“I have one major rule: Everybody is right. More specifically, everybody—including me—has some important pieces of truth, and all of those pieces need to be honored, cherished, and included in a more gracious, spacious, and compassionate embrace.” ~ Ken Wilber, from A Theory of Everything

I offered this idea recently to a group of state legislators gathered in Seattle during the 2015 Summit of the National Conference of State Legislators. More than 4000 elected officials and legislative staffers got together to discuss hot topics ranging from energy policy to education funding, mental illness in the criminal justice system, marijuana legalization, and beyond.

During this non-partisan gathering, 85 of us spent a morning together focused on building skills to navigate what I call Courageous Conversations. You know, the daunting ones. The ones we tend to avoid because the stakes are high, opinions vary, and emotions run strong. [i]

Some approaches to conflict—whether in politics, business, or elsewhere—focus on how to subdue or dominate the other party. Crush’em, even. Basically, how to GET YOUR WAY.

What’s that you say? You don’t see a conflict like that in your workplace? In some organizations, conflict is studiously avoided, minimized, or brushed aside in favor of false harmony. Maybe this is a more familiar scenario: polite agreement at the team meeting, followed by subtle undermining and lack of follow-through. That’s just a discreet way of handling conflict badly.

So if domination is unpleasant and avoidance is ineffective, how CAN we navigate conflict and negotiate differences productively? Are there collaborative, productive approaches that allow for the possibility of a mutually agreeable solution that serves the greater good?

Happily, the past three decades of research on negotiation show that “a collaborative, problem-solving approach to negotiations produces better agreements than approaching them as wars to be won.”[ii] This applies to many of the situations in our lives—personal and professional—where we need to navigate differences and negotiate a path forward.

When I see people looking for ways to bridge differences—whether in a leadership team retreat or in the public policy arena—I feel hopeful. It’s easy to bemoan gridlock and accept it as inevitable. It’s much harder to look beyond it, and imagine that there’s a path through it. Heck, I’m certainly not immune to the challenges myself. It’s hard when it feels like our efforts, beliefs, or aspirations are being ignored or attacked. The lizard brain kicks in, and our flight-fight-freeze reactions are triggered. And it’s easy to demonize or dismiss our opponents.
But what happens when we do that?

We stop seeing each other as people. We stop seeing that our opponents have strengths, flaws, needs, and aspirations — just like we do. Instead, we reduce each other to less than human. When this happens, we typically start seeing each other as one of three types of objects[iii]:

  • An obstacle. “My idiot coworker is making my job miserable.”
  • A vehicle. “We really need this donor’s support, and he is totally against this initiative.”
  • An irrelevancy. “Don’t bother talking to the minority coalition; we don’t need their votes.”

These strategies may make us feel better, temporarily, because they help us feel justified in not really trying to resolve the conflict. But here’s the real cost: we dig in our heels. We look for evidence of our rightness and our opponent’s wrongness. We amplify the conflict.

Breaking the Cycle of Defensiveness and Blame

When we face conflict and we stop seeing each other as people, we stop seeing that our opponents have strengths, flaws, needs, and aspirations — just as we do. Instead, we reduce each other to less than human.

These strategies may make us feel better. But any relief we feel is just temporary. And we’re not working toward resolving the conflict.

The authors of Crucial Conversations explain that when we’re facing conflict, we follow common patterns they call clever stories[iv]. Let’s take a moment to listen for and interpret the clever stories we tend to tell ourselves:

  • The Victim Story. Signature phrase: “It’s not my fault.”
  • The Villain Story. Signature phrase: “It’s all YOUR fault.” (A close cousin to the Victim Story. Notice that the emphasis shifts from YOUR innocence to THEIR guilt.)
  • The Helpless Story. Signature phrase: “There’s nothing I can do.”

First off, yes. Very occasionally, these stories are true. Sometimes you really are the victim, there really is a villain, and/or there’s really nothing you can do.

That said, far more frequently, we tell ourselves clever stories—in the privacy of our own minds, or maybe to our peers and supporters—to let ourselves off the hook. That way, we feel justified in not taking action or addressing the issue at hand.

Of course, like many things in human nature, it’s MUCH easier to see these patterns of flawed thinking in other people than it is to see those patterns in ourselves.

So how can you determine if your stories are just excuses? Ask yourself three key questions.

If you hear yourself claiming your victimhood, ask yourself: “In what ways am I pretending not to notice my role in the problem?”

If you hear yourself blaming someone else, ask yourself: “Why would a reasonable and decent person do what this person is doing?”

If you’re telling yourself there’s nothing you can do, ask yourself: “What do I really want here? And if I really wanted that, what would I do right now?”

