This exercise in identifying a “top 10 list” for effectively engaging conflict has caused some interesting reflection. On the one hand I do not want to imply that when applied these “10 easy strategies” will eliminate the challenge of conflict. At the same time, it seems clear that there are, in fact, some essentials for effectively navigating conflict. While the journey does not necessarily become easier, one’s confidence for traveling this critical path can increase. So, let’s look at the next three on our list.
4. Inquiry: The conversations we have are determined by the questions we ask. A key learning has been that what we ask, the spirit in which we ask it, how we ask . . . will encourage certain responses and discourage others.
In general, questions focused on divergent thinking are intended to increase our shared thinking and exploration of an issue. They are designed to take the conversation into a deeper understanding of the complexity of an issue. They are questions that push the conversation beyond the known into the unknown. Questions intended to support divergent thinking focus on increasing our awareness of alternatives, encourage open discussion, are designed to gather diverse points of view, and facilitate unpacking the deeper structure of a challenge.
This is how we mine conflict for its potential value. This is how we leverage individual and collective curiosity to create share learning and understanding. In conflict, it is how we move from “me” and “you” to “we”.
5. Advocacy: It is my experience that many who are uncomfortable with conflict are also uncomfortable requesting what they need or sharing what they think. Initiating a request or sharing a divergent opinion, is seen as risky. Our comments might be perceived as critical of the other and serve to upset the relationship. There is also a risk of having the request denied, the opinion ignored and the subsequent conflict that may emerge. Maybe it is just easier not to ask or share. The consequences just seem too risky.
The question we too often face is this; “Is this context safe, and is this a safe person with whom to share my needs, thoughts, and ideas?” At a basic level we engage in a cost/benefit analysis. What are the risks of sharing my perspective on this topic? What is possible, or what are the potential benefits of putting forth my ideas? While these questions may be valid, our analysis of the situation does not always provide a complete or accurate understanding of the situation. We too often focus on the risks and lose sight of the benefits.
Asking the question, “Should I share” may be appropriate. However, the fundamental question needs to be, “how do I put forth what I need to share in a way that will make it easy for others to hear, understand, and respond?” How do I clarify my intent to focus on mutual benefit when you interpret my sharing as rebuttal? How do I stay at integrity with my commitment to mutual purpose?
6. Synthesis: In the book, Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High, the authors introduce the notion of a “pool of shared meaning”. This represents the collection of personal opinions, theories, and experiences that inform us on any issue. Effective conflict engagement invites the creation of a “shared pool of meaning” from our “individual pools of meaning”. Synthesis is the creation of this shared pool.
What is essential to acknowledge at this point is that we are not describing a place of complete agreement. We often refer to a process of “reaching common ground” and while we will experience points of agreement this is not the whole picture. My experience in creating “shared pools of meaning” is that they will include elements of agreement, elements of on-going confusion and lack of clarity, and elements of what may be on-going strongly held differences. Fundamentally we have created a more complete picture of a complex issue. We have also experienced shared learning that will be the foundation for shared and potentially innovative action.