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Turning conflicts into constructive dialogue

No matter how many conflict management courses you have taken or how many negotiation books you have read, you may still find yourself in situations where tools and tactics are not as effective as they promised to be.

The real issue is in the mindset: do we see disagreements and conflicts as time-wasting issues or as opportunities to learn from different perspectives? And what affects our mindset?

This morning I had a mentoring session with a former lawyer turned executive coach.  As we were discussing the challenges that some of his clients face in internal conflicts, he made an interesting comment: "When meeting a disagreement, many of my executive clients have an instinctive reaction, they want the disagreement to go away or they want to resolve it rationally and quickly; I recognize, from my days as a lawyer, the desire to establish who is right with facts and rules; yet, as a coach, I also see the price tag associated with closing the dialogue too quickly; how can we help?".

That comment touched the subject that I am most passionate about: turning disagreements into constructive dialogue.

Surprisingly, most of us intuitively recognize the potential advantages of encouraging an open dialogue on disagreements, yet in practice, at the critical moment, it is really hard to resist the temptation to “put on our task-driven hat” and prioritize rationally (= avoid time wasting-diversions or resolve them quickly to focus on actions) instead of exploring deeper.

Why?

Typically, there are two main "pitfalls" at play:

PITFALL NUMBER ONE: The first pitfall is an EXCLUSIVE TASK ORIENTED MINDSET typically induced by a temporary partial blindness linked to stress, fatigue or high time- and peer-pressure.

The dialogue in our head may go something like this: "yes, it would be nice to understand a bit more about what makes some people critical about the chosen path, and maybe we could learn something more by opening the dialogue, but we have deadlines to meet and a zillion other things to do and after all, what we are doing is good enough, who needs the cherry on the pie? We are all adults and everybody understands that some action is better than nothing, so let's move ahead!"

What happens to our "good intentions"?

Recent research shows us a path of understanding: in simple terms, our brain has the capability to focus great attention to BOTH tasks AND social interactions, but CANNOT DO BOTH THINGS AT THE SAME TIME; there are two distinct cortical networks that appear to take care of these two distinct processes.

Under normal conditions these networks are alternatively activated, so that we “seesaw” between the two.

But take an abnormal situation, e.g. stress or peer-pressure, when we start to over-use one of the two networks; what happens is that we shut down the other! Thus becoming less effective, and less "whole", or less "authentic" than what we can be.

Consequences are that “an over-emphasis on task-oriented leadership may prove deleterious to social and emotional aspects of leadership... similarly, an overemphasis on the cortical network that supersedes  emotional self-awareness, social cognition, and ethical decision making, would result in difficulty on focusing attention, making decisions, and solving known problems" (liberally quoted from Boyatzis, Rochford, and Jack, Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, March 2014)

This explains why under strict deadlines we may easily risk to discount the importance of actively listening to disagreements to take the time to enquire and explore the concerns and doubts of others, thus missing the obvious opportunity to create a more sustainable alignment, identify innovative alternatives and strengthen both relationships and shared commitment. (Note: the opposite is also true. If we focus too much on social interactions and open dialogue, we may loose sight of the tasks and our decision process gets blurred; we are at our best when we have inner harmony and can tap into both sets of skills).

PITFALL NUMBER TWO: The second pitfall is a PROTECTIVE MINDSET, induced by a risk-avoiding and over-rationalizing culture.

The dialogue in our head goes more or less like this: "What if I open the dialogue and then we diverge to a point that we loose sight of the real issue, or, worse, what if I do not have any ways in my power to address the raised concern / I do not have answers?".  This is a fear driven mindset, encouraged by the risk avoidance culture typical of many complex organizations.

In his book "Reinventing Organizations", Philippe Laloux takes us through the evolution of organizations in relationships with the social needs of an era; he infers that we are in era of transition when we still use some of the Human Rationality Modes of the last two centuries, like making decisions from a place of Fear and Protection, while starting to appreciate the need and the benefits of the new Human Collaborative Modes, like making decisions based on Trust and Possibilities.

It might be very difficult to be open to trust and to consider alternative possibilities when operating within a complex bureaucratic organization with many layers protecting their right to be; it might take a lot of self-confidence, clarity and influential skills.  It might be easier to tackle disagreements with usual methods of avoiding or rationally resolving.

So how can we change our mindset and develop the ability to select those opportunities where we can invest in opening the dialogue and the competence to confidently breeze through the process of trusting, listening, exchanging, learning, aligning and growing together?

  1. The first step is to consciously and proactively choose: there are situations when we just need to run fast and put off fires; open dialogue takes times and energy and we must learn to select the appropriate place and time.
  2. The second step is to develop a greater awareness of our instinctive reactions and learn to challenge our mindset; after selecting a situation where we want to invest in open dialogue, we still need to change our habits; it is easy to fall into usual patterns. Feedback from a trusted colleague or the support of a professional coach can be of great help.
  3. The third step is to train and practice on Trusting Collaboration.  Being clear on our intentions is a journey: can we open our mind to be truly curious and communicate from a place of trust? there are exercises and tools to help us (e.g. I recommend reading "Leadership and Self-Deception: getting out of the box" by Arbinger)

Although many experiential leadership development programs offer opportunities to increase self-awareness and find the confidence to engage in a more open dialogue, there is a lack of specific training opportunities to support us when we want to take a disagreement or a conflict and go to its roots, instead of making it go away.

Realizing this, and following our passion, we have created a specific set of programs, developing an empirical Model and a practical Training Method for Turning Conflicts into Constructive Dialogue.  Many European Executives have already been able to benefit from this training, both in teams and individually. The outcome has been beyond our expectations.  One executive emailed me immediately after his most crucial international conference call saying "I cannot believe it; I have been in a conflict with this colleague for the last ten years and was skeptical that anything would work, but by making a shift in my attitude and mindset, we started to really communicate and collaborate; my colleague even thanked me for asking him to do what he would normally had refused to do!"
We offer C.L.E.A.R. Mindset™ workshops at various European locations and we design bespoke programs for both individuals and teams.  Get in contact to learn more of what we can offer to you!

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