Most of us prefer to avoid thinking about conflict. But avoiding won’t make it go away.
The Chinese symbol for conflict means danger + opportunity. Conflict can be an unpleasant threat…or it can provide unexpected benefits. It’s really up to you.
Since you will inevitably face disagreements in the workplace and in your personal relationships, here are some tips for transforming them into opportunities.
1. Manage your reaction. Conflict can bring out the worst in us. Anger, surprise, and hurt can trigger knee-jerk reactions we regret. They may feel good in the moment but rarely do emotional responses get us the best outcome.
Want better results? Take a pause. Count to 10…or 100, vent the steam with physical exertion (sports, hard work, punching a pillow), or meditate. Do what it takes to gain perspective and commit to making the situation work for you instead of controlling you.
2. Examine your stories. Think you understand the situation? Think again. We create meaning based on our histories and mental templates. Those are different for every one of us. Your counterpart’s story about the event is different from yours…but very true to him or her. These conflicting stories (explanations) are the primary cause of conflict.
What is your story about the situation? What labels are you putting on it and on the participants? Is it possible there may be other explanations? Can you suspend your stories long enough to get more information? It may change your perspective…and improve your options.
3. Ask questions. Asking questions often reveals information that challenges our assumptions. Answers we hear can expand our range of possible solutions. As a bonus, asking questions (not those dreadful leading questions, but questions asked in a genuine effort to learn and understand) softens others’ resistance, improving their ability to work with you to find a good solution.
Start with open-ended questions – those that produce narrative, not a yes or no answer. Contrary to what you may think, asking questions doesn’t reduce your power or leverage. Instead, the information you gain increases your power.
4. Listen strategically. Your counterpart may be angry, may offer insults or complaints, or may strongly voice a position. Strategic listeners notice the emotion but don’t let it trigger their own emotional response. Instead, they focus on listening for new information, underlying interests, and opportunities to build bridges and weaken walls. Repeat what you hear and ask if you have it right. Ask clarifying questions. Be curious.
5. Move from positions to interests. Think of two boxers. As one attacks, the other responds with equal or greater force. The dance continues until one overpowers the other or they reach a draw.
Trying to win at the positional level is just like that. The more you argue your position, the more entrenched your counterpart becomes. Think you’re going to reach a mutually beneficial outcome? Not likely.
Instead, listen for the interests under their position. Simon Sinek’s popular 2014 TED Talk encourages us to start with Why, not What. Try asking Why to soften the entrenchment and learn the underlying motivation. “Help me understand why getting a raise is important to you.” “I hear you saying that you’re unhappy with the relationship as it is now. Please explain why you would like it to change.” Make sure your tone shows a genuine desire to understand. It often helps to disclose your own Why.
Don’t move to How until you fully understand Why. When you do, invite your counterpart to join you in brainstorming solutions that address their interests and yours, too. This technique reframes a lose-lose, positional argument into something much more useful - a joint problem-solving process.
6. Don’t settle for compromise. All our lives we’ve heard that compromise should be our goal. Frankly, compromise is an uninspired solution that rarely represents the best outcome for either side. Taking the time to explore underlying interests (see #5) ‘expands the pie’, allowing new, creative solutions to emerge that better meet the needs of everyone involved. Compromise is the best outcome only when (a) the pie has been expanded as much as possible, and (b) you are negotiating the division of a limited resource (e.g., money, time).
7. Get help. Sometimes we find ourselves unable to manage our emotions long enough to get the best outcome. Accept that. You’re human. Even the best negotiators and mediators sometimes get triggered. If you question your ability to manage conflict well and you care about the outcome, consider engaging a third-party neutral. It could be a person trusted by all participants. If such a person isn’t available, consider engaging a professional mediator.
Few of us enjoy disagreement, and none of us can avoid it forever. Those who accept conflict as inevitable and manageable can minimize its disruption and even enjoy benefits they never expected.