by Achim Nowak

Lean Into CONFLICT a Little More, OK?

February 20, 2023

It happened last week.

Javier and Natalia, Heads of separate business units in a biotech firm, are collaborating on a project. Javier has prepared the monthly Powerpoint update for the Executive Team. He’s partnering with an external vendor who has given the slide updates a sleek, polished look. Text has been reduced to minimal bullet points.

Javier is thrilled.

The day before the presentation, Natalia – who has been mired in non-project fire-fighting and had no time to hand in her slide content – submits the information she wants included in the deck. Natalia’s additions are unwieldy, wordy, way too detailed. They do not mesh with the presentation that was just created.

Javier is enraged.

And it’s not the first time Natalia has enraged him.

Conflict cannot survive without your participation." 

Dr. Wayne Dyer

We all have different inclinations about how to act in such a situation. The Thomas-Kilmann Inventory (TKI) is the best known analytical instrument that delineates most individuals’ preferred conflict-engagement styles. According to the TKI, there are 5 major human tendencies when we find ourselves in conflict with others. There is avoiding conflict altogether. Accommodating the other party. Competing. Compromising. And collaborating.

I have already tried to collaborate with Natalia, Javier may think to himself. She’s completely unavailable.

Rage. More rage.

I’m not here to tell Javier what to do. If you’re a competer, you’re likely to exacerbate a dilemma and not resolve it. If you’re prone to avoiding and accommodating, you’re likely to fuel that rage. And if you lean toward compromise (that thing Mom and Dad instilled in us as the always desirable outcome), you’re likely to feel deflated and unhappy, most of the time.

Let us consider another path, shall we! It is predicated on the belief that habitual avoidance never works. And it affirms that conversation is invariably a good thing. 

5 Tips to Lessen Our Conflict Avoidance

1. Don’t call it conflict

Labeling a conversation as “addressing a conflict” is loaded. So, unload your conversation. Semantics matter. Unload it from this label or equally charged synonyms. You’re not here to have a difficult conversation. A crucial conversation. A showdown. Overcome a challenge.

No. You’re simply meeting to share your perspective on a matter or situation. You are doing so to open the door to a conversation. You’re also interested in learning about the other person’s perspective. Bottom-line is, you’re simply having a conversation. That’s it.

2. Prepare for the conversation

If the situation you plan to discuss with your colleague makes you nervous, has caused you anxiety or invoked obsessive thinking, it may be helpful to write down in advance what you wish to say in this conversation. The act of writing tends to immediately calm us down. It helps us think of the simplest, cleanest, least verbose way of expressing what’s on our mind. We are literally gathering our thoughts. And we’re likely catching any language that might sound inflammatory in the conversation.

Important: Just because we wrote it down doesn’t mean we have to “cling to the script.” Trust that the right words will be uttered in the moment, informed by the preparatory writing you did.

3. Use an I-Statement

An I-Statement is the simplest, cleanest and most powerful way of saying something that feels hard to express. Here is the structure of an I-Statement:

  • I - state what you are feeling
  • when - describe the behavior that caused this feeling
  • because - describe the impact of the behavior on you and/or your team.

Were Javier to use an I-Statement with Natalia, it might go something like this: I get very frustrated when you hand in your materials at the last minute because it causes us to totally change something that several of us have worked hard on and necessitates hours of additional work.

The key to a successful I-Statement is that we deliver it calmly. Voices are not raised. Because the statement focuses on OUR experience, it is hard for the other person to argue with an I-Statement. The beauty of the third leg of the statement is that it invites other persons to think of the impact their behavior has on us – something they likely had not contemplated up until that point.

4. Listen to their story

This is often the most difficult part in any conversation, especially when we feel slighted by someone, mistreated or misunderstood. We want to keep talking and talking and talking until we know that they GOT IT.

Stop. Shut up and listen and allow the other person to tell you about their challenges and frustrations. It’s really not that hard. Stop talking. Choose to be curious. Listen. You don’t need to agree or disagree with anything in this very moment. Don’t need to argue or rebut. Simply stop talking and listen.

5. Don’t force an outcome

You may be entering the conversation with a very clear notion of the 3 action items that would instantly solve a current dilemma. You know exactly what things you want the other person to do differently. You’re itching to say Look, here’s what I need from you. Got it?

You’re allowed to ask for those things. But why not simply allow a potential outcome to come from the other person? What might we do differently going forward? is a powerful question. It’s not What can YOU do differently? (potential attack). The we-version is collaborative. It invites a path forward; it doesn’t force it. And when the path comes from the other person, s/he is way more likely to commit to it.

The ultimate non-forcing? It has been drilled into us that a conversation needs to end with action outcomes. Perhaps what was needed, in this particular moment, was just the conversation. More time to think. Another follow-up conversation, perhaps. No forced outcomes. How liberating is that.

It’s not that hard. It really isn’t.

We’re merely having a conversation. Drop the narratives in your head that heighten the mental drama around this conversation: We’re resolving a conflict. We’re having a difficult conversation. This will be a showdown.

Drop ‘em.

We’re simply having a conversation. I’m here to share my perspective and listen. I will do so with a measure of skill and hopefully kindness.

That’s it. There may actually be no conflict. Go figure.

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