One of the biggest challenges leaders face is working through conflict, whether they are in the middle of it, or if they are mediating between members of their team. With conflict, emotions can run high, and it can be hard to determine where to even begin in order to resolve the issue. Because of the seeming complexity of conflict, it often is deliberately ignored and goes unresolved, to the determent of both the team and the work environment. In their book, Difficult Conversations, Doug Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen, of the Harvard Negotiation Project, offer several insights to help frame and resolve conflict.

They explain that one of the causes of conflict is that we can have the same experience but view it through different lenses, leading to disagreement. One reason is that we take in different information and notice different things. We can’t help this – we are each bombarded with so much information every day that we can’t take it all in. So we each focus only on certain things, and we probably notice different things. The second reason is that even if you and I know for certain that we are looking at the same set of information, we may interpret it differently. We may both agree that the per employee professional development budget is $1000 this year; but you may think that is a large allocation, and I may think it is small. When we understand that these two influences can lead to conflict, we can avoid or work though conflict by making sure we have the same information, and by checking the assumptions we are making on that information. So how can we do these things?

One way that Stone et al. offer is to “move from certainty to curiosity.” We tend to stubbornly assume that we are right, and the other person is wrong, and that’s that. Instead, open yourself to the possibility that you don’t have all the information. This means a willingness to listen to the other person give his or her perspective. Really listen. We tend to find this challenging because we (1) assume that listening means agreement with what the other person is saying, and (2) it is hard for us to stay curious when we want to explain our own story. An important shift to make is to embrace the And Stance. Move from the natural inclination to think I Am Right, and You Are Wrong to recognize that both of your perspectives are valid, and that listening does not mean capitulating. As the authors say, “The mere act of understanding someone else’s story doesn’t require you to give up your own.”

A second way to increase our understanding of the situation is to recognize the assumptions we are making, specifically around the intentions of the other person. We tend to assume the worst about the intentions of others based on the impact on us, which easily becomes negative judgments about their character. These negative judgments can close us off from wanting to engage with the other person to resolve the conflict. Stone et al. offer three questions to help distinguish impact from intentions:

  1. Actions: “What did the other person actually say or do?”
  2. Impact: “What was the impact of this on me?”
  3. Assumption: “Based on this impact, what assumption am I making about what the other person intended?”

This series of questions helps us look more objectively at our own thinking and realize when we are reading our interpretations into someone else’s actions. When we can see our assumptions clearly, we can move toward to a more mutual understanding of events. This in turn is the first step in coming to a resolution of the conflict. As the authors phrase it, “Now that we really understand each other, what’s a good way to manage this problem?”

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