Which Skills, When?

At the beginning of this book, conflict was defined as "the condition in which the needs or desires of two or more parties appear to be incompatible." This does not mean that resolving conflict requires the needs of each party to be met equally. All needs, after all, are not created equal or may not be equally felt. Often, one person has a need to be met or a concern to be answered , while the other has a less-pressing agenda or, initially, no agenda at all. Sometimes you will be the person with the issue. At other times, it will be a colleague who comes to you with a pressing need. In each case, different skill sets are required.

Consider three distinct conflict situations and the repertoire of skills each requires:

  1. When another person's needs are pressing, you need active listening skills. [2]

  2. When your needs are pressing, you need assertion skills.

  3. When both people's needs are pressing, you need conflict management skills.

Let's examine the first scenario of another person coming to you and expressing a concern that needs to be resolved.

I. Using Active Listening Skills

Active listening is easier said than done. We find it difficult to listen to others for many reasons.

Studies have shown that a human being can think five times faster than he or she can speak. This simple fact accounts for much of the difficulty we have listening to others. While they are struggling to get the words out, our mind races ahead. During the lag time, we may become impatient, angry , bored, or distracted. As a result, we develop a coping strategy. We either tune them out or attempt to complete the thought for them.

Being an attentive listener is a challenge for several other reasons:

  • It is not natural. The natural human response is to react from one's own sense of need. It is part of our basic survival instinct to put our own needs first, and listening to those of others is not our first priority.

  • Our biases influence our reactions . Our perceptions have been molded by a lifetime of experience ”both positive and negative. As a result, we have certain going-in stories about men who have long hair, women who wear miniskirts, representatives of certain ethnic groups, and people who are much older or much younger than we. These and other deep-seated biases cause us to filter speakers ' messages: We hear what people say differently, depending on the preconceived notion we have of them.

  • We are always in our own conversation. Because our brain works so quickly and constantly, we are always noticing and evaluating what comes into our awareness. It is as if another person were inside our head, whispering, "I like this," or "I disagree with that," or "What should we have for dinner tonight?" Sometimes our conversation with our inner person becomes so engaging that it is hard to stay focused on what a speaker is trying to convey to us.

  • We have a preprogrammed style. Years of experience and learning have caused us to develop habitual ways of responding to the world around us. Add to this the impact of personality and genetics , and you find that each of us tends to react to certain situations in our own preprogrammed fashion. When confronted with another person's needs, especially if that person is in a heightened emotional state, one individual might be too embarrassed to respond, another might be offended, yet another might feel compelled to offer advice or comfort . Whatever our typical response is, it is difficult to make a conscious choice about how to behave in such a situation.

Listening constitutes one of the truly remarkable human capabilities. Do it well, and you likely will be not only an effective conflict manager but also an exceptional human being.

Nearly every act of listening confronts the listener with two divergent roads . One road facilitates the transmission of messages. Take this road and you hold the keys to the Magic Kingdom. It is this behavior that you observe when you conclude, "She really understands where I'm coming from."

The other road is filled with barriers that hamper communication between speaker and listener. Take this road and you are headed for the Haunted Forest. "Otto just doesn't get it," is the typical reaction here. In fact, Otto might as well have been wearing earplugs.

Let's begin by discussing those behaviors that set up barriers to communication. Such behaviors, unfortunately , put you on the road most traveled ”and are most likely to cause ill will and dysfunctional conflict.

Listening: Behaviors to Avoid

Not focusing on those who come to us with a concern can bruise egos, but we add insult to injury by continually interrupting. Yet, many of us feel compelled to interject our own reaction or opinion into another person's story. We do this for various reasons: We are used to participating in a dialogue, not listening to a monologue; we think the speaker expects us to offer, if not a solution, at least an expression of sympathy; we want to cut short the conversation before it becomes a protracted saga. These roadblock responses cause a barrier to go up between us and the speaker.

Roadblock responses fall into the following three categories:

  1. Sending solutions impedes effective communication. In our desire to help someone ”or shortcut the conversation ”we may come in too rapidly with our own opinion. This can be discouraging to the speaker. After all, he or she may be in search of a sounding board, not a solution. It also subtly shifts the focus from the speaker and puts it on me.

