How to Prevent Unnecessary Conflict
The worst fight is the one that’s unnecessary.
People collide over small issues and completely miss the big stuff.
Agree on deeper purpose before solving surface problems.
Every problem you repeatedly face has a deeper meaning that sits below the surface.
I delivered training for a group of dedicated educators who, like everyone else, grapple with recurring frustrations. Parents don’t bring their young children to class on time, for example.
Surface conflict obscures deeper concerns. I led the group through a short coaching exercise designed to align deeper issues with surface concerns.
Q & A
Question: What frustrates you about Billy being late to class?
Response: He misses out on the beginning of the day. It’s a disruption.
Question: How could Billy’s parents arrive on time?
Response: They could lay out Billy’s clothes the night before?
Question: How will laying out clothes the night before be helpful?
Response: It will help Billy’s family get into a ritual.
Question: What’s important about rituals for Billy.
Response: (The room lit up.) Billy’s life is unstable. It’s likely he’ll grow up insecure. One way to build confidence into Billy’s life is through rituals.
A second look:
The first answer is the least important.
At first the problem looks like being late. After some thought, it’s about developing Billy into a confident young man. Being late is a problem, but building confidence into Billy’s life is transformational.
Successful problem solvers explore deeper purpose before solving surface problems.
Collisions over being late for class are filled with blaming, guilt, and excuses. But, teachers and parents agree on the deeper purpose, Billy becoming a confident young man.
Will rituals help Billy feel secure? Yes. Could we start the ritual of laying clothes to help Billy feel secure? Yes.
Prevent collisions over surface issues by agreeing on a deeper purpose.
How can leaders go below the surface to address deeper issues before solving surface problems?
What deeper issues connect to the problems you’re facing?
Note: The work for these teachers isn’t done. They face the rigorous path of connecting surface problems with deeper issues. But, motivation is easier when deeper purposes are involved. Is this a perfect answer for Billy? Of course not. There are no perfect answers. Is it a step? Yes.
“Ourselves” are the deeper issues that I see, until we can manage ourselves don’t expect to manage others. In today’s society the blame game happens a lot, failure to accept responsibility in many cases is the root cause. People need to wear the shoes and march the march to manage the troops so to speak. We all play a part! Uniting the parts is a tough task but it can be done with persistence and fortitude things do happen!
Thanks Tim. When conflict is involved we are part of it. 🙂 We want to make it the other person’s fault and it is, partly. But we are there too. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. Thanks for bringing this up
The idea that the 1st answer is the least important is a great insight. It is often the “off the top of the head” reaction which may need to be addressed but can serve as a launching pad to speak to the deeper issue. Good thoughts, Dan!
Thanks McSteve. It seems that if we can stop chasing the small stuff we can rise above the tyranny of the urgent and start dealing with stuff that really matters. Best to you
I notice role and responsibility confusion, which gets back to leadership, and an inability to raise questions / address conflict in a healthy manner. This seems to especially manifest itself in situations where people feel pressured to perform. Take a deep breath, identify the end goal, intentionally think through team roles and responsibilities, and above all establish a safe environment for honest discussions.
Thanks Rick. The safe environment can’t be under-estimated. If we don’t feel safe we aren’t going to speak up. Cheers
Part of the challenge with Billy is what the parents wanted. Dan, you are so right that what drives behavior is below the surface or what I refer to as a “value issue.” Perhaps Billy was late, not because of what Billy was doing, but because of what his parents thought was more important to them rather than getting him to school on time.
I have found that if you can get past the emotion in a conversation and ask people what they want and why, that “the why” answer will provide the value or what is really driving the conflict. Once the “why” is out on the table, then you can address it, rather than being caught up in the emotion of the moment. Great stuff!!
Thanks John. I’m delighted to see you dropping in to add your insights. It seems that emotion often blocks real issues. It’s surprising how quickly we get sidetracked from what really matters by hot emotion.