A Three-part Tool for Dealing With Conflict on Your Team

So what can you do when you’re confronted with someone who opposes your vision, your ideas, or your plan? What does this look like in practice?

When somebody throws a verbal grenade into the conversation—especially in a group—take a deep breath and think about this: What’s my goal here? Is it to demonstrate my rightness and their wrongness? Or is there a larger purpose that’s worth pursuing?

Let’s consider a familiar scene: You’re having a team meeting, and someone is proposing a new idea. Before they get three sentences in, somebody else attacks or dismisses the idea. Suddenly, people are more focused on staking positions and forming allegiances, rather than considering the merits and risks of the proposal itself.

Here’s a three-part tool that works fairly predictably—and sometimes beautifully—in a range of challenging circumstances. Mastering this process will help you acknowledge contributions, minimize defensiveness, and keep things moving.

The process is simple, sometimes challenging, and potentially game-changing.

  • PART 1: Find the value. “What I LOVE about what you’re saying is ______.”
  • PART 2: State your view. “At the same time, ______.”
  • PART 3: Make the invitation. “Will you _______?” There are lots of ways to approach this.

Let’s look at how to use this tool in a few common scenarios.

Dealing with the Doubter. The person who right out of the gate rolls their eyes and says, “This doesn’t make any sense.” Or, “I don’t know why we’re wasting our time with this.” Here’s what you say:

  • PART 1: “What I love about what you’re saying is that I can really hear how much you care about [understanding what’s happening here / making sure that we succeed/using our resources well / etc.].”
  • PART 2: “At the same time, it’s really important for us to be able to explore ideas thoroughly as a team, without ruling them out prematurely.”
  • PART 3: The Invitation. “I really value your honesty in sharing your reservations, AND I hope that you’ll stay open and curious as we continue to explore these ideas so that your perspective makes our decision stronger. Will you do that?”

Dealing with the Expert Killjoy. You know, the person who says, with stern authority, “That’ll never work.” Or, “We already tried that.” Familiar? Try this:

  • PART 1: “What I love about what you’re saying is that you are really bringing an analytical lens, and that’s one of the key strengths that you bring to this team.”
  • PART 2: “At the same time, we haven’t given this project full consideration yet, and it’s hard to do a more thorough analysis when it sounds like you have already ruled out the possibility.”
  • PART 3: The Invitation. “Will you stay engaged in this process—and continue to bring your perspectives on what the risks are—as we look at what this project offers and how we might deal with the risks?”

Dealing with the Impractical Visionary. This is the person who has 8.37 excellent ideas before breakfast, and happily advocates for interesting and cool new projects without considering the team’s current workload, deadlines, or goals.

  • PART 1: “What I love about what you’re saying is that you have such a vision for what’s possible, and that has really pushed our team to achieve some really audacious goals.”
  • PART 2: “At the same time, we need to explore the implications of this project more fully.”
  • PART 3: The Invitation. “Will you stick with us here and continue to advocate for what you see as really promising, even as we talk about the risks, the trade-offs, and timing of this project?”

Try This Thought Experiment

Picture one of your troublesome colleagues and imagine the script of a typical disagreement. Now—stick with me here—picture yourself saying, “What I LOVE about what you’re saying is _____.” And then fill in the blank. Your job is to GENUINELY SEARCH for the thing that you love.

Spoiler alert: You can’t fake this. You can’t bluff, and you can’t bait-and-switch. You can’t say “What I LOVE about what you’re saying is that it isn’t worth dignifying with a response.” Your job isn’t to find the loophole. Your job is to genuinely search for humanity—the aspirations and fears—of the person who is busy throwing a pesky wrench into your smooth-running works.

And if that LOVE part freaks you out, feels fake, or triggers your Sarcastic Voice, dial it back to LIKE and try again. Baby steps. Just know that you really are aiming for finding something that you authentically like and value. Are you at least a little curious about how this might alter the typical patterns of conflict on your team? Give it a try and report back on how it goes!

Recommended Resources

Anatomy of Peace, by the Arbinger Institute
Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler

Sara Lawson is a consultant, coach, facilitator, and the creator of Gauge Leadership Lab and Moxie: A Leadership Salon Series for Women. (2016 programs will be offered in Seattle, Anchorage, and London.) She is passionate about the role that mission-inspired companies and organizations have in strengthening communities. She also knows that leadership can be fulfilling AND frustrating, even for dedicated, skilled, and creative people. More info HERE.

[i] Crucial Conversations, by Patterson, Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler

[ii] Ask for It, by Babcock and Laschever.

[iii] These ideas draw heavily on the Anatomy of Peace, by The Arbinger Institute

[iv] These ideas and strategies are inspired by and adapted from Crucial Conversations.