  2. Evaluating is another way in which to alienate someone who is looking for a listener. In our attempt to help the speaker or speed up the process, we turn him or her off by using judgmental remarks, which can signal agreement, lack of agreement, or skepticism. These remarks may provoke defensive behavior from the speaker; communication becomes tense or completely closed off; and the speaker typically leaves with a feeling of dissatisfaction and discomfort.

  3. Withdrawing is another deadly response. When we do not have time to listen, are not interested, or are uncomfortable with the message we are hearing, we consciously or subconsciously cut ourselves off or withdraw from the conversation. We may become completely unresponsive , or we may change the subject to one that better suits us.

All of these responses block, either temporarily or permanently, the transmission of the speaker's message. They tend to lower the speaker's self-esteem, cause the speaker to become either resistant or defensive, diminish his or her sense of responsibility, convey hidden messages, and, worst of all, keep the speaker from finding a solution to a troublesome problem. Figure 5-3 is a detailed list of responses, devised by Thomas Gordon, [3] that act as roadblocks to effective listening and successful conflict resolution.

start figure

The Dirty Dozen Roadblock Responses


  1. ORDERING: Telling others what to do

  2. THREATENING : Trying to control other people's actions by warning of negative consequences

  3. MORALIZING: Telling people what they should do

  4. ADVISING: Telling others how to solve their problems

  5. LOGICAL ARGUMENTS: Attempting to convince others with facts, logic, opinions


  1. QUESTIONING: Searching for more information so you can solve another's problem; leading another, through questioning, to an answer you have already decided on; asking questions to satisfy your curiosity

  2. JUDGING: Negatively appraising the actions or attitudes of others

  3. PRAISING: Positively appraising other people, their actions, or their attitudes

  4. NAME -CALLING: Stereotyping others

  5. DIAGNOSING: Analyzing what others are doing or saying; letting them know you have it all figured out; playing psychiatrist


  1. REASSURING: Saying things to make other people feel better; trying to stop them from feeling as they do

  2. WITHDRAWING OR DIVERTING: Pushing others' problems aside by removing yourself from them, distraction, or humor

end figure

Figure 5-3: Thomas Gordon's Dirty Dozen Roadblocks to Effective Communication.

One of the exercises that team members complete during skills training is designed to mirror reality by demonstrating that, while we might think people are "there" when we are talking, they often are not. They are simply playing out their own game, rather than listening to what we are saying.

Assuming that your team is aligned, try this experiment at your next team meeting. Ask several people to leave the room and think about a business issue that they would like to discuss with their colleagues. While they are out, choose teams of three. Instruct one person on each team to advise , the second to reassure, and the third to ask questions ”without, of course, letting on that they have been preprogrammed. When the people with the issues return, have each person meet with one of the three-member teams. Instruct the speakers to explain their issue to the team.

Afterward, the leader of the session should ask the speakers to describe their reaction to the way in which the advisors, reassurers, and questioners engaged with them. We can predict the speakers' reactions. Invariably, they will use words like "pressured," "frustrated," "annoyed," and "angry" to describe how they felt while trying to explain their issue to people with preprogrammed styles.

Team members will come away from this exercise with a better understanding of the consequences of substituting dirty dozen “type behaviors for listening, especially during the initial stages of an interaction.

Not all the dirty dozen responses are harmful in and of themselves . In fact, you cannot carry out a normal conversation without engaging in some of these behaviors. Their appropriateness is, however, a matter of timing. Here is a simple rule: Do not respond until you are completely certain what the other person's issue is. Interfering before that point might take the conversation in a direction never intended by the speaker and, as a result, you might never learn what the real issue is. Later, there will be a discussion of the times when some of the dirty dozen responses can have a positive effect, but first let's focus on the best way to zero in on an issue.

Active Listening: Behaviors and Techniques

Whenever a person expresses a concern or need, you, the listener, must be aware of two things: the content of the message and the emotion behind it. The content element of the message is the proverbial tip of the iceberg. The most significant part of the message is to be found below the surface ”the speaker's underlying feelings about the issue at hand. When someone comes to you with an issue, you want to get past the "tip" and into the core as quickly as possible. Active listening skills are designed to help penetrate to the depths. [4]

Active listening is not limited to the ears. It involves the entire body ”especially the brain. There are five effective active listening techniques that can improve your listening skills ”and assure the speaker that he or she has an attentive, nonjudgmental audience:

  1. Attending Behavior. By demonstrating attending behavior, a listener conveys the message that he or she is "all ears" and ready to focus completely on what the speaker has to say.

