We have all experienced situations where we described someone as “not acting like an adult”. Parents at little league games, fans at sport events, CEOs in boardrooms. I wrote an entire post about it just last week (read it here if you missed it). I got a lot of “Yes, you’re right” and “I agree” and “People never really get out of high school”. I was also asked a very specific question, “What does productive conflict look like when it is done successfully?” Instead of responding in individual emails I think that question warrants a follow up post.
Let me start by defining ‘Productive Conflict’ – The act of addressing and handling a disagreement or misunderstanding using an established set of healthy communication guidelines which lead to resolution (from Stop The Drama!).
Last week I was able to provide you with several links to stories about people not using productive conflict and several more to studies that showing how effective communication and productive conflict are linked to success. I was hoping I could provide links again this week to stories in the press of people using these “adult” skills. But it would seem that people working out their disagreements and misunderstandings in a civilized fashion isn’t news. So I’ll have to give you an example from my work.
I want you to know that I don’t like conflict any more then the next person. If I were to go with my default response, I would ignore problems until they exploded and then go in armed to the teeth for battle. The stories I share (here and in my book) are learned behavior on my part. And that means you (and everybody else) can learn them too.
I had been working with this team for awhile. They knew and trusted me which created an environment where we were able to accomplish a lot of work in our weekly meetings. On the day in question we came to the end of our meeting time but conversation was not at a clean stopping point. As a group we engaged in a conversation about what was planned after our meeting and what it meant for us to run over our allotted time. As a group it was decided that we could spend an additional 45 minutes before we had a hard stop.
Fast forward three days. I received a nasty email (this would NOT be the productive conflict part of the story) from the team leader accusing me of unilaterally deciding that my meeting was more important than the meeting he had scheduled for the team after I was supposed to end. He continued to inform me that my position with the team was a kindness bestowed upon me by him and he could remove my access at anytime.
There were two productive conflict conversations I needed to have. 1 – With the team: Why hadn’t they told me they had another meeting scheduled; causing us to make a decision without all the cards on the table. 2 – With the team leader: Clearly he had made a litany of assumptions based on something other than the facts, he was not respecting me as a valuable member of his support staff and he had not shared the expectation that he thought I was accountable for his team staying on schedule and had not provided me with a scheduled to which I could hold them accountable.
I was not looking forward to either one of those conversations.
Here are the steps for preparing to engaging in productive conflict (even if the person you are speaking to does not understand the foundation of it).
- Know what you need to achieve with the conversation. Productive conflict isn’t about winning or losing. It is about reaching a resolution. For both conversations I asked myself – what is my end goal?
- Understand and remove any preconceived ideas you have about why the other person did what they did. This is most clear with my response to the team leader’s email. All of the reasons I gave are about him jumping the gun and being unfair. Maybe he was. But I needed to approach the conversation from a neutral place if we were going to have a productive interaction.
- Know your timeout point. All of us have buttons that can get pushed. Knowing when you have reached the point where you are fighting rather than discussing and take a timeout. As I always say, just because a conversation starts to go downhill doesn’t mean you have to go with it.
- Now you are ready to implement the actual steps of productive conflict which I wrote about in this post
In the case of my story, the conversation with the team went very well. They understood why I felt lied to and they explained that they didn’t realize the meeting after ours had actually been confirmed (if we had ended our meeting on time they would have seen that).
The meeting with the team leader was substantially more tense. I left with the impression that he was feeling threatened by the team’s increasing trust in me. I explained that he and I were on the same side, working to make his team as productive as possible and that I was in no way undermining his authority (in fact quite the opposite). I did not leave with the feeling he trusted that. However, we were able to get the specific issue at hand out in the open and reach a resolution on team meetings running over their allotted time in the future.
Do you have an example of having being prepared to have a conversation you knew you needed to have but didn’t really want to and it went well? We would love to hear it!
Dr. Robyn Odegaard is the CEO/Owner of the speaking/consulting company Champion Performance Development, the founder of the Stop The Drama! Campaign and author of the book ‘Stop The Drama! The Ultimate Guide to Female Teams’. She specializes in showing people how to use language powerfully to achieve more from their potential. You can invite her to give one of her funny, powerful, informative presentations and inquire about her other services at www.ChampPerformance.com and order her book from www.StopTheDramaNow.com