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Conflict Is a Matter of the Heart

Learn to develop a mind-set of curiosity, rather than one of conviction.

There is nothing more common, or more insidious, than unresolved conflict. Here’s an example that could have happened in any office in the corporate world: A supervisor — let’s call him Alex — became aware of after-hours behavior that was negatively affecting the workplace. He approached his direct report, whom we’ll call Brian, and told him that the behavior needed to stop because it was detrimental to both Brian and his coworkers. Brian thanked Alex for his advice, changed his behavior, and they collaborated happily ever after.

Only in our dreams. In reality, Brian reacted defensively and refused to engage further with Alex on the topic. Both of them felt disrespected, and spent the days that followed obsessively thinking about how they each had been wronged and enlisting the support of anybody who would listen. Each of them crafted a victim-villain story that painted his own behavior in the most favorable light and criticized the motives and character of the other: Alex believed Brian was immature and undisciplined, while Brian convinced himself that Alex was an uncaring control freak.

What started as a relatively straightforward disagreement quickly deteriorated into an unhealthy stalemate, with each party retreating to search for additional evidence to support his beliefs. Without productive follow-up conversations, these negative mental models will harden, straining the relationship and affecting future collaboration. Chances are, given that they have experienced pain but little gain, Brian and Alex will be less likely to step into important, emotionally charged conversations in the future.

Multiply this incident by the number of employees and initiatives in offices worldwide, and then again by the number of hours in a day, and it is no surprise that Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team has been a bestseller since its publication in 2002. One of the foundational components of Lencioni’s teamwork model as described in the book is the ability to engage in conflict in a way that nurtures, rather than harms, relationships.

In the case above, Alex should have approached the conversation with a sincere desire to learn rather than to give advice. Developing this mind-set requires exploring one’s own motivations and approaching difficult conversations with humility. Alex needs to challenge his assumptions about the appropriateness of Brian’s behavior and effect on the workplace: Although it’s possible that the behavior violates Alex’s personal values, it might not actually harm the business. If this is case, Alex needs to reframe his motive from professional to personal, and determine if the conversation is necessary and feasible given the state of the trust and power differential inherent in the boss-subordinate relationship.

Approaching difficult conversations with humility requires embracing curiosity.

Approaching difficult conversations with humility requires embracing curiosity and letting go of conviction. To shift perspectives, Alex should explore the root causes of Brian’s behavior using what I call the Five Whys. The exercise starts by asking yourself why you feel a certain way, and then using the answer to continue questioning yourself until you reach a place where you don’t know the answer. (Full disclosure: It may take more than five whys to get there.) Here’s that construct in action from Alex’s point of view:

1. Why am I upset?

  • Because Brian is behaving inappropriately.

2. Why is his behavior inappropriate?

  • Because he is bringing it to the workplace.

3. Why is he bringing it into the workplace?

  • Maybe he works long hours.

4. Why does he work long hours?

  • Maybe he is overloaded.

5. Why is he overloaded?

  • Maybe he volunteers for every opportunity.

6. Why does he volunteer?

  • I don’t know.

Doing this exercise will quickly show Alex that he has a lot more questions than he does answers. Armed with newfound humility, as well as with motives that are other- (versus self-) oriented, Alex is now prepared to enter into dialogue with Brian. Rather than surprising Brian, and risking a defensive reaction, Alex should give Brian advance warning and some control over the timing of the conversation.

My favorite conversational model to facilitate effective dialogue is outlined in the book Crucial Conversations. In short, it’s best to start with facts (which are observable and therefore less likely to be disputed), offer a tentative solution (to reduce defensiveness), and then get the other person to do the most of the talking through questioning and active listening.

Unfortunately, Brian and Alex can’t turn back the clock. But they can jump-start a new, more effective dialogue by using the above approach, with two additions. First, the conversation needs to start with a sincere and specific apology. Although either party can take the initiative, it makes more sense for the person with more power (parent, boss, coach, etc.) to do so because it will help mitigate fear. Second, given that emotions are running high, it is necessary to frequently insert contrasting statements (such as, for example, “You are a strong performer and I want to continue to help your influence”) to reaffirm mutual purpose and respect and keep the conversation going.

The next time you find yourself judging others and avoiding necessary conversations, stop and search your heart. Chances are, you have adopted a mind-set of conviction rather than curiosity. By checking your motives and shifting perspectives, it’s possible to reduce the likelihood of conflict and increase the likelihood of collaboration — happily ever after.

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.


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