One suggestion, which many executives overlook, is to ensure that your conversation takes place in a suitable environment that is private, nonthreatening, without distractions, and without physical barriers between the parties. Think about it: If you entered your boss's office for a moment-of-truth meeting, what would make you more comfortable? If you were separated from him or her by a desk the size of Rhode Island or if the two of you were sitting around a coffee table?

Body language speaks volumes , as we all know, and is an important way in which a listener demonstrates attentiveness. Body position, facial expression, and gestures such as head nodding and hand movements provide cues that you are tuned in ”or out.

Sheila Hopkins, vice president and general manager at Colgate-Palmolive, says that since she began to pay attention to her body language, people are much more at ease with her.

In meetings, I had an inherent tendency to sit with my arms crossed over my chest ”not exactly a body posture that says, "I'm listening openly to you." If anything, it said, "I'm listening defensively." Once I became aware of the message posture conveys, I made a conscious effort to unfold my arms, lean forward, and adopt a receptive, rather than, defensive posture . And it has made a difference.

The SOLER model shown in Figure 5-4 is a quick reference that can help listeners to remember the key points of attending behavior.

start figure

S ”Sit (or stand) squarely

O ” Open posture

L ”Lean forward

E ”Eye contact

R ” Relaxed posture/respect other

end figure

Figure 5-4: The SOLER Model of Attending Behavior.

These nonverbal behaviors have a tremendous impact on the effectiveness of communication. Together with tone of voice ”volume, pitch, intensity, and inflection ”they are responsible for the lion's share of what people take away from an interaction. Studies show that the message retained after an interpersonal exchange is derived 55 percent from nonverbal behavior, 35 percent from tone, and only 7 percent from words.

John Doumani, president-international, Campbell Soup, can testify firsthand to the power of the physical environment ”and posture:

The fundamental activity in conflict resolution is to create an environment where people feel as though they can give bad news and talk about thorny issues without negative repercussions . Once, after I'd been here only a couple of months, our finance people were coming in to update me on our performance. I knew we weren't going to make our goals, and I knew they were uncomfortable giving me the news. All I wanted was for the truth to come out. I'm fine when I know what the issues are; it is when I know there are issues and no one is talking about them that I get upset. So, I took my shoes off and sat cross-legged on the table in my office. When they came in, I said, "Just tell me what you have to tell me." They immediately relaxed and let it all out.

Sitting cross-legged on a table is not every executive's style, but creating a private, welcoming environment and adopting a casual, attentive style is something everyone can do to encourage candid conversation.

  1. Passive Listening. Passive listening as an active listening skill ”isn't this an oxymoron? It makes perfect sense, however, when you realize that you need to actively listen passively . Simply remaining silent and allowing the speaker to talk sounds easy, but it is often a challenge, as the widespread tendency to engage in roadblock responses demonstrates. But, as difficult as it is to maintain, a period of silence is useful because it allows the speaker time to express, without interruption, his or her thought. During this time, the listener may choose to:

    • Attend to the sender by simply listening and giving eye contact

    • Observe the speaker's eyes, facial expression, posture, and gestures to receive additional insight

    • Think about what the speaker is saying and feeling

This behavior demonstrates, without the listener needing to verbalize, that he or she is completely involved in the needs of the speaker.

Susan Fullman has used passive listening with excellent results in her former job at United Airlines and in her current position as corporate vice president and director of customer solutions and support at Motorola:

I have a tendency to be very analytical and to dive right into a problem when it was presented to me. But I've realized that I have to allow people to get their act together ”become clear on their own thinking ”before responding to them. So, when I meet with someone I start with the softer side of the engagement: I try to find out what's going on in their head as they enter the room. I let them talk for some time before I even speak. This way, I get the whole picture, as they see it, and not just a little piece of what I think the picture is.

  1. "Say More" Responses. "Say more" responses are phrases that encourage the speaker to tell you more about his or her ideas and feelings. They can be neutral statements such as, "Really," "Uh, huh," and "Oh?" or more direct invitations to continue, such as "Tell me more," "Go ahead," and "Would you like to talk about it?" These responses should not communicate any of the listener's own judgments , thoughts, or feelings. Rather, the responses are meant to convey empathy ”to let the speaker know that you are putting yourself in his or her shoes to better understand his or her sense of reality.

