Working With and Through Conflict

As mentioned last week, I have been thinking about how we might share with each other the gems we are gathering from our readings and our experiences. Here is how you can contribute:

  • Recommend resources, websites, TED or YouTube talks, speakers or books.
  • Share a review of or highlights from a book or resource.
  • Pose a challenge to other 2020ers to help you find a great resource, website, book, etc. that will benefit your leadership practice (and which will undoubtedly benefit others also).
This week, I have been inspired by the Blended 3 and 4 cohorts’ conversations on working with and through conflict. We welcomed mediator Anne Marie Daniel for several sessions, and what I appreciated is that she unpacked conflict – and our reactions to it – and took us back to some vital truths about conflict and resolution. Here is my version of the key ideas, followed up with some useful references if you are ready to get better at working through conflict.

Understanding is not the same as agreeing
By seeking to understand what is going on for the other person or party, we gain knowledge and perspective that can help us move from fear, anger, resistance, etc. to a place of openness and creativity. Instead of feeling that we have to keep putting our points, needs and demands forward (or just give up) we can take a step back and try and figure out what is going on for the others involved. This doesn’t mean we are agreeing with their perspective – just aiming to understand. This act in itself can diffuse a lot of conflict.

Separate impact and intention 
When we feel negatively impacted by a situation, we often believe that the other party intended to cause this harm. We attribute negative intent to them and act from that uncomfortable place of being the wronged party. In many cases, people have no intention to cause harm and are surprised to learn of the impact that they have. To avoid escalating misunderstanding it is helpful to go through a few steps with ourselves, before responding: isolate the facts of the story (not the enhanced version of events that our minds create), look critically at the impact the situation has on you, consider what the other person’s intentions might have been, look at what your own intentions were/are, and how your behaviour might have contributed to the situation. Doing this can be quite humbling, and it also gets our pre-frontal cortex (our rational and creative mind) back online so we can separate from the emotional reaction and respond in a way that increases the likelihood of success.

There is a difference between want and need – focus on the needs 
In conflict situations people may provide a list of what they want, take positions, make threats, or aim for the quick fixes, e.g. “I want you to stop doing that now or I will refuse to participate.” By focusing on needs and interests – what underlies the expressed wants – you can open up other possibilities for solutions. For example, perhaps the person demanding that you stop doing something might be needing some recognition of and support for what they are already doing before adding anything further. By focusing on what their interests and concerns are you can trim away the ‘noise’ and come to the core needs. The desire for respect, recognition, understanding and appreciation are core needs that often get clouded over by demands and ‘wants’. Hint: if you think that you have resolved an issue only to find it re-surfacing again, it is quite likely that you and the other party were addressing the surface ‘wants’ rather than the underlying ‘needs’.

Look for shared goals  
“How can we meet (what you need) while making sure that (what I need) happens?”
This is not about compromise (where both parties go away with less than what they desired) but about creating something that works well for both parties.

Some of the best references on working with and through conflict were written in the 1980’s by professors at Harvard University Law School and the Harvard Negotiation Project (HNP). Although the focus was on tough negotiations, they are highly still relevant resources on conflict resolution and principle-based negotiation. Getting to Yes –Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In (1981) by Roger Fisher and William Ury was the first in the series. This was followed by Getting Together – Building Relationships As We Negotiate (1988) by Roger Fisher and Scott Brown, Getting Past No – Negotiating Your Way from Confrontation to Cooperation (1991) by William Ury, Getting Ready to Negotiate – The Getting to Yes Workbook (1995) by Roger Fisher and Danny Ertel, and Beyond reason – Using Emotions as You Negotiate (2005) by Roger Fisher and Daniel Shapiro. The two I refer to most are described below.
Getting to Yes was the groundbreaking book on principle-based negotiation, and it offers a commonsense approach to address conflicts and other matters where the parties are not in agreement. This includes: separating people from the problems; focusing on interests, not positions; discovering mutually acceptable options; and figuring out objective criteria to ensure fairness. I also like that they address situations in which you have less power in a situation, and how you can still have influence.
Getting Together expands on Getting to Yes and challenges the view that some relationships are just destined to be ‘bad’. Their premise is that “although it takes two to have a relationship, it takes only one to change its quality.” Their goal is to help us build relationships that “can deal well with differences” and be constructive. They suggest 7 elements:
  1. Rationality: Balancing emotions with reason
  2. Understanding: Learning how they see things
  3. Communication: Listening and consulting before deciding
  4. Reliability: Being wholly trustworthy, but not wholly trusting
  5. Persuasion not coercion: Negotiating side by side
  6. Acceptance: Dealing seriously with those with whom we differ
  7. Congruence: Putting it together
You can get some free reports from the HNP that are well done, especially the one on Dealing With Difficult People and Dispute Resolution.