On his Mesmerizing Leaders podcast, the enthusiastic, energizing Tim Shurr asked me for “the real golden nuggets that you’ve learned about us humans in conflict.” I told him that we most often think conflict is about the people we’re fighting with, but it doesn’t have to be that way. There are straightforward — although not necessarily easy — approaches to working through conflicts faster and with better results.
For example, if an ad hoc team has a project deadline they all know is unrealistic, when they fight about it among themselves, they’re only hurting themselves and each other. Here are three things to do differently.
Expand Your Perspective
Start by opening up the issue, not closing it down. Purposefully describing the situation so as to take in all points of view can help the conflict dissipate altogether — especially if it turns out that each side didn’t really see what was going on with the others. Try having someone act as a facilitator, who can say, “Wait a second, I think you’re actually saying the same thing. Amy, I hear you saying we can’t possibly get the project done without more people, and Bill, I think you’re saying we can only do this much with the people we have. Look at how that’s almost the same.”
Similarly, instead of jumping to surface conclusions, the parties should consider all their options: renegotiating with the source of the deadline, determining what could be accomplished with additional resources, and checking if resequencing events will get the work done on time. Often, in organizational life, we get so used to being constrained that we only think about what we can’t do instead of looking at what we can do.
Reflect on how to improve even small things, so you don’t feel stuck and hopeless. There’s almost always some wiggle room. With only minimal traction or improvement, you may be able to build out a better case about why priorities should shift or resources should be reallocated.
Recognize That You’re Doing the Work Together
There’s power in working collectively. You create a broader outlook, a bigger network, and the potential for greater impact, even in intractable situations. Even if the best you can do jointly is to create a temporary workaround, more people will now support the initial solution and the subsequent stages of development.
When everyone works together to uncover a problem’s factors and potential solutions, it becomes easier for everyone involved to see that all participants have value and that the problem comes from the processes and structures of the situation rather than from particular individuals.
Face the Resistance — Theirs and Yours
Collaborative problem-solving can be truly challenging if people feel triggered or resistant. Most people don’t resist when they think your solution will make them happier and more successful. Resistance occurs when people assume they’re being asked to give something up or what’s being proposed will make their lives harder. Sometimes they feel at risk and think things like: “Oh, now I’m going to look stupid” or “This won’t work for me and I’ll be a failure.”
Resistance develops as soon as a cascade of bad thoughts starts. So, be careful not to come at somebody with a big program or set of demands or promises. Try to get them curious about the possibilities of change so they’ll engage with you because if you have to force someone to pay attention, you’ve already lost them.
For example, I had a client who could only listen to his team for a few minutes before he’d start checking his watch. Rather than trying to get a few more thoughts in before he shut down, I encouraged the team to end the meeting and start fresh another day. That way, the leader wouldn’t get so negative that they couldn’t resume the discussion. In the meantime, the team would try to figure out which comments triggered his resistance, and see if there was a better tack to take.
You can reduce your own resistance by stepping back and granting the possibility that the other person might be right. At a minimum, you can acknowledge that the other person is talking about something that’s important to them, and say something like, “Well, that’s an interesting point.” Be genuinely curious about how they arrived at their point of view, and, most importantly, don’t cut them off. You can always decide to disagree, but actively seeking more information will give you a sense of control and reduce your automatic resistance.
When you’re in the middle of a conflict, it can be hard to see how you’re ever going to reach the end of it. If you ensure that all parties are heard, all options are considered, and everybody’s consciously working together, you can often reduce resistance and create enough momentum to make people hopeful about progress.