  2. Paraphrasing. Paraphrasing means repeating back to the speaker, in your own words, your understanding of what he or she has told you. "Mirroring" is another word for this technique, which eliminates the potential for misunderstanding.

When paraphrasing, focus on the content of the message, not the emotion behind it. Try to capture, as concisely as possible, exactly what the speaker has said. Then, ask the speaker to confirm that your interpretation of the message is correct.

Here are some formulations you can use when paraphrasing:

  • "It sounds like ..."

  • "So, what you're saying is ..."

  • "It seems to me that you ..."

  • "Let me see if I understand you correctly ..."

  • "When you say _____, do you mean _____?"

  1. Decoding and Feeding Back Feelings. Once you understand the what of the message, it is time to search for the why . This is often difficult to do, because when people speak to one another, especially about charged issues, they often encode the message rather than letting it all hang out. The diagram in Figure 5-5 illustrates this encoding and the resultant decoding that the listener must do. [5]

    click to expand
    Figure 5-5: Decoding a Speaker's Message and Feeding it Back.

The diagram shows the speaker sending ”or encoding ”a message to the listener. The speaker expresses what he or she wants to say, and the listener, in turn, decodes the message by reflecting back the thoughts and feelings that he or she believes the speaker is sharing. Unfortunately, filters can prevent the speaker from delivering the message clearly and concisely. Age, gender, cultural differences, educational differences, and belief systems of both the speaker and listener are common filters. Also, speakers often disguise their real intentions for fear of hurting others or using words inappropriately. As a result, the listener may only be able to partially decode the message.

To complicate the process further, just as the speaker may encode inaccurately, so may the listener decode inaccurately as a result of his or her own filtering system.

As with paraphrasing, it is helpful to remember that the goal of decoding and feeding back is to communicate to the speaker your understanding of the subtext of his or her message and your acceptance of his or her reality. By providing the speaker with a restatement or reworking of the emotional message, you indicate whether or not you "got it." If the restatement is accurate, the speaker will be encouraged to go on. If the restatement is not correct, the speaker receives the signal to clarify the message more accurately.

When a person transmits a message about emotions, sometimes what is not spoken reveals more than what is. True feelings are often revealed more by a gesture, a facial expression, or the tone or volume of voice than by the words. When decoding, it is important to be receptive to both verbal and nonverbal clues.

The following statements are examples of phrases you can use when feeding back to a speaker the emotions you have decoded during your active listening:

  • "That really annoyed you."

  • "You're nervous ."

  • "You seem frustrated ."

  • "It sounds like you're confused about ..."

  • "You look surprised ."

Moving from Listening to Action

Active listening is a tool that is used to defuse a person's emotions. Giving the person an opportunity to present his or her case without interruption immediately takes the edge off the situation. If the individual was expecting an argument or even a logical rebuttal, he or she will be pleasantly surprised ”and encouraged to be less defensive and more cooperative. By analyzing, then feeding back, the content and emotion that come through to you, you convey to the speaker your interest in and empathy for his or her concern. Before you know it, a potential adversary has been turned into a partner.

The model in Figure 5-6 [6] shows how, by carefully gauging his or her own behavior to that of the speaker, a listener can direct the course of the conversation to a positive outcome.

click to expand
Figure 5-6: When Another Person's Needs are Pressing ”Moving From Listening to Action Planning.

In the upper third of the model, the listener lets the speaker vent. Using active listening skills, he or she draws the speaker out, encouraging open communication but not leading the witness . The listener performs a reality check by paraphrasing the content, decoding, and feeding back the emotional portion of the message.

Once both parties are clear about the message being sent, the listener, through his or her subsequent behavior, can help the speaker to take ownership and responsibility for the issue and, eventually, to find a solution. It is at this point that some of the dirty dozen are redeemed. Although tactics such as threatening, moralizing, name calling, or withdrawing are never acceptable, once the facts have been uncovered, the listener can question, advise, use logical arguments, or praise to get the speaker thinking about solutions. Steering the speaker toward an action plan to resolve the issue is not only appropriate but also desirable at this point in the interaction.

II. Using Assertion Skills

In the second scenario ”when your needs are pressing ” assertion skills are the solution. The trick here is maintaining that delicate balance between standing up for what you value and believe while respecting the needs of others.

