As I read through some of the blogs I really like this morning, I found two posts that intrigued me. One comes from Victoria Pynchon at Settle it Now (Negotiating Influence How to Help Your Opponents Change Their Minds) and the other is from Diane Levin at Mediation Chanel (The Mind and Magic Conjuring Up Ways to Improve Awareness). They are both really interesting, and I suggest that you take a look. I'll quickly summarize what I got from them individually, and then I'll comment on the connection I saw between them.
As Victoria says in her post, she will have more to say on this topic, and I'm looking forward to reading what she has to say. For now, she points to research that indicates the positive impact that face-to-face communication has on persuasion. Her comment that “… opposing parties resist sitting in the same room with one another when attempting to settle litigation” really struck me. I have the same experience in workplace situations, people involved in a conflict often refuse to sit face-to-face to discuss it.
Diane's post links to How Magicians Control Your Mind in the Boston Globe. This article reports on research done to understand how we perceive things. It's also a fascinating read (with some great videos). The research shows that we have gaps in our perceptions so that what we think we see may not really be what happened. In other words, our perception may be our internal reality, and it will drive our thoughts and emotions. However, it's not necessarily the objective truth (what actually happened).
To keep things simple, I will outline the connection I saw with a progression of bullet points:
- Our emotional response to conflict is generally driven by our perception of the situation (Is this a threat or not?, Are they challenging me or not?, etc.)
- Since we have gaps in our perception, our perception may not reflect what really happened (what the other person said, did, intended, etc.)
- When we make quick judgments about other people's intentions, we probably act on only partial, and quite possibly faulty, information. (As a mentor of mine told me: “There are three sides to every story: your side, my side and the truth.”)
- These quick judgments will probably lead to the two most common conflict strategies: avoidance and attack.
- In a workplace context, I usually see both avoidance and attack strategies that break the dialogue. I could comment at length on this one point. To keep it brief I'll give one example for both:
- Avoidance leads to distancing behaviors that keep us away from the other party. This one's pretty obvious.
- Attack leads to aggressive behaviors that damage the relationship: gossip, seeking allies, poison emails, etc.
- Broken dialogue virtually ensures that the two parties will not sit together for a face-to-face discussion about resolving the conflict.
- Failure to speak face-to-face almost guarantees that persuasion will not happen in either direction.
- Both parties get further entrenched in their positions. They begin to believe and act on their initial faulty perceptions even more strongly.
- The conflict gets worse with almost no hope of amicable resolution.
That's a pretty gloomy picture of conflict resolution. It seems to indicate that we are hardwired for failure in this area of life and relationships. Fortunately, I see a “low leverage solution” (to quote Peter Senge from The Fifth Discipline) that offers some hope: an attitude of curiosity. I wrote about this concept in my last post, and I see it as a way to break the negative spiral that conflicts can take.
I don't work in the legal system. I don't resolve marital disputes or contractual issues. I work with teams. Teams cannot afford to stay locked in conflict without resolution. Teams are by definition interdependent. To achieve maximum results, they must work together. Working together means that team members must trust each other. To trust each other we must fight the tendency to quickly condemn people during conflict. We must remain curious and willing to talk.
I've grown in this area over the last few years. Now, I'm challenging myself to focus on and actively foster an attitude of curiosity about what the people I work with do and say. I want to recognize that my perception may be faulty, and that other people may not have intended what I perceived them to intend. I want to pursue face-to-face discussions whenever possible so that we can achieve excellence in everything we do. I encourage you to do the same.