Leadership Skills Series: Being in Conflict
Principle #7- What’s it really about??
Scenario A: Think about a time when you were in an argument with someone … and you thought you knew what you two were arguing about. At least you know what you were arguing about. As the two of you launched salvo after salvo, gradually it dawned on you that you were either arguing with a completely crazy person—or, whatever it is your adversary was angry about, it wasn’t what you thought it was.
Scenario B: You made a blunder that by all accounts was relatively benign. But, the reaction it triggered in someone else was orders of magnitude greater than you expected. Once again, you’re tempted to conclude that the offended party is institutionally insane. What else could account for the over-the-top reaction?
Scenario C: A friend asks you about one facet of an issue you both know you’ve been struggling with. You intend to give a focused, factual answer and before you know it, your emotions are so powerfully engaged that the two of you are stunned. While you try to re-collect yourself, an awkwardness permeates the mood. Now you’re wondering if you are the crazy one…
This principle will invite you to interrupt your natural press to resolve your conflicts hastily, or to simply shrug your shoulders and assume you’ve wandered into the psychiatric ward of the local community health clinic. Principle # 7: What’s it really about?
When you encounter a response that seems inappropriate in its intensity, I invite you to ask: what could this really be about? In other words, stay curious enough, long enough to find out what is really in play.
If you fail to do this, you will miss your friend and you will miss the opportunity to bring Christ’s ministry of reconciliation to this situation, as well. As rational human beings, we all do some pretty irrational-seeming things.
One of them is this: we attach meaning to things, to words, and to events that transcend the things themselves.
Think about it.
Let’s say that as a child you heard over and over that you were a poor student, slower than your siblings intellectually. Maybe the words “stupid” or “dumb” were used in reference to you. Decades later, you are an accomplished sales executive, and you’re in one of those 360° performance appraisal processes. A peer points out that you were slow in adopting a new reporting procedure… and you flush, become agitated, and a smoldering fury begins to blaze in your bosom. You are only vaguely aware of what incited the reaction, but your reaction seems both valid and surprising at the same time.
As a human, you’ve attached meaning to your intellectual prowess, borne in your childhood experiences, that transcends your actual intellectual attributes. When you heard the word “slow” it represented something other than the speed with which you implemented the new reporting procedure. Subconsciously, you applied “slow” to you. And, since you interpreted the feedback as an indictment on your intelligence, you went nuts… in a professional way.
I’ve heard it said this way: When it’s not about what it’s about, what could it be about?
When the reaction indicates that the “issue” is not what — on the surface — it appears to be, then you’ll be well served to wonder: “what could this really be about?” In any conflict, curiosity is key to resolution.
In the reFocusing process that I am privileged to facilitate with my CRM team, a unique problem solving model is practiced. One component of the model, designed to illuminate the issue, is to employ the “Five Whys”. In a number of ways, ask “Why?” five times in sequence. It might play out something like this:
K: I give up! I can’t serve one more day on the board of that NGO!
A: Why? What’s happened?
K: Oh my gosh, I’m so sick of all the pressure I’m under!!
A: What’s the pressure about?
K: It’s “open season” on the Executive Director! He’s really been a jerk to a number of people and they’re all coming to me to gripe about him!
A: Yeah, OK, so tell me more about why that’s got you ready to quit?
K: Huh? Isn’t it obvious?? People are pretty hacked off at Seth and they keep dumping their garbage on me!
K: And when I go to Seth about it, he’s completely closed off to their feedback. He’s even beginning to act like a jerk toward me… and I’m like the only one around here who’s trying to be supportive.
A: And, how come that’s hitting you so hard right now??
K: Because I really thought that by standing in the middle, I could fix this! Er… that I could fix Seth. I mean, I guess it’s pretty unrealistic to think that I could somehow get Seth to see what he hadn’t been willing to see all this time…
A: So, maybe you’re mostly disappointed in yourself? That you couldn’t pull off this miracle this time?
K: Yeah. Kinda idealistic of me, huh? I guess I’m starting to see how mush pressure I put on myself to make this thing work. I really, really care about Seth and the organization…
Even more effective than using a technique like the Five Why’s is simply to become curious. Let your care for this person generate genuine interest inside you about them. About what’s troubling them. About what’s affecting them so significantly. Allow your curiosity to keep you from settling too quickly on the surface issue—particularly when your gut—or their reaction seems to indicate something more may be at stake.