The nonassertive individual, in effect, says, "I've got needs and so do you, but I'm not telling you what mine are. And if you don't guess them, I'm going to hold it against you." The nonassertive individual is Mount Saint Helens waiting to erupt. At the other extreme, the aggressive individual proceeds on the basis that " I've got needs and, at best, so do you, but mine count more." This is the schoolyard bully in business attire .

It is crucial to recognize the proper boundaries for each of the three behaviors on the continuum. Boundaries may be either physical or psychological. Physical boundaries refer to variables that are tangible and quantifiable. If another person's behavior costs you money or wastes your time, your physical boundaries have been invaded. Psychological boundaries refer to variables that are intangible and more difficult to quantify. They can include people trying to control you, making decisions for you, second-guessing your decisions, or going over your head to your boss with their issues.

People who are nonassertive, for example, must learn how to protect their boundaries ”whether physical or psychological ”and express their agenda without crossing the line to aggression. The aggressive individual, in contrast, must learn not to violate the boundaries of other people.

As was stressed earlier, each behavior on the continuum has payoffs, and each exacts a price. For the nonassertive executive, the payoff is avoiding arguments and coming across as a team player. But the price is steep in terms of unmet needs and diluted effectiveness. Aggressive executives tend to get their way and benefit from the charisma of machismo. They pay the price, however, in alienating other people, closing down input and feedback, and failing to gain commitment, especially in the new knowledge-based organization.

Being assertive forces compromise and takes patience and time, but it has all the benefits of a win-win approach.

Skills for the Art of Assertion

The vice president of marketing for a New York cosmetics giant was not having fun. She was hardworking, hard-driving, and deeply committed to getting results. But her department was plagued by turnover and, increasingly, her peers on the senior management team ran the other way rather than face the possibility of being assigned to a project or task force with her. She did not work well cross-functionally, and she became increasingly isolated. As talented as she was, her manager felt that she was becoming a liability. Either she " dialed down" her behavior or she faced being jettisoned.

In another case, the vice president of operations in a Midwest manufacturing organization occupied the other extreme. He was the ultimate nice guy. He was a good delegator but felt uncomfortable holding his employees accountable for results. He found it difficult to be directive and was a poor coach. His people exhibited little sense of urgency, and work fell between the cracks. His typical response was, "I want to respect my people." Clearly, this vice president's behavior had to be "dialed up" to improve his level of play.

Ms. Dial Down and Mr. Dial Up clearly required coaching. Ms. Dial Down needed to become a better listener and improve her ability to understand and deal with resistance without creating enemies. Mr. Dial Up needed to become more assertive and more willing to confront.

Each had to learn the skills that would enable them to move toward the midpoint of assertion, including persistence, sidestepping, straight talk, and the three-part "I" response.

Let's take a closer look at each of these skills and how they can help you move your behavior along the continuum.

  1. Persistence. How do you make it clear to someone who is trying to invade your boundaries that such behavior is unacceptable? By being persistent. By repeating the same response, over and over, until they get the point. For example, you might keep saying, "I have a concern about what you just said."

This is a tricky technique because it is designed to avoid engagement. It is often difficult to carry out with someone close to you. It works best with people with whom you are not trying to cultivate lasting relationships, such as salespeople, contribution seekers, and telemarketers . No matter whom you attempt to use it on, be polite and gracious, but do not allow them to trap you into giving reasons or explaining why you must say no. Simply sound like a broken record!

  1. Sidestepping. Use this technique when you want to end a discussion or avoid an argument. When people begin to debate any subject about which they have strong feelings, emotions quickly take over. Remember, what is said in the heat of the moment cannot be taken back and can seriously impair a relationship. Whether in the workplace or outside of it, there are times when it behooves you to dial down your response. Sidestepping can help you to emerge gracefully from a potentially explosive situation.

When you sidestep, you acknowledge that the other person might have a good point. You simply say, "You may be right" or "That's certainly a possibility," and refuse to argue any further. Saying these words does not mean you are admitting that you are wrong or that you agree with the other person, but it does defuse the situation.

  1. Straight Talk. Straight talk is a powerful, direct, and open means of communicating your wants and needs. Use it when you want to modify another person's behavior to get your needs met. To ensure the other person understands what you are saying when you use straight talk, be specific and concise . Put your statement into the following format:

    • I want/need ....... because .......

For example, "I want you to supply me with the financial data before noon because I must have my report completed by 5 P.M." Or, "I need you to approve the new package design by the end of the week, because it is going into production on Monday."

