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Out of the Blue: Managing Conflict and Negotiation

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Whenever two or more of us gather, we eventually create conflict. That’s a feature of human nature, and it’s not necessarily a bad one. Although most of us prefer to avoid it, conflict—if managed properly—can be a healthy preamble to airing, understanding, and solving collective problems.

In the workplace, conflict can be particularly nasty and tricky to manage because hierarchical structures typically provide no mechanism (and, frequently, not even an invitation) for conflict resolution. Orders are given; objections are not encouraged. It is a failure of design, and there are prices to be paid for it.

An attentive observer at a business meeting will quickly note how contention and dissension are expressed—sometimes surreptitiously and sometimes directly—through intimidation, sarcasm, hostility to another’s ideas, lack of cooperation, or outright subversion. With few means of honest expression, office friction leaks out in passive- aggressive seepage that is nearly impossible to contain. To use a manufacturing analogy, the consequences of unresolved conflict originate as inventories of discontent (lack of enthusiasm, foot-dragging, back-stabbing, bad-mouthing, resentment), which later manifest themselves as defective finished goods (inaccuracies, slipped schedules, failure to implement projects or new directions, and other costly breakdowns). Conflict is also expressed as political infighting that habitually spills over to disrupt the lives and careers of employees caught in the crossfire. Its final manifestation is often blame.

The cost to business is incalculable; the toll on human relationships is never calculated.

To understand and manage conflict, it is helpful to identify its source. Setting aside personalities and issues, interpersonal clashes are usually grounded in strongly held beliefs, wants, or values. There is, of course, nothing wrong with desire or conviction; they define what is important to us. Problems start when we insist that what is important to us should also be important to others.

Building Rapport

There is an axiom in neurolinguistics that anything is possible with rapport; without it, nothing is possible. As applied to the workplace, this simply means that it is easier to influence people if they trust you, like you, and are comfortable in your presence than if you’re perceived as just a passing suit. Rapport can be nearly instantaneous but most often takes time. It usually requires meeting people on their level and acknowledging the personal validity of their views. It is conversation and the subtle matching of physiology; if you’re sitting across from a person who is slouched and relaxed, mimicking that posture inconspicuously will build unconscious comfort and familiarity. Transacting business before establishing rapport is counterproductive and will beget some level of resistance. The power of rapport is one reason so much business is conducted across cocktail tables.

It Helps to Know What You Want

Whether you manage or are managed, the first step to preempting needless conflict is to be clear about what you want. If your anticipated outcome is complex, identify what evidence you require to let you know you have achieved it. When executives (or employees) have no clear view of their outcome, they have no basis for judging if their actions are useful or not. Avoid ill-framed outcomes; results you have no control over are likely to elude you. There’s a good chance the other person will not share your fervor if the statement of your desired outcome begins, “I want you to...” What then? A more productive approach would be to explain what you want to accomplish and then ask, “How can I secure your buy-in for this project?” Whenever possible, examine your outcome in the context of the larger system: How does what I want impact my company, my coworkers? Is it consistent with the company’s larger ambitions and goals? Does it respect the integrity of the other people involved?

Don’t Count on Your Authority

If you are the person with direct management authority, it is tempting to believe that your every request is another’s command. Having children or cats will dissuade you of that notion, and employees are no different, albeit more clever about disguising their resistance.

Objections—all objections, not just the initial one—must be elicited and negotiated. “Any questions?” is not an invitation to voice objections; genuine inquiry and respectful interest are required. For the likelihood of reaching your goal and for the welfare of your organization, an incongruent “yes” may be far worse than a candid “no.” Many a project has died a prolonged and sluggish death from an overdose of insincere commitment. Verbal commitment, although necessary, may not be enough if body language or attitude strongly suggests “no.” Experts in communication estimate that 93 percent of what we communicate is nonverbal. Look for sudden shifts in posture, shallow or rapid breathing, nervousness, tapping, doodling, disinterest, lack of eye contact, sighing, and other unconscious messages. Twisting a ring, for example, is often a sign of an uncompleted communication. Such manifestations are not definitive, and it is always prudent to ask for clarification. “I noticed that when I mentioned the Internet project, you sat back, crossed your arms, and sighed heavily. I’m wondering if you have a concern you’d like to address; I would value your input.” A sigh may indeed be just a sigh, but ignore the signs and you may be ignoring the issues that stand between you, your coworkers, and reaching your goal.

