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Diffusing Difficult Conversations Fast


What in the world is wrong with them? It’s a question we all ask ourselves sooner rather than later. It happens at work, with clients, bosses, and employees. And it happens in our personal life, our church, and our communities. When we are faced with someone whose point of view or actions don’t match our expectations (and vice versa) things can go off the rails pretty quickly. It can ruin marriages, careers and create estrangement of people we once were close to.


Some of us run from conflict, avoiding the tough conversations at all costs. What elephant in the room? Where? I don’t see any elephant! That’s the flight approach, and it does nothing to address the problem, which only gets worse. Then there are those who come out swinging. Oh! You have a problem with me? Well, let me tell you what’s wrong with you! (Sound like our political system right now?) This is the fight approach, and much like the flight version, it only amplifies the polarities in the conflict.


Unfortunately, conflict resolution is one area many leaders lack effective training in. Unless they have taken specific courses, our culture provides very few tools to navigate the inevitable difference we face in all our relationships at some point. The good news is there are a handful of powerful techniques to get back on solid, collaborative footing, without burning the proverbial house down.


Be Bold

Addressing a conflict assertively (not aggressively) by pointing it out is the first step in creating a resolution. Some forms this assertiveness takes are:

· It feels like we are not on the same page about X. Let’s have a conversation about it and see what we can work out.

· This is not going the way I had hoped. It would be helpful to revisit both our expectations and see if we can regroup.

· I hear you are upset. That is not my intention. Tell me what’s bothering you, and we can see how to work together better.

· Your response seems more intense than this situation calls for. What else is going on?

If you fall more in the flight school of dealing with conflict, these statements may make you cringe. What if the person responds with a full-on attack? Well, read on.


Listen Actively

When someone goes on the offense (or defense) in a conflict, it can feel extremely personal. It is hard to hear many of the things an angry or defensive person can say to us. But, as hard as it is to hear, lean in. When someone is venting, they are also giving us clues as to how they are feeling, and what solution might look like for them.


When we listen actively, we are not listening to respond, formulating our retort (which is an excellent way to keep a conflict in full gear). Instead, we are listening to reflect back and even rephrase what we hear for greater clarity.


This looks like the following:

· It sounds to me like you feel that…

· What I am hearing is that you need more…

· If I understand you, you believe that…

No matter how far apart we may be with someone on an issue of enormous importance, we all share a deep desire to be heard and understood. When we are willing to go first in the effort to create this dialog, we set a tone of cooperation and shared responsibility for creating a solution.


A critical point about this part of conflict resolution is that it is not about allowing ourselves to be held hostage by someone who is caught up in their anger and grievances. It also does not mean we need to agree with or validate the other person’s viewpoint. Hearing them out is not the same as deferring to their dominance.


Be Patient

Conflict resolution is a process, and if it wasn’t worth the effort then there would likely be no conflict. So take the time to really understand the other person’s perspective. You might (say it isn’t so!) see holes in your own stance. Or you might observe different potential approaches.


Patience is also crucial when you communicate, clarify and detail your own perspective. Answer the other person’s questions (within reason, and without defensiveness) so they can gain the insight they might have been missing initially. Sometimes this is all that is needed to get back on the same page.

  • I need you to pay the deposit invoice before I begin work because it provides necessary the cashflow to cover my time during the project.

  • If there was another way, we would not be asking you to work overtime, but we are interviewing and hiring five new team members, and this period should be over in less than 60 days. Your efforts are greatly appreciated.

And sometimes, unfortunately, the answer is this:

  • This really isn’t up for discussion after the fact. I do value your input, and want you to know I hear you, and understand your perspective. I hope now you can also understand, even though you don’t agree, with mine.


Get Curious

You may think you know what the other person is thinking, and you might. However, most conflicts occur when someone feels blindsided or can’t understand how a decision was reached. The balance of conflicts happen when someone feels disrespected, ignored, or threatened in some way. In fact, you might be the person feeling this way yourself.


The way out of this is to become intensely curious about what hasn’t been said or perhaps even thought about. Ask questions that uncover the other person’s real needs, motives or concerns.

· How would that approach create results?

· What else do you recommend that we try?

· Are you open to trying this, and revisiting it in a month to reassess?