Combining your request with a reason conveys the idea that you respect the other person enough to feel that he or she deserves an explanation. It prevents you from being perceived as aggressive. It turns what may have been construed as a command into a request, making people more willing to honor it. It is an excellent way to raise the other person's level of cooperativeness.

Unfortunately, many people will not take no for an answer or tune out information that is not welcome. With these individuals, both sidestepping and straight talk might need to be combined with persistence to get the point across.

  1. The Three-Part "I" Response. This technique is the most powerful ”and the most difficult ”of the assertiveness techniques. It is used when you are not getting what you want or when you are getting what you do not want. It is designed to protect your boundaries and to change other people's behavior. Unlike simple persistence, which is most useful when you are not terribly concerned about alienating the individual, you want to use this technique with people whom you know well and with whom you have a long-standing, important relationship.

The three-part "I" message comprises three distinct parts :

A description of the troublesome behavior


The disclosure of your feelings about the behavior


The effect it has on you

When you deliver the message, it is more effective if you use the following formulation:

When you ...


I feel ...


because ...

For example, "When you don't give me the financial data on time, I feel nervous and pressured because I still have to complete my report by the deadline." Or, "When you aren't available to approve a design, I feel frustrated because I can't move the project to the next stage."

The "I" part of the message is especially important. A "you" message blames the other party and is likely to trigger defensive behavior. An "I" message isn't likely to be viewed as a personal attack the way a "you" message is. By using the "I" formulation, the speaker accepts full responsibility for his or her reaction to the behavior.

When you give others the opportunity to examine their own behavior in a nonthreatening atmosphere, they tend to be more willing to change their behavior to meet your needs. And that, after all, is your goal when you assert yourself.

A particularly powerful way to assert yourself when someone has violated your boundaries is to combine a three-part "I" response with straight talk. The "I" message lets the other person know that you have an issue with his or her behavior and explains, clearly and in a depersonalized way, what that issue is. The straight talk communicates the change in behavior that you would like to see the person make going forward.

For example: "When you don't give me the financial data on time, I feel nervous and pressured because I still have to complete my report by the deadline. I want you to supply me with the financial data before noon because I have to have my report completed by 5 P.M." Or, "When you aren't available to approve a design, I feel frustrated because I can't move the project to the next stage. I need you to approve the new package design by the end of the week, because it is going into production on Monday."

In addition to rethinking her body language, Sheila Hopkins learned to use the three-part "I" response, in conjunction with straight talk, to successfully influence at least one of her direct reports . She recounts:

I have a direct report who is a remarkably bright young man and a very proactive thinker. Unfortunately, he is short-tempered and gets visibly angry when things don't go his way. After being trained in assertion skills, I decided to be very direct with him: to tell him which behavior was problematic for me, why it was so, and what I needed him to do differently. "John," I said, "When you get really angry and begin to yell, it is a big problem for me because it makes me think you are really hard to work with and not a team player. I need you to maintain your cool and your composure all of the time because it is the professional thing to do." This approach was very really effective; John has made an effort to turn his behavior around, and there were no hard feelings after our discussion.

Assertiveness Can't Hurt

Many team members ”especially the junior ones ”fear that by being assertive they will alienate their superiors. They do not want to come across as pushy, egotistical, or lacking in respect for those with more experience. They worry that their assertiveness will be perceived as aggressiveness. However, becoming assertive is one of the best ways to gain the respect of both peers and senior management.

When you refuse to allow others ”no matter what their level or experience ”to walk over you, you establish yourself as a force to be reckoned with. By asserting yourself, you demonstrate your commitment to the success of the team. People recognize that you are engaged in the game and willing to play for the high stakes. By refusing to allow other people to ignore your needs, you ensure that you will not be ignored.

III. Using Conflict-Management Skills

  • The vice president of marketing for North America wants to introduce new packaging for a pharmaceutical product. Making the change worldwide would result in large savings and make it easier to sell his idea to upper management, but his counterpart in Europe isn't buying in.

  • The head of finance has developed a new format for monthly reports, which he wants all departments to follow. "No way," says the sales director. "I prefer the old format."

  • Two executives share the services of an administrative assistant, and each wants 75 percent of the person's time. Too bad she doesn't have a twin.

In each of these situations, two people have needs that are in opposition , and each is determined to prevail. This is a powder keg waiting to be ignited, and defusing it will require the full range of conflict-management skills.

