When you’re sorting out conflict, make sure you’re solving the right problem.
I tell my clients, “When you try to solve the wrong problem, you end up with solutions that won’t serve you well and you may not even know why the problem-solving meetings didn’t work. When you take time to name the right problem at the front end, you position yourself for far better negotiating and problem-solving.”
The right problem is the important one the stakeholders are willing to negotiate. The right problem is neither a pop-psych diagnosis nor a restatement of your desired outcome. There may be more than one “right problem” in a conflict.
Like layers of an onion, there are surface problems and deeper problems. Surface problems tend to draw your attention, but they’re not really important, and addressing them won’t change things much. The trick is to go deeper but only as deep as you need to address a meaningful problem. Go too deep and you start hanging out in the quicksand of pop-psych diagnosis, sure to grab and drown you.
These are not examples of the real, negotiable problem, though I hear versions of them all the time in my organizational conflict work:
- Get him to back down and admit he’s wrong (that’s just a statement of your desired outcome).
- Help the group feel more comfortable with change (your diagnosis of their problem with change is thinly disguised and is getting in the way of other ways to understand what’s holding them back).
- Decide whether or not to expand into that market (too many problems get stuck because they’re framed as either/or, leaving you with two options and blind to the many other possibilities).
- Change his passive-aggressive way of dealing with decisions he doesn’t really like but is too spineless to speak up about (pop-psych diagnoses’ will come around and bite you every time; they’re sidetrackers).
You’ll know you’ve got it right when the stakeholders can all say, yes, that’s an important problem we want to sort out.