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Good morning, good afternoon or good evening, wherever you are.

Thank you to those of you who provided such great feedback to last month’s edition. I hope to live up to your expectations this month.

During the last couple of weeks, I happened to have two separate intake conversations with new clients that had aspects of dealing with conflict as their theme. Nothing unusual about that but here’s the thing that intrigued me: one is a detailed perfectionist who has a conflictive relationship with someone else in the organisation who looks at the big picture and isn’t interested in dotting the “i’s” and crossing the “t’s”; and the other is a big picture guy who looks for quick solutions and has difficulty with a person in another department with whom he regularly interacts who is a stickler for detail and gets in the way of solutions.

No, my clients aren’t the same two people at the different ends of the same relationship – these are four different people in more ways than one, and that’s probably the first thing to recognise: in each case, these people are different, and we often have difficulty dealing with people who are not the same as us. In fact, “they” are the different and difficult ones – abnormal compared with our “normality”. On top of this, we are socialized to make ourselves right and others wrong and hence our narrative concerning the dynamics of the relationships describes this seemingly along the following lines:

Fortunately, it is not linear like this. If it was, we might never reach any solutions to our disagreements for each is trying to change the other’s view. A more accurate picture of what is happening is this:

Unfortunately, where we are dealing with conflict, the cycle is normally spiraling downwards and there is only one way to stop this: one of us has to take responsibility by:

  1. Changing our perception of the other person; and
  2. Responding more constructively.

Easier said than done? Especially the first one? Yet, the truth is that the other person is just different and/or has a different view. Whilst we are both arguing as if our view is an indisputable fact – there’s an irony in there somewhere! – we are in the vast majority of cases just expressing our view based on our beliefs. So, step back, take a deep breath and notice the role we are playing in this whole thing. Once we do that we can respond more constructively and sooner or later the other person will (gradually) respond more constructively and the downward spiral begins to reverse. Actually, the conversation and relationship starts to improve, albeit little by little.

One way we can do this is to use Stephen Covey’s mantra: “Seek first to understand and then to be understood”. So, use last month’s listening practice   to really listen to the other party with the intention to understand them fully and look for the potential in what they are saying before sharing our view with them. Speak in language that acknowledges that we are sharing our opinions here (no matter how much we consider them fact!). If you like, use the analogy of a jigsaw puzzle – we are putting different puzzle pieces on the table and will use them to build the solution.

Covey also had a term for what kind of solution we should be looking for – he called it a Third Alternative. According to him, our collective intention should be to arrive at a solution that is better than either of ours: this is not about sneaking our own solution in just before the finish post, nor is it about compromise (which in my opinion is usually the last prize). If you like, use the attached resource, a practice focusing on seeking a mutually beneficial third alternative the next time you are in or witness a difference of opinion.

Finally, here’s one for team meetings (especially) or any other place where members of your team are starting to disagree on something. Firstly, as leader of the team, encourage team members to have different opinions and views on things as a first step to achieving solutions that the team would never otherwise have thought of. Secondly, when there is a difference of opinion, encourage the (whole) team to find ways to discuss the views constructively and in ways that are likely to lead to a third alternative. In fact, encourage everyone to experiment and even have fun as they try different approaches to broaden the discussion – that is, to discuss the process they might follow as well as the content of the disagreement. Isn’t this an opportunity we all too often miss?

Until next month

Kind regards


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