By Jay Sullivan
Conflict is part of life. Most of us avoid conflict when we can, but sometimes, it’s unavoidable. Early in our careers, when we feel powerless relative to those around us, we tend to deal with conflict by ducking, dodging or deferring, knowing that we don’t have much leverage to push back. But as we progress in our careers, we gain clout, credibility and control, and our approach evolves. How can we handle conflict more effectively, regardless of where we are on the seniority spectrum?
Let’s start by defining terms. For the purposes of this piece, “conflict” means a situation where two or more people believe strongly in differing paths and a certain stubbornness or lack of trust has set in. I refer to “navigating” conflict rather than “resolving” or “eliminating” conflict in the workplace because we can’t fix everything. Knowing that we need to find our way through the challenges of the day sets us up for success when conflicts arise. Thinking that we need to fix everything sets us up for failure.
1. Pick your battles.
As a baseline, decide if you’re part of a particular conflict. If you’re not, stay out of the way. You may view your personal brand as “peacemaker” and feel a strong impulse to weigh in on challenging situations. You may quickly discover your brand is actually “buttinsky” and may create even more tension.
Assuming you have a role in resolving the conflict, decide on timing and approach. Has the conflict risen to the level that you need to get involved? Some challenges between two people who report to you need to be worked out by those individuals. If those people resolve the challenge on their own, they’ve grown from the experience. Your involvement would have kept them dependent on you for solutions. Deciding not to take action is sometimes a valid decision, since some problems can be resolved without you.
2. Avoid making assumptions.
There’s a basic principle about faulty decision-making called “What you see is all there is.” Our natural instinct is to assume what we have in front of us is everything, and to trust whoever is presenting the information. Assume instead that every picture you are looking at is a jigsaw puzzle and that a few dozen pieces are missing. Even though you can tell it’s a picture of a lake in the mountains, you should recognize that you’re missing enough pieces that there is important information you can’t determine yet. Is there a cabin on the shore? A moose coming through the trees? When someone presents you with a conflict he has with a co-worker, or you have your own disagreement with a colleague, start by asking a few basic questions.
What else is important for me to know?
This first question helps you uncover information. It shows interest on your part and creates the expectation on the part of the other person that you are going to investigate the issue, starting immediately. It also positions you as thoughtful and reflective, rather than impulsive and reactive. That’s an impressive sign of growth to those around you.
If the other person were here, what would he be telling me?
If you’re a manager asking this question of someone who is in your presence raising an issue, your response forces your colleague to articulate the other person’s position. We all appreciate that there are two or more sides to every story. However, when we articulate those alternative arguments ourselves, we become more sympathetic to the other person’s perspective, which often starts to take the edge off the conflict.
If you are a party to the conflict, before speaking with a manager, ask yourself, “What don’t I know about the person’s motivation, intention, reasoning and feelings about the topic at hand?” Then, go to the other person and ask the appropriate questions. Doing so shows that you are working very diligently to understand the other person in the conversation, and goes a long way to build trust.
What are you asking me to do?
Depending on your management style, you might assume when someone comes to you with an issue that they want you to dive in and solve the problem. Sometimes they do. Ask this third question to reinforce that you won’t be making any sudden judgements and will be reasoned in your approach.
If they respond by saying, “I just need guidance” or “I just needed a sounding board,” you’ve avoided spending time jumping in when your participation wasn’t welcome.
What if you’re the more junior person in the discussion? It’s not politically palatable or comfortable for you to say, “I need you to act differently toward me.” Instead, phrase your request from the perspective of how it will help the other person. “I want to make sure I’m doing a good job for you. I’ll be better able to do that if we can take more time when you are giving me direction.” By framing your request as a means to an end that serves the other person, you’re more likely to state your position calmly and professionally, and are more likely to be heard by the other person.
Each of these questions should be asked with a completely neutral tone, not one that shows exasperation or frustration. Asking these questions will not only help you understand the other person’s perspective, but will help you develop better leadership traits.
If there is an independent source of information available that gives color to the conflict, access it before you speak to the other party involved. You may then have other questions for the person who came to you or with whom you have a conflict. The answers to those questions will help you understand their perspective.
4. Listen to the other side.
If you are a manager, let’s assume the person coming to you with a problem wants you to take an active role in fixing it. Contact the other person involved and ask to meet with them. Tell them the agenda so that they aren’t blindsided when they meet with you. If possible, meet with the person face-to-face. Start with a pleasant tone and ask a few straightforward questions that have nothing to do with the issue at hand, possibly commenting on something else with which the person is involved. A simple, “How is your day going?” or “How are things coming along on the X project?” emphasizes that the challenge you two are about to discuss is only one element in the person’s larger workday. It keeps the immediate challenge in perspective. Ending the conversation the same way, by commenting on another aspect of work, reinforces that message.
Fairly quickly, however, you should get to the point of the meeting. “Jack shared with me that an issue arose regarding Z. What’s your take on the situation?” Be prepared to ask lots of questions. Don’t rush the conversation, which means you have to set aside ample time for the meeting. Again, you’ll maintain a neutral demeanor and not telegraph from your facial expressions or tone of voice that you are siding with one party or the other.
If you are a party to the conflict and you’re ready to address this issue with someone else, the same technique works. Starting with a more innocuous topic emphasizes that your relationship with this person isn’t all tension.
5. Decide on next steps.
This is where it gets tricky. Determine if this is the type of issue that requires all parties to sit down and hash out the problem. Most of the time, getting everyone in the room together is the best course of action, as it forces open discussion.
If that meeting takes place, you again need to decide on your role: Are you moderating a discussion, mediating a dispute or ultimately making a decision? If you are moderating, your job is to keep the conversation open, focused and civil. If you are mediating, the parties involved will ultimately decide how they move forward on a project. If you are making the decision, depending on the complexity of the issue, either tell them your decision right then, or tell them you need some time to reflect on it or do some research. If you delay the decision, don’t delay long. They need to move things forward.
Obviously, there are lots of intricacies in dealing with conflict. I haven’t even commented on dealing with the emotional dimension of how people process ideas and information when they are facing a challenge. These are just some first steps to consider when having those tough conversations.
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