Be A Safe Space

Successful conflict resolution demands that at least one party (hopefully, that’s you) is the adult in the room. To be the adult you need calm confidence. You need to be comfortable in the face of temper tantrums and outright attempts at manipulation. You are able to be the safe space for everyone, even when others are behaving very, very badly. You lead by example, and when you do, you will also be the safe space for yourself.


Safe people are not doormats. Far from it. They stand up firmly for themselves. But they standing against anyone either. They aren’t pouring gasoline on the fire by resisting, defending, attacking, blaming, accusing, arguing, being controlling, manipulative or otherwise giving power to the fight.


It is extremely hard to keep a conflict going when it is one-sided. Not fighting does not mean acquiescing. It means letting the air out of the conflict. Once there’s nothing to fight against then we can move into solution.


Show Up As Equals

It’s hard not to feel superior or inferior in a conflict. But even when you feel like you (or they) brought a knife to the gun fight, remember this – there is something here worth saving. Always. Or there wouldn’t be conflict in the first place. It may or may not be the relationship itself that gets saved. But when we find equal footing with our adversaries, we at least have a “fighting chance” at a mutually beneficial compromise. Find the mutual win, and give up the non-essentials.


We all love to be in the right. But if only one person wins, it is at the other person’s expense. This perpetuates the inequality, which leads to more conflict in the future. Try to find the mutual win on the other side of the conflict. This will deliver a more peaceful future for everyone.


Keep An Open Mind

Humans (yes, that’s you) have biases. Anyone who tells you they are entirely without bias is either lying or utterly unaware how biases work in the first place. Biases are hardwired into our thinking, and can be extremely difficult to identify and root out. They actually serve a very important purpose – they create shortcuts in our thinking so we can make decisions faster. That’s a good thing under most conditions. But not in the case of conflict. Then it can become vitally important that you are conscious what biases might be at play, and set them aside very intentionally, in order to reach common ground. The eight most common biases are:

Anchoring Bias: This inclines us to give disproportionate weight to the first information we receive.

Status-Quo Bias: We strive to maintain the current situation, even when better alternatives exist.

Sunk-Cost Bias: While this sounds like strictly a business bias, any investment of time, money or emotional currency tends to vest us in perpetuating mistakes of the past rather than cut our losses and take a fresh approach

Framing Bias: Misstating a problem, or more precisely, how we frame it, has a dramatic influence on the choices we then allow ourselves to consider.

Confirmation Bias: This plays out in our political landscape and in social media most prominently, where we seek out information that supports an existing predilection and discounts opposing information

Overconfidence Bias: We all tend to overestimate our contributions and overestimate the accuracy of our choices.

Prudence Bias: This leads us to be overcautious in our choices when facing uncertainty

Recallability Bias: Recent events, especially those filled with high intensity and emotion, prompts us to perceive that future event will be influenced by, or repeat, those circumstances.

The antidote to any bias is to maintain a neutral and non-judgmental stance (also known as an open mind) for a period of time while you utilize curiosity, equality, patience and listen actively.


Let Go of the Need to Be Right

Sometimes it is impossible to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution in conflict.


Read that again.


Conflict resolution does not always promise a happy ending as you might define it. It simply is not how things work every time. But more often our fear of not getting our way, or not being confirmed as “right” is worse than the reality itself.


In either case, the question remains: where do we go from here? The only answer possible is: forward.


Forward may mean the dissolution of a partnership or relationship. It may mean someone has to pay the other party a lot of money. An individual may need to be terminated or placed on probation. It might mean that one, or both parties, must face a plan of action that they find difficult, dangerous or even untenable.


So, then what are you going to do in that case? Your least desired outcome might be your reality, so you are well served to look at the possibility. The likelihood that those outcomes happen is greatly reduced by the mere fact you were willing to consider them.


Personally, I find that a willingness to face a “scary” potential reality, whatever it might be—whether I like it or not—whether I get it my way, or not—is the fastest way to feeling relief and reclaiming my energy for productive—solution-focused actions. I remember “the scary outcome” hasn’t happened yet. And although being willing to at least consider it doesn’t diffuse our differences, it does diffuse my anger, anxiety and resistance. I know I can and will be okay, no matter what the outcome is. Then I am in a better mindset to do all the things listed above. Actually, it does diffuse the conflict indirectly, because it takes two to create conflict, and only one party to conclude it.


If you are grappling with a difficult conversation, and would like support creating an optimal outcome, don’t hesitate to book a complimentary discovery call

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