We use tools to do something more effectively and efficiently. But just like physical tools, ill-chosen conflict resolution tools will not yield the results we need. Here are three questions to help choose and use the right conflict resolution tools for the moment.
If you want to build a house, you’ll need a very large toolbox for the project. But which tool you select at any particular phase of construction, or for a particular problem you run into, depends on what you need that tool to accomplish at that moment.
When you’re digging the foundation, you need heavy equipment, shovels, concrete forms, rebar, and plenty of measuring and leveling devices. When you’re framing the walls, you need hammers, nail guns, levels, chop saws, circular saws, and so on. When you’re hanging the kitchen cabinets, you need a tape measure, a level, electric drill with screwdriver bits, and more.
I’m often asked for the best tools to help a manager “resolve workplace conflict” or help a mediator “overcome impasse.” The challenge of requests like these is that they are too broad. It’s like asking for the best tool for building a house.
So the first step in choosing the right tool for the job is to figure out, as precisely as possible, what you need that tool to do at a specific moment in time. Are you laying a foundation? Are you framing? Are you doing detailed finish work?
I’ve found these three questions, asked in order, are helpful to ask yourself in order to uncover a path forward:
- What do we need in order to make progress at this moment?
- Why is that?
- How do I know?
Let’s look at each question in depth.
1. What do we need in order to make progress at this moment?
This is a question about observation. You are noticing a new phase of the conversation or that you’ve run into some kind of problem. Maybe something seems to be stopping forward movement.
What exactly are you noticing? For instance, are you noticing a change in facial expression, a louder voice, arms suddenly folded, or perhaps a pushed back chair?
You will find that this question can serve you repeatedly throughout a conflict conversation. You may ask it at the beginning of the conversation and get one answer, then ask it again a while later, and get another answer.
It’s not that the first answer was wrong or untruthful. It’s that the hurdles shift as a difficult conversation unfolds.
For example, to make progress at the start of a conversation, someone may need information about another’s reasons or motives. Later, anger at what someone said may interfere with progress. Still later, if the conversation has gone for hours, mental exhaustion may interfere with progress.
What’s getting in the way of progress right now? is a good variant to ask yourself when the conversation seems stalled or going in a knotty direction.
And each time, it’s important to follow immediately with the second question:
2. Why is that?
This is a question about hypothesis. You’re making a preliminary guess about the reasons.
For instance, if you noticed a change in facial expression, a louder voice, arms suddenly folded, or a pushed-back chair, what do those mean to you? What do you think they signal? Do you read the pushed-back chair as a signal they’re about to walk out? A signal they need a break? A signal they’re ready to form an agreement? A signal of seeking more psychological distance from the other person’s anger?
Your guesses are informed by your level of experience as a supervisor, mediator, coach, lover, or whatever you bring to the conversation. They’re also informed by your world view — what you believe about people and conflict and resolution. They’re informed, hopefully, by data — what you’re seeing and hearing. They’re informed by your knowledge — of conflict, human behavior, psychology, management, and so on. They’re informed by what you value, where you live, how you were raised, your culture and ethnicity — the very fabric of who you are.
For reasons like these, two of us sitting in the same room, watching the same conversation unfold, may reach very different hypotheses. Notice I didn’t say “reach different conclusions.”
It’s helpful to get in the habit of understanding these as just guesses.
And then checking out your guesses. Which brings us to the third question:
3. How do I know?
This is a question about data and confirmation. How do you know your guess is on the right track? What are you seeing or hearing that tells you? Have you asked them about it, in private or together with the others, or are you just running ahead with your own assumptions?
Maybe you’re thinking, I rely on gut instinct, or I know from experience. I don’t like to dismiss instinct, intuition, or experience because I’m inclined to believe there are multiple ways of knowing, not all of them at the level of conscious thought. But:
Regardless of the source of your guess — instinct, intuition, experience, “hard” data that you can see or hear — it is crucial that you check out your guess. Until you do, it is only a guess, and guesses are tricky. A guess may feel right but still be very wrong. Our minds prefer certainty, and if we reach a conclusion that feels “good enough,” our minds may let us off the hook.
If you noticed that one participant had pushed back their chair, and you hypothesized they were intimidated by the person across the table from them, what did you do to check out your guess? Did you ask them privately? Did you experiment with confronting the other person’s subtle threats, to see if the pushed back chair ended up back at the table? Did you check in with them, saying something like, “I notice you’ve pushed your chair back. Is there anything you need right now?”
It’s tempting to skip this step. We think we know. And that’s exactly why we need this step.
Sometimes you will never know for sure what’s behind the hurdle, even if you work hard to confirm or reject your initial guess. There are things people will never tell you or may not be fully aware of. Then you just have to experiment. But in most cases, checking out your hypothesis will help steer you toward a good approach to use in that moment.
Here’s an example to illustrate the way tool choice is informed by the conclusion you reach.
Imani and Gregg, two mid-level managers, have been at the center of several unpleasant team meetings. You’ve been meeting with them to discuss the problem and figure out what to do.
You keep running into the same roadblock in the conversation, though: Imani is repeatedly starting to cry. This pauses or derails the conversation each time. Gregg (and, admittedly, you) seem to be growing tired of this.
So what’s getting in the way right now is Imani’s crying.
If you guess that Imani is using tears to avoid confronting the problem and have checked out your guess, then the best conflict resolution tools for the job might be tools that help you confront difficult behavior.
If you guess that Imani feels very anxious about confrontation and have checked out your guess, then the best conflict resolution tools for the job might be tools that help Imani gain psychological distance during parts of the conversation that induce anxiety.
If you guess that Gregg’s words feel unfairly harsh to Imani and have checked out your guess, then the best conflict resolution tools for the job might be tools that help you confront Gregg’s behavior or tools that help Imani keep calm in the face of discomfort.
If you guess that Imani is crying because she thinks she’s going to lose her job and have checked out your guess, then the best tool in that moment might be for you to be clearer with her (privately) whether or not that is a possibility, or perhaps for you to express more compassion for her distress.
If you learn that Imani’s cat was rushed to the vet this morning, then the best approach may be to reschedule the conversation for another day, take a break, talk for a few minutes about the cat, give Imani time to phone her daughter at college, etc.
© 2020 Tammy Lenski
This article was originally published in 2019 and updated for comprehensiveness.