conflict

Tug ‘o War

When was the last time someone handed you a rope and said “hey, how about you pull really hard on your end, and I’ll pull really hard on my end, and when one of us falls flat on our face, it’s settled. Okay?”

Eighth grade P.E. class, maybe?

For me, it was last weekend. Except it wasn’t a rope, it was an argument. The same stupid argument we have over and over. And nobody ever wins this particular one. we just pick up our ends of the rope, dig in, and start heaving our weight around. There’s a lot of mud involved and the emotional equivalent of strained muscles.

In the middle of all the pulling and tugging I wondered “Why do we keep tugging? Why not let go of the rope?”

Arguments can go wrong in so many ways when the emotions are high. We say things we don’t intend, we drag up battles of years past, we resurrect old hurts, previous slights, and the reasons to continue arguing pile up. But most of us don’t relish tug ‘o war and the repair cost can be high.

Some graceful ways to let go and buy yourself a little time to cool down without dropping your opponent (or co-worker, or family member) on their derriere.:

Take responsibility for your emotional state:

  • I’m getting (angry/frustrated etc.) and I need a few moments to calm down.
  • I want to come back to this discussion but I’m not thinking clearly right now, can we take a ten-minute break?

Own your role in what’s going wrong:

  • I’m starting to say things I don’t mean because I’m angry/frustrated/sad. Let’s take a break to calm down.
  • I think I’m being unfair because I’m feelilng (fill it in….). Can we take a break?
  • I know this is important to you and I want to listen carefully. I’m not able to do that right now.

For work-place situations:

  • I think you’ve made some good points and I need some time to think them over. Let’s schedule a follow-up conversation.
  • I’m going to need some time to consider this information. When can we get back together?
  • I can see this is important to you and I don’t have time right now to give it my full attention. Can we come back to it?

It’s very (very!) tempting to tell the other person all the things they’re doing wrong and enumerate all the reasons you can’t possibly have a productive conversation with them, but these kinds of statements probably won’t help:

  • You’re so unreasonable/irrational/mean/wrong that I just can’t talk to you.
  • You never/always …………(anything).
  • You don’t know what you’re talking about.
  • You should feel…..(any emotion)
  • Oh yeah? Well remember the time you did (this other thing that’s not related to the topic at hand but I’ve been dying to bring this up….)

Ideally, we wouldn’t get into these heated situations in the first place, but once it happens, putting down the rope until you’ve both had a chance to cool down and think things through can save a lot of struggle.

I’m sure there are many other great ways to stop fighting out there. What’s worked for you?

 

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Hello, Conflict Calling!

I’m not sure what possessed me to schedule a difficult one-and-a-half-hour conference call for first thing on a Monday morning a while back, but I did. And when we used the entire time and had to continue it into the three to five p.m. slot, I felt bookended by conflict.

There are a lot of days like this. A lot of weeks like this, aren’t there?

In this particular situation, we were going through a lengthy project topic by topic, sharing comments and points of view, which sometimes sounded more like “we won’t do this” and “well, we need to have this.”  Did I mention this was all on a conference call?

I put on my best listening persona and tried to really sink into the role of hearing what was important to both of us and listening for clues. I suppose the fact that it was Monday was ultimately helpful. I was reasonably well rested after a lovely weekend and able to step out of the situation a bit to notice the times when I wasn’t as focused or as effective. I noticed several situations that made it harder to communicate well:

  1. Several times it was clear to me that the other party hadn’t read or hadn’t understood the part of the document we were discussing. (Why do you keep saying things that aren’t accurate?)
  2. There was one instance when they were pushing for something we couldn’t do. I couldn’t offer what they needed; they weren’t hearing the base piece of information (not ours to offer) so I felt like we were in a one-sided argument. (Why can’t you stop asking about this? I can’t give you what you want!)
  3. There were times when I felt frustrated by the sheer number of follow-up items and stressed by the impending deadline. (How will we ever pull this together if you keep asking for more changes?)
  4. The conference call itself is sometimes a problem. In the absence of body language – poised to speak, mouth open, nodding – people tend to talk longer than necessary in order to get their point across in the void. (When will s/he stop talking so I can answer the question and we can move on?

The most humbling realization, however, was that the folks on the other end of the line were probably thinking the same things about me and my co-workers. There were some sections we’d suggested changing or adding that were covered elsewhere. I could tell that they, too, were nervous about making our deadline work, there were things we were pretty stubborn about, and I’ll bet you a nickle I talked too long at least once!

This evening, I was thinking about the whole situation and the great satisfaction I get out of solving complicated problems. I love this kind of work, but it’s not easy.

We all have to deal with work situations that are full of those moments of conflict. Listening carefully and just saying out loud some of those things in parentheses seems to help. It also pushes us to think empathetically – what’s going on with that other person and how can I reach them?

Here are some of the things I tried:

  1. Instead of “why didn’t you read this”, I tried “I know you just got this, do you need time to read it?”
  2. Instead of “I can’t do that” , we offered “Would it help to understand the relationship between these two pieces of information?”
  3. Instead of “We can’t keep adding to this list”, how about “We’re adding a lot to our list, perhaps at the end we should take a few minutes to discuss how we’ll get it done?”
  4. But that last one…..I’m still not sure how to get body language in a conference call, Skype, perhaps?

What are your tips for conference call negotiations?