Conflict is inevitable. And yet, while we’re virtually surrounded by it, we still have difficulty coping with conflict. We can’t change the reality that we will encounter low-level and perhaps high-level conflict throughout; we can, however, control how we react to it. We can, as coach and author Dana Caspersen suggests, “change our conversations.” How?
Changing the Conversation
Caspersen, a conflict specialist, wrote Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution as a practical guide, hoping to empower people to “transform conflict from the inside.” We can, she says, change the conversation by changing our own actions and approach.
Fortunately, we have plenty of opportunities to practise! We can integrate certain actions and behaviours that will help change the direction of these fraught—and frequent—conversations. As leaders, it is incumbent on us to do so in order to connect with individuals, build respect, and, in doing so, minimize destructive or distracting conflict in our teams.
Is It This…or That?
One of the keys to changing the conversation is to learn to distinguish between various aspects of our interactions. For example, is it better to make assumptions or to clarify assumptions? In this case, it is better to clarify because it creates mutual understanding. It facilitates connection.
Remember, every one of us wants, at a fundamental level, to be seen, to be heard, and to be understood. Acknowledging the needs, values and opinions of others is a fundamental step in building respect.
How can we use our conversations to achieve this aim?
- What’s being said (the words the other party uses) and what’s behind those words (is the other person experiencing frustration, anger, passion?)
- Having emotion (feeling anger, frustration, anger, displeasure, excitement) and expressing that emotion (displaying your anger, frustration, etc. through words or actions).
- Posing challenging questions (such as “Why did you do that?”) and posing curiosity questions without judgment (such as “I’m curious. What led you to choosing that action?”)
- Making assumptions (making implicit judgments in the conversation) and clarifying assumptions (making them explicit so there is shared understanding about what underlies the conversation)
- Acknowledgement or acceptance (acknowledging/accepting the other party’s assertions/positon) and agreement—or disagreement (judging whether the other person is right or wrong)
- Listening for opportunities (to advise, or declare, or sound smart) and listening for understanding (to ascertain accurately what the other party is saying, or not saying).
- Observations (what you notice) and evaluations or judgments (what you feel and perhaps assert).
- What’s happening (what is going on) and who’s at fault here (assigning blame).
- Solutions (what you think they should do) and options (various suggestions based on their position, interests, and needs).
When we make an effort to become aware of these distinctions, we can hold conversations that build respect and reduce conflict in individual and group settings. As Caspersen writes, “It seems really tricky to do this at first. But the more we practise, the better we can be.”
Her very easy to use book offers a number of other suggestions that can help leaders build workplaces marked by respect and mutual regard.
Bob McCulloch is a recognized authority in providing strategic guidance and executive coaching for tomorrow’s top business leaders. Employing a question-based approach and with over 40 years’ experience, he is able to build strong, trust-based relationships with senior-level executives who are looking to move the needle in their careers from good to great.