Chapter 1 discussed in detail the four options that are available for dealing with conflict:

  1. Play the victim. Say nothing, act powerless, and complain.

  2. Leave. Physically remove oneself from involvement

  3. Change oneself. Move off one's position, shift one's view of the other party, or let it go.

  4. Confront. Address the issue openly, candidly, and objectively; communicate with the other party.

Option one is never viable . Playing the victim generally exacerbates a situation by sweeping conflict under the carpet. It causes hard feelings and delays the inevitable. The second option is often unavailable. Besides, conflict is inevitable, and you need to learn methods for dealing with it. Changing yourself is fine, but don't count on being able to do it. The question is: What price are you willing to pay?

This leaves confronting as the most effective way to resolve issues without igniting thermonuclear war. We recommend using an overall strategy for confronting , which we call The Four C's Approach.

The Four C's for Confronting

The four C's that make up this strategy are:

  1. Connecting. Establishing a rapport with the other party by (a) addressing the issue between you openly and candidly and (b) asserting yourself.

  2. Clarifying. Seeking to understand by (a) active listening and (b) exploring all points of view.

  3. Confirming. Reaching mutual agreement as to what each party wants and needs and establishing your willingness to collaborate.

  4. Contracting. Negotiating agreements for future interaction.

While carrying out this conflict-resolution strategy, you will use some of the techniques mentioned previously, such as assessing your style and your colleagues' methods of dealing with conflict, active listening skills, and assertiveness skills.

Let's discuss each element of the confronting strategy in more detail:

  1. Connecting. Before attempting to connect with another person ”to establish a rapport that is conducive to discussing your mutual needs ”always check with the person to determine the best time and place to have your discussion. Don't forget attending behavior: Ensure that you have privacy, will not be interrupted , are in a neutral, nonthreatening environment, and have scheduled enough time to cover all salient points, and that both of you have had enough time to prepare for your meeting.

Finding the correct words to begin a potentially adversarial discussion can be difficult. We suggest using partnering phrases, which convey the idea that you are ready to address the issue candidly and objectively, and that you are serious about resolving it. For example:

  • "I have some concerns about the way we are making decisions that I'd like to explore with you."

  • "I have an issue with your attendance, and we can't afford to let this go unresolved ."

  • "We seem to have some fundamental differences about how to market the new product, and I'd like to address these with you."

  • "I am having some difficulties with the way you are managing the IT project. They're really going to get in the way if we don't deal with them."

  • "I'm uncomfortable with your approach to performance reviews, and I want to work my concerns out with you."

  1. Clarifying. Clarifying is a critical step in conflict management. Until both parties are clear about one another's issues, it is impossible to negotiate, or contract, a mutually satisfying agreement. This is the ideal place to begin using your active listening skills to encourage the other party to open up about the real issues he or she has. Assertion skills will also help you to describe the behaviors you are concerned about and the reasons you find them troubling.

Once again, choosing the correct words is crucial. Try these clarifying phrases:

  • "Let's take a minute to clarify what we hear each other saying about the way we've been making decisions."

  • "It is important for me to understand where you're coming from. What do I need to know to understand what's been happening with your attendance?"

  • "Let's define our key concerns regarding marketing the new product. How about you expressing your concerns first, since they are important for me to understand?"

  • "Regarding the IT project, what feedback do you have for me about anything I've been doing to contribute to the situation?"

  • "I want to know what you think. What is your point of view on performance reviews?"

  1. Confirming. Confirming entails summing up the facts, that is, restating the issues to ensure that nothing has been misunderstood or omitted during your discussion. Equally important is a summary of the emotional progress that has been made, which is the commitment that you've both made to find a mutually agreeable solution. Although at this point both parties are usually eager to move to action, investing a few additional minutes in confirming will make the next step much easier.

Here are confirming statements that executives have found useful:

  • "Is there anything we missed that needs to be discussed regarding the marketing strategy?"

  • "Here's my understanding of our differences and where we are right now on the issue of the IT project."

  • "Do you have any other concerns about our performance reviews?"

  • "I really appreciate your willingness to work through this issue with me."

  • "I'm optimistic that we can find a win-win solution here."

  1. Contracting. Contracting is the final stage in managing conflict by confronting. It entails finding the win-win solution that both parties have committed to. At this point, one of the most effective tools available to executives is the combination of the three-part "I" response and straight talk that we recommended as a way of asserting yourself.

