Resolving Conflict A Matter of Asking the Right Questions

Whenever two people quarrel, inevitably they focus on who is right and who is wrong.  Playing the “I’m right, you’re not” game is a sure way for people to push away from each other even further. If there is a history of disagreements, this mindset will cause even the slightest spat to become a rehash of past conflicts.

Knowing how to handle conflict is an important skill for anyone.  I find that three very simple questions can help minimize conflict.

1. “What would make the other person’s position right?”

The first question is from Mary Parker Follett, a professor of organizational behavior in the early 20th century.  She was one of the first people to point out that conflict was often the result of rational, well-intentioned people who simply saw the world differently and thus focused on different problems.

To best resolve a disagreement, Follett advocated not to dwell on who was right, but rather to try to better understand why the other person sees the situation as he or she does.  That is, ask yourself, “For the other person to be correct, what views would that person have to hold about the situation of life in general?”  This simple technique can help you see beyond the problem at hand and focus on a more general understanding of the situation.

For instance, I once got upset when I felt that someone in my company did not treat a customer well.  But by asking, “How could this person allow this to happen?” I learned that the other person simply didn’t realized the importance I have always placed on customer service.  As a result, we achieved clarity about this issue.

After you have a good understanding of how the other person sees things, you can more objectively discuss with him or her the basis for the specific perception.  It is easier to discuss how the person arrived at the perception and what might change his or her viewpoint than it is to force someone else to change a position he or she is locked on.

2. “What do we have in common?”

This question comes from Peter Drucker, one of the foremost management thinkers of our day.  He believed that sometimes the best approach to deal with conflict is simply to try to make it more bearable for those involved.  Instead of criticizing each other when you disagree, Drucker advocated finding what you have in common with the other person.  Finding a common ground can then typically be parlayed into other areas of agreement.  Although the conflict may not ever be fully resolved, focusing on areas of agreement will help minimize the conflict and make it more manageable.

To take a simple example, suppose a man who works with you is constantly late for meetings, and this bothers you.  You may interpret his behavior as unprofessional and disrespectful and you are apt to get increasingly annoyed. The other person, however, is likely not to see it the same way.  He may instead feel that being on time in life is simply not that important in the overall scheme of things.  He may feel instead, for example, that it is more important to get the job done. He may be willing to work long and hard—maybe even staying overtime—to complete any given assignment.  Both of you place a different value on timeliness for different reasons which are valid to each of you individually.

Instead of focusing on being “right” when the colleague is late, it would be much more productive for you to explore how you both see the subject of timeliness and what you each might do to minimize the potential conflict that results when he is late. You might get the person to agree to call you if he expects to be late, or you may need to emphasize in advance to him when it is crucial for you to have him be on time. These agreed upon “rules” will help to minimize potential friction in the future between you both.

3. “If we were to agree in the future, what would it look like?”

I learned this last technique from my wife, Margie, who convinced me that looking ahead to the future and imagining a harmonious relationship makes it easier to get to that point.

As an example, let’s say you are discussing the future direction of your company with your management team and there is disagreement. Instead of getting caught up in escalating emotions about some aspect of the company’s vision that you feel strongly about, just slow down and imagine what your company would ideally be like in five or ten years. This technique allows people to focus together on a positive future vision that can serve as an anchor in your interactions today.  Again, areas of disagreement tend to become secondary.

Resolving conflict is not always an easy thing to do. Yet, if you take a moment to use these techniques, you may find your anger and frustration slipping away as you take a giant step toward achieving more harmonious working relationships.

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