patient as stone. 

In a secular counseling situation, the goal is entirely the client's to determine. To resolve an inconsistency, the client can either adjust their behavior so that it will be more likely to achieve the goal, or decide that they were mistaken when they identified this goal, that the likely outcome of this behavior is what they actually want, or some middle position. The counselor's job is to help them resolve the inconsistency in any way they choose, and the outcome usually doesn't affect the counseling relationship. 

For a priest/ess working in a mentoring role, the situation is quite different. The goal - the student's training - is an assumption on which the student/mentor relationship is based. If this goal is brought into question, and is abandoned or seriously modified by working through those questions, the basic relationship may well change. If we hold the thought that Wiccan training is a process of exploration and discovery, then it is as valid to discover that priesthood is not this student's true goal as that it is. Any experiment that yields results is successful, even if those results refute the original hypothesis, even if they are disappointing. 

When working one-on-one with an individual, about either feelings or behavior, never confront them unless you are willing to deepen your involvement with them. Normally, offering loving confrontation means volunteering to be there with the person as they work through the implications of whatever they learn from what you share with them. It means volunteering to be even more of a counselor to them than you were before. 

For a priest/ess working with a group, the situation is sometimes quite different. One person's inconsistent behavior can disrupt or even endanger the whole group, and your primary responsibility is for the coven's safety and good functioning. You can't let one person spoil it for all. 

If someone seems on their way to doing that, try to confront them well before matters become irreparable. Tell them, as specifically and as objectively as you can, how their behavior is affecting not just themselves, but other people or the group as a whole. Remember that confrontation merely offers them the opportunity to examine their inconsistencies, the choice to change their behavior. They may choose otherwise. And you may have to ask them to leave. 

The last thing you owe them as their priest/ess is an exit interview, including another full explanation of what behavior was unacceptable and why. Basic courtesies still apply. Except in extremely rare situations of imminent and serious danger, wait till you can be in private, and for a time when neither of you is tired or hungry. Be as calm and centered and as specific as you can in talking with the person. 

If at all possible, tell them under what circumstances you would consider re-admitting them. Don't place any theoretical limits on the Goddess's healing powers or the human capacity for learning, growth and change. Although you won't be there to help them work it through, She might direct them to other helpers, other resources, when She sees that they have become ready. 

Now, I'd like to throw out some questions. The main advantage of religiously-based counseling is that counselor and client share both basic values and a vocabulary, often metaphoric, for discussing them. 

Most religions have some consensus about what constitutes maturity, right action, wisdom, spirituality or even enlightenment. So the counselor has a basis for behavioral confrontation, a shared goal that the client may in some way not be moving toward. Do we have such a consensus? Are we ready to start articulating one? How does a religiously mature Pagan act? What extra behaviors are expected of a Priest/ess? an Elder? 

It seems to me that our polytheism complicates the quest. Many Gods bless many Paths in life. What is congruent behavior for a priestess of Artemis might not be for a priestess of Aphrodite. If the counselor is oriented to one and the client to the other, hidden assumptions might make their work together unduly complicated. 

So there are more questions for us, as we try to articulate our model: What core values do we all have in common, and what behaviors flow from those? Where and how do people's Paths diverge? What do I need to bear in mind when working with a person whose Path is different from mine? How is it for the person, like me, who follows different Deities at different life-phases? And can we describe the particular markers of maturity, ethical conduct, wisdom, spirituality for priest/esses of different deities, at least of those most frequently worshipped in our own time and place?

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  • Originally published in Covenant of the Goddess Newsletter (Mabon, 1995)
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    Contents of this page are copyright © 1995, 1999, 2001 by Judy Harrow.