Getting better at negotiating isn’t about a recipe. The most effective conflict behavior isn’t about great technique. They’re about how you think.
Interpersonal Conflict class with my mediation students was just getting underway when Kate, a veterinarian, raised her hand. “May I tell a quick story about something that happened this morning? I promise it’s relevant to class!” Kate seemed so excited, so electrified.
“I got into an argument with my husband this morning,” she began. “It wasn’t about anything dire, just daily little stuff. I thought to myself, I’ll put my good mediator skills to use and make this conversation go better! So I did all the right things: I reflected back, I asked good questions, I uncovered interests, I reframed. I was so proud of myself!
“But there was one little problem. It was making things worse. The more I did my mediator stuff, the angrier my husband seemed to get. At first I thought he was just being petty because it was clear that I was handling myself so much better than he was handling himself.
“But then it hit me. I was using my good skills for an evil purpose! I was using them with the intent of making him see it my way. And the more I backed my husband into the corner I wanted him in, the harder he worked to get out, the angrier he got, and the more downhill the conversation went.
It was such a light bulb moment for me, Tammy,” she concluded. “That’s when I finally really got it. All the good conflict management skills in the world are only truly effective when they’re used with the right intention.”
When graduate students walk into my classroom, or clients hire me to teach them more effective negotiating and conflict behavior, they frequently talk about wanting to learn a “practical set of skills,” the tools and recipes of conflict resolvers. Yet as Kate’s story so wonderfully points out, skills only get you so far and can actually cause unintended damage when used poorly.
What my clients and students learn over the course of our time together is that learning how to think differently is the conflict resolver’s most powerful tool and the one from which the best use of all other tools comes.
Changing the way you engage conflict is not about techniques; people don’t want to be techniqued anyway. When you change the way you think about conflict in general or in a particular dispute, the good skills you already have will be there for you and you’ll have a much better chance at using them well.