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The Soft Stuff Is the Hard Stuff

Douglas R. Conant, coauthor of TouchPoints: Creating Powerful Leadership Connections in the Smallest of Moments, introduces an excerpt from The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems, by Stephen R. Covey, that proposes a more thoughtful approach for problem resolution.

(originally published by Booz & Company)

In my 35-year corporate journey and my 60-year life journey, I have consistently found that the thorniest problems I face each day are soft stuff — problems of intention, understanding, communication, and interpersonal effectiveness — not hard stuff such as return on investment and other quantitative challenges. Inevitably, I have found myself needing to step back from the problem, listen more carefully, and frame the conflict more thoughtfully, while still finding a way to advance the corporate agenda empathetically. Most of the time, interestingly, this has led to a more promising path forward and a better relationship, which in turn has made the next conflict easier to deal with.

Stephen Covey provides a more direct approach to successful problem solving in the excerpt below from his new book. From the outset, his “3rd Alternative” approach engages everyone involved in an issue to advance the agenda in a winning way. The soft stuff will forever be the hard stuff, but leveraging 3rd Alternative thinking can make the soft stuff significantly easier to resolve productively.

— Douglas R. Conant


An excerpt from Chapter 3 of The 3rd Alternative: Solving Life’s Most Difficult Problems


If you’re a 3rd Alternative supervisor, you’ll neither flee nor fight. You’ll look for something better [when conflict arises], a solution that will provide your employee with a huge emotional payoff and create for the firm new and significant value.

A friend of mine explained how a 3rd Alternative leader dealt with exactly this situation in his life:

I was new at the job and had come in hoping for a better salary. I settled for something a lot less than I’d hoped for just to get in the door. But after a couple of months, it was clear that my family was struggling. We couldn’t get by because of some medical expenses. Besides that, I felt more and more that I was getting paid too little for the work I was doing. So I took a real risk and went to talk to the big boss about a raise. I didn’t know her very well and she didn’t know me. I had no real track record yet with that company.

But she invited me into her office and I explained why I was there. I was kind of surprised when she said, “Tell me more.” I told her about my family situation. She just listened, and I talked quite a lot about what I’d been doing for the firm. She asked me what I thought about the company, its customers, its products. It was odd. We had this long conversation that I thought was going to be about my pay, but instead was about me — how I was doing, what I thought, what I’d learned in my few months at the company.

Then she asked me about a certain customer I’d been working with. She wanted to know my ideas for expanding our business with that client, and I actually did have some thoughts that I shared.

A couple days later, she invited me back into her office. Three or four other people joined us, and she had put up on a whiteboard my ideas for this client. We had quite the discussion, and a lot more discussions after that. I was excited. Finally, they offered me an expanded job with higher pay and responsibility for a new level of service to this important client.

For my friend, these discussions were just the beginning of a swift rise in that company; he eventually became a partner to the “big boss.”

I’ve rarely heard of a wiser leader than this woman. She had a fine capacity for 3rd Alternative thinking. How easy it would have been for her either to fight my friend or just to give in to his request. Instead, she sensed the possibility of a dramatic win-win. Rather than haggling over the existing pie, she could envision the prospect of a much bigger pie. She suspected that combining my friend’s needs and energies with the client’s needs might well produce growth for everyone. The eventual result was a whole new line of business and a partner who increased his worth to the company every year. From what I know of this young man’s contribution to his firm, he was ultimately responsible for doubling its size.

Consider how this woman led her team to a 3rd Alternative:

  • First, she took time to listen empathetically. She wanted to understand her young employee’s issue and his feelings about it. On the face of it, she wanted to know why his salary bothered him. But more deeply, she wanted to grasp what he was all about and what he could bring to the company that would pay off for everyone, not just for him.
  • Then she sought him out. She brought him back again and again, explored his thinking and involved other thinkers. She valued his distinctive gifts and insights.
  • Finally, the group arrived at synergy: new services, new products, new ways of meeting the needs of an important client, and beyond that the needs of a new segment of clients.

All of this came about because the boss has the habit of reaching for the 3rd Alternative whenever the opportunity arises. An employee comes in with a complaint and she sees a chance to build her business. She sees conflict as fertile ground instead of battleground.

Most thinkers about conflict resolution treat a conflict as a transaction. It’s about dividing up the pie. You can either accommodate or confront your opponent. You can give away the pie or you can fight over it, and there are techniques and tricks to gain an advantage. But divide it as you will — in the end, it’s the same pie.

By contrast, the 3rd Alternative is to transform the situation. It’s about making a new pie that’s bigger and better — perhaps exponentially bigger and better. Where most conflict resolution is transactional, the 3rd Alternative is transformational.

If I find myself caught up in a conflict at work, I mustn’t fall automatically into the defensive mind-set. This is crucial, but it’s also highly counterintuitive. The natural, unthinking response to a challenge is to fight or flee. This is what animals do out of instinct; they have only the 2 Alternatives. But mature human beings can choose a 3rd Alternative.

Remember the first paradigm of synergy: “I See Myself.” I have the power to stand outside myself and think about my own thoughts and feelings. I can examine my own motives: “Why am I caught up in this? Am I being egocentric? Do I need attention or affirmation? Do I feel my status is being threatened? Or am I genuinely concerned about this issue?” If I am already sure of my own self-worth, if I already feel confident about my own contribution and capability, I don’t need to defend myself against you. I can express myself candidly to you.

But I also need to remember the second paradigm of synergy: “I See You.” That means I have profound respect for you. I value your ideas, your experience, your perspective, and your feelings.

Therefore, I practice the third paradigm of synergy: “I Seek You Out.” I am fascinated — not threatened — by the gap between us. Nothing defuses the negative energy of a conflict faster than to say, “You see things differently. I need to listen to you.” And mean it.

If you practice these paradigms, you’ll inevitably arrive at a 3rd Alternative that makes the conflict irrelevant: “Let’s look for something better than either of us has thought of.” Everybody wins, everybody is energized. Often you won’t even remember what the fight was about.

— Stephen R. Covey

Copyright © 2011 by FranklinCovey Co. Excerpted with permission from Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster Inc.

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