Last week’s post on Assessing the Dynamic looked at the impact of personal differences and style as well as the roles that different individuals might take in instigating or sustaining a conflict. The next step in managing conflict in the workplace is to look for what the antagonists have in common and find the higher purpose that could bring them together.
Too often, when there’s conflict what we see is a binary outcome or a zero-sum game: There’s one winner and everyone with a divergent viewpoint loses. But you can aim for an alternate result: one that benefits the greatest number of people or creates the greatest good, while no one suffers unnecessarily. The goal is to have and to express differences of opinion, even extreme differences of opinion, and still come out whole at the end — even if your opinion does not hold sway and the eventual decision does not go your way.
Both sides (perhaps I should say all sides) need to have reconciliation as a goal, not just their own best interests. The participants need to realize that reconciliation is in their own best interests. Once that commitment is present, specific aspects of communication can come into play.
Is There a “Greater Good” in the Situation?
You can usually identify this higher purpose even if you don’t yet have any clue about how to reach it together. Just look for the values and ideals the participants share, specifically because of their mutual affiliation with the organization.
Sometimes what they have in common is a set of values that are relevant to the organization’s mission or vision. If the organization has not yet done this thoughtful, conceptual work, the participants have to find other areas of congruence. In that case, the overarching desire to ensure a seamless customer experience can serve as a launching pad for figuring out how we wish to treat each other: If we don’t collaborate well internally, the customer may be ill-served. Similarly, the organization may have an espoused value about being a superior place to work.
Creating a Basis for Communication
It’s important to remember that the people you disagree with are not you and don’t feel the way you do. If that’s hard for you to adopt as your operating premise, you could try being intentionally curious, and wondering why a reasonably decent and intelligent person would want or be thinking something that seems so contrary to you.
Logic dictates that since the people you’re in conflict with are not evil or wholly stupid, they must have a good reason to think the way they do — or at least, what looks like a good reason to them — so it’s your job to try to find out what that good reason is and what this issue means to them.
Because you’re not the same, your intuition may not be enough. You may need to ask directly about what’s going on: “I’m sorry, I’m probably not seeing this from your point of view. Could you please explain just why that issue is so important to you?”
Listen for specific requests, fears, desires — not just for people positioning themselves in absolute terms (“because that’s the kind of person I am”).
Practice empathy toward the people you know (their whole human selves) and for their points of view:
“I may not want what you want, but I hope there’s a way you can get it (without my losing anything/even if I have to lose something).”
“I may not want what you want, but I hope you can be okay with my getting what I want.”
This combination of listening and empathetic speech helps reduce the negative, damaging atmosphere that conflict can foster. Respectful communication, no matter how tentative, provides a context for building or rebuilding a more positive sense of relationship and a bit of optimism about continuing the dialogue. Next week, we’ll work on a stronger footing for potential cooperation.
Onward and upward,