Descent into Conflict

November 26, 2006 by
Filed under: People, Teamwork 

I facilitated an intense 2-day offsite for a group recently. High expectations for lots of learning, lots of communication and lots of progress. As the group had not done many of these in the past, part of the session was intended to allow each other to learn about the diverse groups represented.

The entire group was very nicely engaged and opinionated, with the result that my originally crafted timeline quickly became as irrelevant as any initial project plan. This was not entirely bad, as it exposed the degree to which these sessions were needed by the group, but it added pressure on me to ensure that a few key points were covered adequately on the second day. The agenda evolved significantly over the course of the event, based on input from both the organizing team and all the participants, and I was certainly kept on my toes.

In the end, despite not having achieved all of our original goals, it seemed that the event was a success, and we were all left to catch our breath before getting back to work on Monday.

A few hours after the event, though, I received an e-mail from one of the participants that knocked me for quite a loop. I recall having an offline conversation with this person during the event, and while I believed that we had achieved closure on the topic (even if we had not converged to agreement), it seems not all parties saw it the same way. In the e-mail it was asserted that I failed to remain objective and had attacked this participant personally, implying naivety on their part. There were other suggestions along the same lines, implying that I was not practicing what I was preaching. I was totally taken by surprise, as there was no such indication of problems during the event or in the session feedback.

As a consultant, I recognize that to act in this manner can be hazardous to my fiscal health. As a person who strongly believes in respect and integrity when it comes to debate in the workplace (or elsewhere), I was stunned at these assertions. As the recipient of this e-mail, my only recourse was to pause before replying.

Conflict is a cycle of descent, not a situation that just explodes all at once. One person does or says something (or fails to say or do something) that is not received well by another person, and the reaction to that initial event is what determines the direction the situation takes. In conflict, the actions or statements become stronger and stronger, tending more towards attacks against the individual instead of objective observations about the situation. It can get really ugly, really fast, and it takes two to tango.

The only way to stop that descent is to break the cycle. Somebody has to recognize what is happening and step back. Unfortunately, there are a couple of problems in how we interact that tend to make it easy to fall into a conflict situation.

First, we rarely make a distinction between the situation and the behavior of the participants. When we blend the two together, we step away from the objectivity of observing and being able to resolve the situation, and step on toes instead. Whether or not it is intended, talking about the other person’s behavior can be taken as offensive, and leads us down the wrong path. It is safe to talk about our own behavior and the situation, but we can’t safely go further.

Secondly, we often fall into the more deadly trap of making assertions about the other person’s intent. Few of us are clairvoyant, and these assertions are too often based on our own frame of reference or external perception of behaviors. In either case, whether the intentions were actually negative or merely perceived that way, we are making matters worse when we assert our view of someone else’s intent.

We need to keep the discussion centered on our own perceptions and feelings, and devote our time to empathizing with the perceptions of the other person involved. This is the only way out, and there is a specific sequence to follow:

  • A crucial initial step, once we recognize there are ruffled feathers to smooth, is to ask ourselves if we are truly open to understanding the other person’s perspective, and to work together to find a reasonable resolution. Our intent is not to impose our point of view, but to empathize and collaborate. Both positions need to be respected for a reasonable solution, and for that to occur, we need to be able to listen before we advocate.
  • Once we are ready, we need to ask the other party if it is safe to discuss the situation. We need to express the request in terms of our feelings or how we are blocked by the current situation. We cannot be confrontational here.
  • Now that we are both at the table, our job is to listen, draw out, and understand the other person’s complete perspective. We don’t need to agree with them, but we do need to empathize to the point where the other person can say that we actually do get it. This is at odds with normal business practice, where we are conditioned to ‘come to the table with solutions in hand’. The problem with this traditional approach is that we have formulated solutions without regard to the perspectives of others. As we present these presumptuous solutions we can easily clash with the needs of others.
  • Once we truly understand the perspectives of the other side, we ask if we can provide the same level of explanation of our perspectives, so that all parties understand the complete landscape.
  • Only then can we start down the path to a solution. Based on the complete understanding of the situation and the range of different perspectives, we work together to find the common ground. This may take some work and additional investigation, but the shared interests of all parties need to be found. From here, we start to build a reasonable solution. We may find that some of our pre-planned solutions can work but more often than not many of them will have been discredited with the discovery of contrasting needs.

This approach takes a lot of effort, but is well worth it. Almost everyone will find themselves diving into the solution space way too soon. If you think back to a situation that eroded into conflict from your past, you can likely identify the step that you skipped in trying to find a situation too quickly.

Getting back to the situation above, I have suggested we take the time to get together face to face to discuss any concerns, and am anxiously awaiting the opportunity. I believe one of the contributions to the misunderstanding is the time pressure we were under during the event to achieve our goals, which may have driven us to stop our conversation prematurely. Knowing an approach to resolving conflict and always taking the time to put it into practice are two different things, and constant vigilance is critical. This is a crucial take-away for me, whether or not we ever get a chance to resolve this situation.

The funny thing is that this topic, managing conflict, is one that fell off of the agenda as the event got compressed. – JB

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