Let's take the example of two IT executives responsible for the rollout of an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system. In the past two weeks, Deborah, the project manager, has authorized overtime to keep the project on schedule. Sam, her boss, has recently learned about the overtime from another manager. Sam's combination three-part "I" response, combined with straight talk, might sound something like this:

Deborah, when you authorize overtime without telling me, you put me in a difficult situation. I'm the one who's responsible for staying on budget, and if there are any cost overruns, I'm the one who'll have to explain them. From now on, I need you to come to me before authorizing any overtime on the ERP rollout.

At this point, Deborah is likely to retort with an explanation of her behavior, such as:

You were a way for the week end; you said you couldn't be reached; and I had to make the call. I figured because you didn't give me your phone number, you didn't want me to bother you. If you want to make the decisions, I have to be able to get in touch with you.

Touch! Now Deborah is the one asserting herself, making it clear that she, too, has needs. The negotiation will now proceed, back and forth, until both Sam's and Deborah's needs are met. If Sam is not willing to give up his privacy by leaving a telephone number, maybe he will agree to call Deborah for a daily update the next time he goes away. Or he may decide to give Deborah more leeway, arranging for her to authorize overtime up to a certain number of hours without his approval.

Some useful contracting phrases are:

  • "I think the whole team needs to be involved in budget decisions. What do you think?"

  • "Having you work four ten- hour days doesn't work for me, but having you come in at 10 A.M. and work until 6 P.M. would. Would that work for you?"

  • "Let's plan some practical next steps to develop the marketing plan together."

  • "One thing we can do to move the IT project ahead is ..."

  • "What would you prefer that I do differently in the future regarding the way I conduct my performance reviews?"

Learning to Let Go

Remember those going-in stories, or preconceived notions that people bring into their interactions? Going-in stories are a major obstacle to successful conflict management and often prevent people from taking the first step toward resolving their differences. Learning to let go of these destructive stories is one of the keys to conflict resolution.

When individuals are serious about contracting to resolve their differences, they must be willing to take responsibility for their respective going-in stories.

Most two-way conversations are fertile ground for going-in stories. Take this situation: You and I are talking about an issue that is important to me, when you suddenly look at your watch. In reality, all I know is that you looked at your watch. But, as so often happens, I may take that objective event and create a story ”a subjective interpretation ”about it. I may say, "Howard is bored with our conversation" or "Howard doesn't think my concern is important." Then, based on the story I have created, I begin to have an emotional reaction. I feel angry or hurt or betrayed. Conflict now exists where there was none before.

How can such scenarios be prevented? By refusing to create the story that led to the negative emotion. Asking people pointblank to tell you why they are engaging in certain behavior, instead of creating a story in a vacuum , is the best way to keep from becoming your own worst enemy. Instead of becoming upset when I looked at my watch, you might have said to me, "Howard, I see you are looking at your watch. What's that about?" I would then have had the opportunity to respond, "I have an appointment across town in half an hour, and I was wondering if I'd have enough time to get there" or "I'm expecting an overseas call at 11 A.M., and I was wondering how much time we have before it comes in" or even "I'm hungry, and I was wondering how long it is until lunch ." If you had known that my gesture had nothing to do with my feelings about you or your issue, you would have short-circuited the going-in story and prevented hard feelings and the possibility of conflict.

[2] Thomas Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training: L.E.T . (New York: Putnam, 1977), p. 272; in the Appendix, the author explains the origin of active listening. The term active listening was first suggested to me by Richard Farson. However, the technique itself is derived from the work of Carl Rogers and his psychology students at Ohio State University. At that time, it was labeled "reflection of feelings."

[3] Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training: L.E.T ., pp. 60 “63.

[4] Both the active listening techniques outlined here and the assertion skills discussed later in this chapter are not original with Guttman Development Strategies. Because they have been used by many others, for many years, we are unable to trace them with certainty to their originators.

[5] Adapted from the sender/receiver model described in Gordon, Leader Effectiveness Training: L.E.T ., pp. 51 “52.

[6] The concepts illustrated in this model were developed by Bernard M. Kessler, Ph.D.

When Goliaths Clash. Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization
When Goliaths Clash: Managing Executive Conflict to Build a More Dynamic Organization
ISBN: 0615198686
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2002
Pages: 99

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