I love concrete examples of leadership lessons like this and the power of asking great questions (or the fives ‘whys’). Thanks for sharing and pulling away from the abstract a bit.
Thanks James. Always a pleasure. I taught this group the five why approach from Toyota. When we use questions about what’s important to someone it’s a useful tool. Cheers
Love this! As someone who grew up in an unstable family and was often late for school, I so appreciate this discussion. It takes a village to raise a child, especially when the parents are immature and ill-prepared. Hopefully educators are incorporating self-management practices like building rituals into their curriculum. Studies show that measureable progress was made around litter when kindergartens added protecting the environment to their curriculum. Out of the mouths of babes. We can’t beat up these parents with blame and shame. We can invite them and inspire them through engaging their children in empowering ways. The cycle of dysfunction can be broken.
Author, Alignment for Success: Bringing Out the Best in Yourself, Your Teams and Your Company
Thanks Katharine. I appreciate your affirmation. On the note of not beating up parents. I don’t know about you but when I feel beat up I want to strike back or run away. In either case, it’s not that useful.
This conversation model proves the that people are brilliant and often have all the answers buried in their minds. Our role as problem solvers is to help them get to that answer by adding fuel to their train of thought by asking direct, deep questions related to the last thing they said. Great post.
Thanks Collin. Yes, it was exciting to see them find their own answer. It should be said that there are several answers to this situation. Connect behavior to ritual to confidence is only one. It works for them.
Do you find this type of deeper questioning to be more difficult in the workplace? Any special ways of handling situations in the workplace?
Thanks Michelle. These questions are only acceptable if the person being asked knows whats going on. It’s best to ask permission before digging into this line of questioning. If we don’t ask permission then people can get pretty defensive.
Deal with the problem, it’s dealt with once. Solve the source of the problem, it’s dealt with for ever. Unless the symptoms are life-threatening, treat the disease, not the symptoms.
Thanks Mitch. Absolutely.
I remember a great example of this. A school in our community that had more than half of its children transfer in and out every semester was addressing this issue. They fielded the frustrations of staff members who felt they couldn’t teach throughout the year when half of their kids were coming and going throughout the year. They started asking questions about why they had that kind of turnover and identified instability in housing. The school then worked with a nonprofit that purchased some of the apartments in the vicinity of the school and was going to rehab and then rent to families with school age children at a subsidized rate to help those families stay in their district. I always have been inspired by this story and try to think of it when I am stuck getting annoyed about a problem. Look at the deeper issues – good stuff
Thanks Katie. I’m glad you decided to share such a cool story. It’s filled with hope.
How readily do leaders want to go deeper, and know the real problem? How often are they willing and able to identify, recognize, address, and help others address the real problem? Asking more questions, probing for the real problem, and acknowledging that you SEE it may take leaders deeper into THEMSELVES than they are willing, able and ready to go!
This is a great example but the extrapolation to business may need a bit of contextual finesse. I have had misunderstandings in business where it is difficult to address the issues without hurt feelings. I will admit that this is challenging for me to successfully address because it is usually easy for me to omit personal feelings (being insulted by appropriate criticism or hearing my shortcomings, etc) but that is not true for many others, hence the need for incorporating what this post addresses…the personal context of problem solving. I would appreciate any advice.
Thank you Dan for this interesting post on my favourite topic of conflict. I especially like that you framed it as unnecessary conflict as many conflicts are necessary to be able to surface what really matters.
In my work as a conflict management coach I find the way to ‘get under’ conflict is to start by asking people to identify what it is that specifically provokes them (what the other person said or did) and then, what value, need or aspect of their identity are they perceiving is being undermined by the other person’s words or actions, and then what assumptions they are making about her or his intent. And then asking, ‘ if it’s not the reasons you think what else could it be?’
It’s equally as important to follow with this same sequence/series of questions to help clients uncover what they are saying or doing that is irritating the other person.
This breakdown is long-winded – I apologize – and it’s just part of a deeper analysis that helps clients reflect on the whole dynamic – being the other person’s part of it and their own contribution too.