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.

The Best Way to Listen to Feedback

Many people get high marks for being good speakers.  People have become presidential candidates due to their oratorical powers.  In business, executives who wish to increase their public visibility hire speech writers to give them something terrific to say.  We have long recognized the value of being a good speaker.  Just ask any Toastmaster.

Now, how many people do you know who have received a prize or had their picture in the paper because they were a good listener?  Darned few, I’ll wager. And yet, it’s rare to find a really good listener.

It’s too bad more people don’t take an active interest in listening, because much of listening involves getting feedback, a commodity which I consider to be a gift.  When people tell you something that is important and useful, it means they care enough about you to give honest, sincere, and accurate data, which you should have.

Of course, your reaction to feedback, regardless of its content, will determine whether you will continue to get useful information from others.  After all, if someone knows you are likely to become upset about something they’re communicating, they’ll eventually stop giving you information. If people know you’ll reject them or their message when they are honest with you, you’ll be working in the dark without the necessary intelligence about yourself or your environment.  For a manager, this can be extremely dangerous.  Here are four ways you can become a better listener:

First, always acknowledge with appreciation the person who gives you the feedback.  You may dislike the information, but it may be potentially useful data you need in order to be more effective. Remember to disassociate the message from the messenger.

Second, don’t try to listen and think at the same time.  I know it sounds crazy—just listen to the information as it comes to you.  Disconnect your mental data processor and merely gather the data; process it at a later time.  Get as much information as possible, and ask questions that may expand or clarify the situation.  Keep pumping for details. The more information you have, the better.

Third, don’t try to solve a problem while listening.  If you do this, your listening capabilities will greatly diminish, if not stop.  Process all the details and then decide how to use the data.  If you rush to react to news without having received all the information, it is possible that your actions will be faulty because the information is incomplete.

Finally, if you are receiving some unpleasant information you don’t especially want to hear, don’t blow up.  Keep yourself under control.  As I stated earlier, if someone knows you’ll verbally abuse them when they give you unpleasant news, they’ll eventually stop giving you any news at all—good or bad.

To review, the steps to effective listening are: 1. Thank the person for the information.  2. Gather as many details as possible.  3. Act only after you have all the facts.  4. When receiving negative feedback, maintain your composure.  And always remember one of my favorite sayings taught to me by a former colleague, Rick Tate:  Feedback is the breakfast of champions!

Alarm Bells!

At our recent Client Conference, Garry Ridge, the President of WD-40 and my coauthor on the book How to Win at Work, was one of the keynote speakers. He was just marvelous. The concept he talked about, which is in our book, was alarm bells.

He told how he was in a hotel room in London one evening and was getting ready to watch an English comedy and have a couple of beers when he heard an alarm start ringing. He didn’t pay any attention to it—like we sometimes do with alarms because they often go off by mistake. But all of a sudden, someone was banging on the door and telling him to get outside. So he found himself outside wearing just his shorts and T-shirt and those slippers you get at hotels. He ended up out there for a couple of hours, on a cool London evening.  If he had responded to the alarm right away, he might have had time to put on warmer clothing and maybe a jacket. Later, as he was flying home, he started thinking about that incident and about what alarm bells he may have in his personal and professional life that he may not be paying attention to. Garry asked himself what alarms were going off personally—“Well, I’m overweight and not exercising enough.” And in business—“Am I telling people who really work hard that I care about them enough?”

I think an interesting thing for us all to do is get out a sheet of paper, divide it in half—personal and business—and just think about those alarm bells. Is there anything that’s happening that you aren’t paying attention to because of the noise of life, the busy-ness of life, that maybe could be an alarm bell that, if you really paid attention it, you could be better prepared? I just think it’s a wonderful exercise, both personally and in business. Take a look at those alarm bells. I’m going to do some thinking about this myself—what are the things I’m ignoring, and what am I really paying attention to?

Have a great day. Watch out for those alarm bells—they could be there for a reason and might help you more than you think.