If you want to solve problems and handle conflict better, try this simple yet powerful strategy as soon as you see the kernel of conflict: ask if you’re discussing or deciding? Here’s how it works…
I’ve noticed that, when a team works together in solving a shared problem, conflict is almost inevitable. I’ve also observed that conflict is seldom a reflection of the team’s maturity or how much they like each other.
For example, when teammates know each other well and have an affinity for working together, such a mature team may still experience a high level of conflict, but the way they “fight” is respectful and seldom heated. Conflict for these teams usually looks like simple disagreement resolved in a matter of seconds. For less evolved teams, we may see long-term, seething feuds that blow up in full-blown physical violence.
Instead, while the team’s maturity affects how conflict is handled and how quickly it’s resolved, team maturity does not influence a team’s propensity for conflict. In other words, whether a team is mature or not, I believe the likelihood of conflict is about the same. After all, we each have different preferences, moods, and dislikes, so it’s near-impossible that we’ll all agree on everything, all the time.
Too often in problem-solving or planning conversations, though, we’re not actually in the same conversation. While some of us are exploring ideas and options, others are shooting down those ideas because they’re in decision-making mode. What we lose are creativity, shared expectations and commitment. It’s when secondary conflict about the initial conflict becomes the distraction as the “conversation” devolves into he said-she said.
If you think of the shape of the conversation, the building of options and exploring ideas is divergent in nature, where the range of ideas expands. On the other hand, a decision-making conversation is convergent in its shape, where the options are funnelled and filtered into an ever-shrinking set or the single, winning solution. If some of us are in diverging mode and others are looking to converge or limit the ideas, miscommunication will be rife.
Thankfully, there’s no need to self-flagellate over this ubiquitous human foible – it’s exceedingly normal for us to miscommunicate. In fact, when analysing everything that could go wrong in each micro step of communication, I’m amazed at how we humans can regularly achieve high levels of shared understanding!
Fortunately, we can reduce the likelihood of secondary conflict. When we distinguish between exploratory discussions versus making decisions, we bring a critical element to managing expectations in the moment and establishing real commitment in our communication.
So next time you sense the start of a disagreement, establish whether you’re exploring ideas with a discussion or narrowing down the options to decide on your solution.
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