Agree to Agree - 7 steps to real conflict resolution
“Conflict is unavoidable” is something of a cliché - Google it and you get over 22 million hits. Given that we all have different personalities and points of view, the occasional flashpoint or clash is bound to occur, and they can be particularly toxic in a work situation where we know we'll meet the same person again tomorrow.
Deep down we know that the way forward is to clear the air and resolve the issue, but more often than not we instead avoid the conflict altogether or try to mask it (“smooth things over”) when in fact keeping your mouth shut can make things worse rather than better. Have you ever used the following phrases?
“Let's just agree to disagree”
“Let's not talk about the past”
“We are where we are. Let's draw a line and move forward”
All of the above are well-intentioned, but have in common that the original dispute is merely swept under the carpet: both sides remain locked in their own certainty of being “right”. Your own recognition that the conflict still exists only makes you more sensitive to the faults and irritating aspects of the other person (confirmation bias). Any further clash or disagreement tends to become an exhausting zero-sum game for those involved.
If we maintain this zero-sum mindset when we try to find some common ground, anxiety is guaranteed because every step forward either side makes feels like a defeat. However, adopting instead a collaborative mindset when approaching the other person can work miracles. Here are some tips to get you on the right path:
You can't resolve the conflict without communication. Approach the other person and ask for permission to talk to them, stressing the positive intention of the conversation and the importance of the relationship to reduce any instinctive defensiveness.
Everybody has a deep-seated need for appreciation and recognition, so lead off with something specific you admire and appreciate about them. This makes it clear that you are looking to resolve a particular issue, rather than mount a critique of them as a person.
Describe the facts and observable actions (e.g. “I noticed that…”) without interpreting them or offering generalisations. By starting with facts, you are more likely to establish a base on which you can agree. In contrast, do not lead off with opinions of the person or their attitude e.g. “you are not good at…” as the other person can respond with “That’s not true!” and immediately produce deadlock.
Be very clear in your communication and avoid ambiguity, while remembering that different people will see and interpret the same events differently, as famously illustrated in the classic film Rashomon.
Describe how their actions make you feel, e.g. “It makes me feel confused - initially I had good feedback from you but then my work was described as not being up to scratch” or “It makes me worried that I am not clear what it is that you need from me”. As well as being an observation they cannot flatly deny, it encourages them to engage with you as a fellow human being, rather than a video-game adversary.
Ask for a third party’s perspective and how they see the issue; not only might the conflict have arisen due to a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of events, but this step could also bring about the beginnings of a collaborative solution.
Having maximised what you can agree upon, focus on solutions: identify together an ideal outcome and what you have already done towards it. This will help you both focus on what it is that matters and help forge a collaborative relationship.
Of course not all disagreements are properly resolved by compromise: sometimes one side is just flat-out wrong. We'll cover these tricky situations in the next blog post!