Once you have obtained commitment, attend to what is needed to get the job done. The bridge between your present state and your desired outcome will be constructed of resources. Hardware, software, programming skills, technical support, time, money, space—if the necessary tools are unavailable, ask for or provide them. Conflict and a dispirited workforce invariably result when too many people are chasing too few resources.

Successful Negotiations

Use this format for successful meetings and negotiations:
• Know what you want.
• Know what others want.
• Find ways by which you can all get it. If goals are wildly conflicting, finding ways to accommodate both parties will be challenging. Entrenched positions, however, mask interests that may be broader and more flexible than public postures. If an employee asks for a raise, for example, her position may be a request for more money. The underlying interest may be a desire to obtain a better quality of life and to secure day care for her children. If a raise is not possible, there are other ways that the employee’s interests may be satisfied: flexible hours to permit more time with the kids, permission to work at home, time off, or company-sponsored day care.

Identifying underlying interests broadens the range of available choices. Concerning choice, British poet W.H. Auden observed, “The distresses of choice are our chance to be blessed.” Indeed, employees—and management, for that matter—desire such blessings. People tend to be more invested in the choices they themselves have made, and providing options respects their preferences. When contemplating offering choices, consider this useful axiom: One choice is no choice; two choices are a dilemma; three options offer a real opportunity to choose. While it may be inappropriate to ask employees to set company goals, providing choice as to the strategy and timing of a project’s execution will invite participation and investment in the process.

When entering negotiations, it is helpful to set your own limits since it is confusing to negotiate with yourself when you should be negotiating with others. Frame the negotiation as a joint search for a solution. Have a fallback position you can live with if you fail to mediate your desired outcome. Focus on interests rather than on behaviors. Solving the problem is important; focusing on conduct detracts attention from the issue and invites defensiveness and denial.

It may be counterintuitive, but offer as few reasons for your position as possible. A negotiating position is only as strong as its weakest supporting argument, thus a weak argument dilutes a strong position.

Deflecting Anger

Unavoidably, there may be times when anger or frustration is aimed directly at you. Being yelled at is usually disconcerting and toxic and has the potential to elicit anger in response. Resist the impulse to repay rudeness in kind. Rudeness is a weak person’s imitation of strength. If you feel yourself getting hooked, first remember to breathe. Your breathing will likely have shifted—gone rapid and shallow or stopped altogether. A few slow, deep breaths will stabilize you. Next, shift your location. If angry energy is being directed at you, move from the line of fire. A step or two will do it. Pretend you are leaving a virtual likeness of yourself in the spot where the anger is being directed. It can be very disarming to angry people if you actually, physically, join them: Stand next to them (not directly in front), gesture back to the spot you previously occupied, and say something like: “I can see you’re very upset about this. Now, what can we do to solve the problem?”

With practice, you can also metaphor-ically put yourself in their place. Look through their eyes for a moment; see yourself from their perspective, feel their feelings, sense their urgency, and collect useful information about their probable experience. You may find they have a point you otherwise would have missed.

Conflict need not be negative. It can be evidence of our diversity: the wealth of our opinions, talents, and values that, both in and out of the workplace, is one of our enduring strengths. To befriend conflict, simply begin to reframe it as an opportunity for learning on

both sides. Tom Peters advised that “...the uncertainty of the [business] environment can be swiftly dealt with only if the firm can fall back upon the certainty of relationships among people and among groups.” Working through conflict is exactly what builds dependable and enduring relationships. And finally, remember to acknowledge and reward those willing to explore and learn with you. Another feature of human nature seems to be that all deities ignored sooner or later become demons.



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