Imagine for a moment that it’s time to hold someone accountable. This person can be a colleague, classmate, family member, friend, or anyone else. What adjectives would you use to describe your approach. Strong? Great! Persistent? For sure! Assertive? Absolutely! Now how about Warm?

If you listed that last one, congratulations! Go to the head of the class! If not, it might seem a little out of place. Often, it’s even seen as undermining authority and accountability. One client told us that “[Warmth] makes me a wuss.”

The thing is, research shows us – and experience has born it out – that warmth is really important. Along with being a great way of building strong relationships, it’s a strong tool in establishing accountability and creating positive change.

This can seem counterintuitive to a lot of people. That’s because we often tend to think about accountability in these terms:

Here, warmth is seen as passive – the opposite of assertiveness and accountability. However, being warm isn’t the same thing as being passive or weak. We can still be assertive with someone while treating them with warmth. So let’s put assertiveness vs. passivity on its own spectrum, with warmth opposed to hostility. (We’re moving “cold” since that has a more specific definition as we’ll see in a second.)

Here’s the chart that we use in our seminar to illustrate the idea:

With this model, we can get a lot more nuanced. Let’s take a quick look at each quadrant.

Four Approaches to Tough Conversations

In the top-left, we’re both hostile and assertive. This is sometimes called “hot contempt.” We don’t see this often at work, but we see it all the time on the news on small and large scales. Hot contempt and indignation can be intoxicating, but they’re generally not the best at leading to constructive change – as we’ll see in a moment.

Let’s go counter-clockwise to the bottom left. We’re still hostile, but now we’re being passive about it. This is called “cold contempt,” or simmering resentment. These behaviors include backstabbing, sabotaging, and avoidance. This is much more common in the workplace, and also often crops up with family and peer groups. Like hot contempt, we’re stacking the deck against ourselves when we take this approach. Because these behaviors less in-your-face than hot contempt, they’re sometimes seen as safer or less “bad.” But they’re usually no less toxic and destructive in the long run.

Now we continue to the bottom right. Here, we’re warm, but we’re also being passive – often called being a “doormat.” Now we’re treating the other person with warmth, but we’re also passive. That means we’re likely to be trampled over. In situations where we’re the authority figure, we’re abdicating our responsibilities. This is often done with the hope of avoiding conflict. As a Minnesotan, I know all about being conflict avoidant, believe me. But avoiding conflict is hardly even a long-term solution, especially when it means abandoning responsibility.

That brings us to our last quadrant – the top right. Here, we are being both warm and accountable. We call this approach “Hard on the problem, soft on the people.” This combination of warmth, high standards, and consequences (when appropriate) not only helps us maintain strong relationships – it’s also a powerful tool in building accountability and encouraging positive change.

Studies in neuroplasticity have shown us that being in an environment of warmth physiologically primes the brain to be more receptive to change. This is because when we humans feel like we’re under attack, we double down and get defensive. That makes us much more likely to resist change than to open ourselves to it.

Let’s do a quick thought experiment to illustrate the point. Think about the following scenarios for a moment, and how you’d react to each one:

  1. A friend loses his temper at you. He starts yelling and cussing you out over something – you can’t remember exactly what it was. (Hot contempt.)
  2. A colleague starts undermining your project. He keeps you from getting the resources you need, badmouths you to managers, and turns your team against you. (Cold contempt.)
  3. Your colleagues report your frequent drinking on the job. Privately, your manager tells you that she sneaks as many sips as she can, so don’t worry about it. (Doormat.)
  4. A friend sits down with you and says he understands that you like to blow off stress at the casino. But he knows you’re a devoted parent, and he’s worried about how frequent your gambling has become – and the example you’re setting for your kids. (Assertive and warm.)

Think about what state of mind you would be in for each conversation. Are you going to get indignant and angry? Will you double down? Or will you decide that maybe you can meet the other person halfway? Looking at it this way, we can start to see just how much of an impact this combination of warmth and assertiveness has – on ourselves and on others. To learn more about how to set you up for success in these often-difficult conversations, keep an eye on the blog (or subscribe!) as it’s a subject we’ll explore in depth later.

In closing, think about how this ties into reciprocity. (Remember, it’s 96% reliable!) If we approach someone with contempt, they’ll usually treat us the same way. But if we treat others with assertiveness and warmth, they’re likely to respond in kind. Using that to our advantage can be a huge asset in all areas of our lives.

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