I keep encouraging you to wade into uncomfortable conversations as they emerge to avoid racking up conflict debt. Rather than deferring the topic, or talking only with those who agree with you, it’s best to get the disagreement out in the open.
When you do, the point is to find a way to get on the same side of problem as your supposed adversaries, so you can solve it together as allies.
That ally strategy can crash and burn in an instant if you come out of the gates pushing your position too hard. There are a few secrets about how to wade into an uncomfortable discussion carefully so you don’t unleash a defensive attack. Make sure your communication follows these guidelines:
If the very first statement out of your mouth includes the words “always,” “never,” or “every,” you better fasten your seatbelt because you’re starting down a bumpy road. [I’ve even heard two or three of these thrown into the same opening volley, just to be sure everyone recognizes it as a declaration of war.]
Absolutes are so offensive to some people that I’ve witnessed fights between people who fundamentally agree but are triggered by the presence of an absolute. “Well…not ALWAYS,” the other person responds, as if he is defending his honor as a logical thinker.
If you have to include something about the frequency or pervasiveness of your observation, go with something that leaves room for a differing opinion. Try “typically,” or “often,” or “many.”
Soften your language
When I started studying public speaking and got serious about writing, I learned that I was hedging my statements and in doing so, reducing my authority. Now I try to remove clauses like, “I wonder” from the start of my sentences. When you introduce a controversial topic, you want to do the exact opposite.
You don’t want to come across as an authority with all the answers, you want to signal your openness to other ways of thinking. Now you want to haul out those phrases that soften the hard edges of your argument.
Instead of “I believe,” try “I’m wondering.” Can you see how much more room there is for a healthy conversation when you wonder rather than believe? When you wonder something, the other person has room to add her images to your picture. When you “believe,” she has to dislodge your conviction. As the person on the other side of this conversation, I need a lot more energy to disagree with you about your belief than to talk with you about your curiosity.
Start with the issue not the solution
One of the places a healthy debate turns into a heated conflict is the moment when someone proposes a solution to a problem. That’s particularly deadly when you propose a solution that oversteps your authority. The person on the other end might perceive you as condescending (you think I don’t know how to do my job) or pushy, or even clueless (clearly you have no idea how this actually works).
As an example, imagine you work in sales and you’re worried about the engineering team’s move to monthly releases of your software. You go for the gusto and start the conversation with, “We need to move to quarterly releases, instead of monthly.” Whammo! Now you’re in for it. The head of engineering just spent 2 years and $4 million implementing the Agile system and you’ve questioned its core tenet. This isn’t going to be pretty.
A better approach is to give the person insight into what you’re worried about—what’s not working for you. In the example, it would look like this. “With monthly releases, I’m struggling to educate the salesforce about the changes so that they are up to date when they’re talking with customers.” First off, that keeps the accountability with you. It’s your job to educate the salesforce, not the head of engineering’s. Second, the way it’s phrased is more likely to garner you allies to help you solve the problem.
Starting with the problem you’re trying to solve, rather than with your proposed solution is a great technique that short-circuits many potential conflicts.
Use observation not judgment
Using observation not judgment when you’re describing anyone but yourself is a core principle of productive conflict. When you use judgment (e.g., that presentation was too long), you put the other person on the defensive.
Judgment has other problems too. It’s not intellectually honest (what does ‘long’ even mean?). It exposes your emotions and your values, but indirectly. Surfacing your values and what really matters to you is extremely effective when you do it openly and candidly. When the other person has to infer your values from your judgmental statements, it’s less likely to engender empathy and more likely to create resistance.
Observation strips away the judgement and lays out a set of facts that the other person in the discussion must agree with. In the example above, replace, “the presentation was too long,” with “the presentation took up 37 minutes of our 60 minute meeting.” It works for non-verbal behavior too. Instead of “you were disengaged in that meeting,” try, “your chair was turned away from the person who was presenting.”
When you withhold judgment and stick to the facts, you reduce the hostility and resistance and leave room for the other person to share their version of the story.
In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult to contain your emotions; difficult, but important. If you start with an adversarial mindset, you can almost guarantee that you will either have a fight in the moment or that you will drive the conflict underground. Instead, use language that leave room for two people in the discussion. Avoid absolutes; soften the definitive statements, share your concerns rather than jumping to solutions, and strip out the judgement. You’ll notice a difference almost immediately.