There is a house where all conflict takes place, and if you are in conflict, you are in this house. The front door is labeled “Right/Wrong,” and beyond its wide foyer there are only three rooms in Conflict House.
Room 1 is the “What happened” room. Here you compare stories and see where your views differ. Room 2 is the “Feelings” room. Disagreement sparks feelings. As coach Tom Henschel puts it, if you weren’t having feelings, then you wouldn’t be in Conflict House. Room 3 is the “Identity” room. This is what you think and feel about yourself.
When you defend your position, it can be easy to feel your identity is caught up in being right. When your perceived status, respect, or value seems threatened, that’s Room 3 stuff. You’ll often be in Rooms 2 and 3 at the same time, and maybe even in all three.
As an example, say a manager says something that feels derogatory about design research. I disagree with what’s being said (Room 1), it provokes unpleasant feelings (Room 2), and it feels hostile to my sense of self as a Product Strategist (Room 3). I’m in all three rooms. I’m feeling bad, threatened, and combative.
When you disagree with someone, your impulse is to run straight through the Right/Wrong door. You often run through the foyer so fast that you don’t even see the sign on the wall:
Today we’ll discuss three simple tactics to help you better navigate conflict.
1. Pretend you’re an investigative reporter.
2. Strengthen your listening boundary.
3. Consider all three rooms.
Pretend You’re an Investigative Reporter
Virginia Satir once said that a conversation between two people has three points of contact. You’re in contact with each other, to some extent, but you’re both also in contact with yourselves…to some extent. This goes a long way in explaining the difference between responding and reacting. Responding means making a conscious choice about how much to engage on a topic, if at all.
A helpful trick I picked up from psychotherapist Vicki Tidwell Palmer is to pretend you’re an investigative reporter. This helps you approach potentially contentious conversations from an interesting standpoint: You’re just there to gather information, to learn what you can.
People are going to say things you disagree with. The secret is that you don’t have to take it personally. You don’t have to go into Room 3. When your Room 3 isn’t tied to Room 1, you’re less defensive. You can even change what’s happening in Room 2. This is important because, as Tom Henschel puts it, your feelings are the difference between a normal and difficult conversation.
There is a related saying you’ll sometimes hear: “Assume positive intent.” I had a manager almost a decade ago who said this all the time. It can sound naïve, especially in a corporate environment. There the norm is conflicting agendas; and, let’s be frank, the multiple stakeholders in the environment won’t all be rooting for you to succeed.
But this misses the point. Assuming positive intent is a hack, like pretending you’re a reporter. The real aim is to just keep learning about the other person, unpacking her thinking, and vetting your assumptions…without taking it personally.
Once you learn this secret, then you’ll realize that Conflict House has a back door as well. It’s labeled “Stay Curious,” and when you enter through the back, everything inside seems…easier. It also has a sign in its foyer:
Strengthen Your Listening Boundary
I also got this technique from Palmer, who got it from her mentor, Pia Melody. When someone expresses her views, generally one of three things will happen. Either what she says will ring true to you, ring false, or you’ll feel neutral about it. If it rings true, it’s not going to spark unpleasant feelings. The felt agreement might be illusory, but that’s another matter. If you’re undecided or neutral, then you can either move on to another topic or gather more information. It’s when you disagree that things often become challenging.
If you have a healthy listening boundary, then you can maintain the space needed to have options in how you respond. You can acknowledge disagreement without getting hooked by unwanted feelings. As Palmer puts it, if you forget this and get defensive, in a way you’ve already stepped out of your reality and into the other person’s. You’re giving the other person power over your “rooms.” Again, it doesn’t have to be this way.
So, let’s say someone says something that rubs you the wrong way. What are your options? First, you can let it go. Second, you can put on your investigative reporter hat and ask questions: “What do mean by X?” “How do you know X is true?” “What X specifically?” etc.
This should be done from a standpoint of detached but genuine curiosity, not as a hostile interrogation. Third, you can challenge or debate him. This is often what you’ll want to do. It’s normal. You’ll want to make your position known and defend it. Before you challenge the other person’s point, however, you should pause and ask yourself a few questions.
After all, it might feel good to argue and win, but it comes at a cost. “Winning” often means he loses face and you lose good graces. As Dale Carnegie used to say, the only way to win an argument is to not have it. So, ask yourself, how important is this issue to you? If it’s not important enough to get into, you can always keep your investigative reporter hat on and learn a little about why the other person holds the view you disagree with.
If you do feel it’s important, then ask yourself, what’s your intention? To prove yourself right? To sound smart? Or to correct an error and help him? And third, what do you think the likely outcome will be? Is the benefit of getting into it greater than the cost?
The listening boundary helps you navigate Conflict House. It helps you enter through the back door, where you can proceed in a more thoughtful, less reactive way. The concept of Conflict House, by the way, is from the 1999 book, Difficult Conversations, by Stone, Patton, and Heen of the Harvard Negotiation Project.
Similar to Senn’s 2017 The Mood Elevator, it shows how staying curious vaccinates against negative feeling. When you don’t stay curious, when you take your investigative reporter hat off, you tend to get defensive. When your goal is to defend yourself instead of just learn, you end up putting more pressure on yourself.
Consider All Three Rooms
Each room in Conflict House is a type of conversation. Henschel suggests you practice listening for them, that you get better at identifying them as they are happening. Once you’ve heard something that sounds like one of the three rooms, this helps you know how best to respond.
If someone is sharing his view, ask clarifying questions. If it sounds like he has strong feelings about what he’s saying, you can say exactly that: “It sounds like you have strong feelings about this.” Pause and let him respond. His feelings are real for him, whatever they are. Honor the other person’s feelings without debate. If it sounds like his sense of self is tied up with what he’s telling you, Henschel suggests saying, “I see why this is so important to you.” Consider what this teaches you about the person.
If you’re in a meeting and it seems like there are some strong, unstated feelings in the air, call it out. As Randy Pausch famously said, when there is an elephant in the room, you should introduce it. When you name the unspoken feelings, often this will itself instantly change the atmosphere of a meeting. This can help you get out of Conflict House when you really don’t need to be there. This is not about stuffing your feelings. Far from it. Honest conflict is typically far more value-adding than dishonest harmony.
In general, if you can name your feelings, stay curious about disagreement, and not let your identity get tied to being right, then you will get better at Conflict House. So, name your feelings, and then make conscious choices. Feelings really aren’t some separate thing from rationality anyway. (Spock, meet V’Ger.) Feelings are just information. If you think you do have an important disagreement with someone, slow down and probe.
Often what seems a disagreement will be a failure to accurately interpret someone’s meaning. Consider Oscar Trimboli’s 125/400 Rule: If someone speaks around 125 words per minute while thinking 400, how likely is it her first attempt to voice her thoughts will effectively capture her meaning? Not very. It’s hard to summarize and express thoughts, and people tend to act like others can read their minds.
And finally, don’t let any of this make you think conflict is a bad thing. It’s not! Conflict just means people have “conflicting” views, and they always will. As negotiator Kwame Christian puts it, conflict isn’t combat; it’s just an opportunity to learn. If you put off difficult conversations, then you put off growing. If you tend to forget this, he says, then you need to make yourself complete this statement, “This conversation is an opportunity to X.” What is your X?
Making your intent explicit goes a long way in viewing conflict as an opportunity to learn. If you do product work, like I do, this is part and parcel of your day job. As Dan Brown argues, design is conflict! Think about it: Design is primarily about wrangling stakeholders and their multiple agendas and views to surface shared understanding and alignment of purpose. And that requires conflict.
The goal is not to avoid Conflict House.
It’s to get smarter about it.
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