Short-Circuit Conflict

By Jessica Stillman

When it comes to conflict, most of us go one of two ways. Some of us avoid disagreement, pushing down our anger and hurt and suffering in silence. Others thrive on conflict, working themselves up into a self-righteous lather that wouldn’t be out of place on a cable news program. It can feel so good to be so right when the rest of the world is obviously full of fools.

But it doesn’t take a lot of self-reflection to see both of these approaches have serious downsides. Repression has solved a grand total of zero business challenges and is murder on your mental and physical health. Self-righteousness has never been a great means to a constructive solution (and, frankly, can be addictive).

So what’s a better way? To get somewhere in an argument you need to stop thinking about how right you are, and spend some time squeezing your metaphorical feet into the other person’s shoes.

Julie Zhuo, a product design director at Facebook, took to Medium to share five hard but incredibly important questions you should ask yourself during an argument. Among them:

Can I fairly articulate the other person’s point of view?

If my first inclination during our disagreement is to call up a friend and begin a rant with, “He’s bat-s**t crazy. I Conflict-resolutionhave no idea why he’d say/do that, clearly he’s smoking something or he maybe he just possesses the IQ of a snail” — it’s a sign I have absolutely zero context on why you’re doing what you’re doing and have not stopped to think about it or ask you. So instead of overdramatizing the 2,395 ways you might be insane, why don’t I try and understand what’s actually making you tick?

Now, there’s a chance that even after more extensive research, the conclusion doesn’t change — said person is, in fact, crazy or low-integrity or possessing of a puny intellect. Fine. Then proceed accordingly, and don’t give up the good fight.

But those are the rare, rare cases. Generally, people are good. And smart. And acting in a totally reasonable way. Most of the time, when you dive in deeper, what you’ll find is that you were lacking their perspective. And had you known what they knew, or seen what they saw, you too might have ended up with their opinion.

You can’t even begin to resolve a conflict unless you understand why the other side thinks the way they do. So put some effort into figuring that out before you start questioning their mental aptitude.

Everyone, in other words, has a perspective, and you’re not going to get anything useful out of a conflict unless you spend some time at least trying to figure out what the other’s person’s is. It’s a point Peter Bregman settles on as well in another insightful post for the HBR Blog Network, noting that the key to a useful discussion about a disagreement is taking the time to acknowledge the other person’s perspective:

Always start the conversation by acknowledging how your actions impacted the other person. Save the discussion about your intentions for later. Much later. Maybe never. Because, in the end, your intentions don’t matter much.

What if you don’t think the other person is right — or justified — in feeling the way they do? It doesn’t matter. Because you’re not striving for agreement. You’re going for understanding…. Your job is to acknowledge their reality — which is critical to maintaining the relationship.

Is doing what Bregman and Zhou are advocating easy? Of course not. “We’re so focused on our own challenges that it’s often hard to acknowledge the challenges of others. Especially if we are their challenge and they are ours. Especially when they lash out at us in anger. Especially when we feel misunderstood,” writes Bregman, who offers a trick to make it easier: “While they’re getting angry at you, imagine, instead, that they’re angry at someone else. Then react as you would in that situation.”

This might sound a bit like something you’d hear from a marriage counselor, but both these posts are from business experts, which hints at why this advice is not just for couples but for small business owners. Your staff, customers and associates may not be as important to you as your spouse, but maintaining good relationships with them is as important to the healthy functioning of your business as maintaining a respectful dialogue with your significant other is for your relationship.

It may feel good to be right when you get in a conflict with someone at your company (hey, you may even be right in the end), but it’s probably much better for your business to spend some of that mental energy figuring out why they’re right in their own eyes.

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

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