Thursday, June 5, 2008

Having a Conversation to Resolve Conflict

There are tools to use to have a good conversation with someone else – no matter how angry and seemingly intractable they appear. It’s all about really listening to the person – “active listening” is a key tool – and getting very clear about what happened and what could help resolve it now and in the future. By the end of the conversation, you and the other person optimally would be allies in solving the problem. It requires great patience and stretching beyond your comfort zone. And you can do it.

The key to resolving conflict is to do it with the people who are directly involved. E-mail is a no-no. In person, face-to-face conversation is the best method. Once you all have established relationships based on trust, phone conversations can be used. To build trust, you have to talk to people directly, in person.

If all parties involved stop listening to each other and refuse to accommodate one another, a no-win situation exists. This is a classic stand-off situation. Someone has to make the first move. Making the first move is difficult when one is “sensitive to conflict” – it’s very scary to approach someone who has expressed his/her anger or displeasure in some way. Yet that’s exactly what has to happen.

The Process

1. Approach the person to ask if they have some time to talk, either then or within a day. Remember, you’re asking them for something, not making a demand.

2. Thank them for making the time (whenever it is).

3. When you begin talking, start by summarizing what you believe is the immediate problem. For example, “I wanted to talk to you about the recent meeting. When I read your e-mail, I got it that you were upset at not being informed about it. I also read that you wish we had a better process for communicating these things.”

It’s critical that you use “I” statements. You have no idea what they mean, how they feel, what they intend. And if the person is angry, s/he will really get angry if you try to tell them what they meant. So instead of saying “You were really upset about that” you can say “It seemed to me that the situation upset you.” This phrasing depersonalizes it for the other person and allows them to validate your perception or not.

4. Immediately follow this statement with a question to check out the validity of your perception. “Have I understood your concerns?”

5. Allow the person their response:
Anger - “NO! you don’t understand” – you can say “I want to understand. Can you explain it to me again?” When they’ve expressed it again, say “I hear you saying…xyz. Is that what you mean?” Your goal is to get them to agree that you have understood what they are saying.
Acceptance – “Yes, that’s it.” – you say, “Great. I’m glad I understand.”
Correction – “you’ve got part of it, but not all of it” – you can say “What haven’t I understood?”
When they say the clarification, repeat it after them saying “This is what I hear you saying…abc. Is that right?”

Whatever the response, you want to get to the point where you understand the other person’s issue to that other person’s satisfaction. Repeating back to them what they’ve said is the key to “active listening” – it’s also known as “mirroring.”

7. Once you both are on the same page, you can say “I’m sorry this happened. And I wonder if there is something I can do now to rectify the situation – if not this one, then in the future.” You’re hoping to learn from them what they need. You can even ask directly “what do you need from me in the future in a similar situation?”

8. Again, allow them their response. Usually by this time, the person isn’t as angry. If s/he still is angry, the chances are s/he won’t want to “fix you” or “tell you how to make it better.” If that’s the case, your next step is to suggest something you could have done. For example, “would it have helped if I sent out a notice to the senior management group after my initial conversation?”

9. If the person isn’t angry and does answer your question, use the “mirroring” technique again to clarify.

10. When you think you both understand what the solution is, summarize it. “So here’s what I think we agreed: xxx. Did I get it all?” Somehow, check it out with the other person.

11. You then make a commitment to the person. “OK, I commit to letting you know well in advance of anything that is likely to need the male health educators. And I also commit to talking it over with you to make sure I get your ideas and that the timing works with your health education schedule. How does that sound?” Get the other person’s to agree your commitment will meet his/her needs.

If you can’t make that commitment, make another one. Say clearly, “I will try to talk to you individually but it might not always be possible. However, I will definitely bring it up at a senior management meeting and get your input there.” Again, get the other person’s agreement.

12. Hopefully, by this time, you can then make a suggestion about a process or system that could be applied across the group. For example, “Do you think it would be useful to talk about this situation with the others in the senior management group, so we can all figure out how to communicate better with each other?”

If the other person agrees, you two can work together to draft a short agenda item and send it to Lorraine to get her to put it on the group meeting agenda. (All group members have the ability to put items on the agenda, I believe. Optimally, those agendas will be distributed before the meeting so people have a chance to think about the various topics. It will make the meetings more efficient.)

• Pay no attention to their body language. Pay attention to your own. Sit with feet on floor and hands on table. Avoid crossing arms and legs. Look the person in the eye.
• Bring a piece of paper and a pen in case you are moved to write something down. It helps the other person feel heard.
• Focus on what the other person is saying. Avoid thinking about your response. Avoid defensiveness. Avoid accusation. Focus on solving the problem.
• Keep your focus on the goal – resolving conflict, building trust, and establishing forward movement for your relationship and possibly for the entire group.

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