The Emotion Trap
People often ignore factors or circumstances that surround disagreements, and when they do, disagreements escalate into conflict. Delay resolution too long and the conflict becomes intractable. Once this happens, a successful outcome is harder to reach.
These kinds of conflict leave emotional scars. In an article some years ago I wrote about the emotions that are connected to most conflicts, and how these can interfere with both a timely solution and one that satisfies the interests and needs of those most directly involved in the conflict. The reason why it is so difficult at that point is surprisingly simple.
You cannot overcome an emotional investment on the part of someone without taking the time to separate the person (i.e. his/her feelings) from the issue. Once someone invests his or her emotions in a particular point of view or position, changing that person’s mind becomes very challenging.
A quick look at what we see playing out in our communities and in the country more broadly provides ample evidence of how hard that process can be. We also can look more narrowly and focus on the business world and see conflicts that haven’t been successfully resolved, and the reasons almost always reflect a failure to overcome the emotional investment of the parties in the issue in dispute.
It is easy to point out some of the more typical kinds of unresolved conflicts such as labor strikes in various companies and industries. We know mergers are fraught with conflict because careers and people’s livelihood are on the line. While these kinds of conflicts make the news, they are not even the tip of the iceberg.
Look around your own company or department and, if you pay attention, you will notice that things are not running as smoothly as you initially think. The signs are there, but most people aren’t trained to recognize them for what they are.
Are the other employees in the department competitive in an obvious way? Just about everyone is taught that competition is a good thing, but there is a fundamental truth in the old adage that too much of a good thing is harmful. When employees in a group or department become too competitive, it is a symptom of something much larger. In a highly charged environment where employees become excessively competitive, teamwork collapses. This, in turn, introduces another group of behaviors that are mostly negative.
Are you uncertain of your management team, and as a consequence, are you trying to “fly under the radar”? This defense mechanism is not uncommon when employees find themselves working for managers that are never around, or who are known to excessively criticize an employee’s work.
In an environment where conflict percolates beneath the surface and goes unresolved, a series of behaviors can build up and continue almost unnoticed that force people in that department to adjust here, bend there, and make other kinds of compromises to get things done.
And when you go home at the end of the day, you take with you a lingering sense that the day did not go as well as you wanted. That sense of dissatisfaction builds up and eventually impacts your performance, your dedication, and your commitment.
Unresolved conflict erodes group cohesion, damages professional relationships, and can even damage the organization. People’s emotions sustain conflict, and once you recognize that, you can begin the process of unwinding the issues that created the conflict in the first place.
In my work, I talk about this unwinding process in terms of a triangle. Some of you who’ve read my newsletter over the years know I talk about this from time to time. I try not to repeat myself, and look at different ways of making these essential points. For those of you reading this for the first time, the three-point of the triangle are: Separate, Explain, and Criteria.
Successful conflict resolution almost always begins by getting each sides’ assumptions out into the open. The emotional investment that I talk about in this letter is, more often than not, supported by assumptions; mostly about the other parties in the dispute. Bringing those assumptions out into the open is the first step in separating fact from fiction, and separating the person from the emotions.
The manager or the person facilitating the process can then present a set of questions that allow the people involved to explain their issues in detail. The explanation process introduces clarity, and this produces understanding. This is not a step where one party agrees or accepts what the other party wants. It is the point where each side understands the other. The foundation for conversation is built.
The third corner is what I call the criteria step. Once the foundation for dialogue is built, potential solutions require clearly identified criteria that will allow the solutions to advance in a manner the people can see and evaluate objectively.
This is the crux of the process. The triangle has to be more than a drawing on a page or whiteboard. The process requires that the parties to the conflict take action in a controlled way that leads to a successful resolution of the conflict. This action has key components, including, but not necessarily limited to:
- Jointly developing a written plan where everyone involved in the conflict agrees with the plan. (consensus over compromise)
- The basis for measuring results is built into the plan
- Key decision-makers are identified early and their roles are equally clear
- Ownership of outcomes is a commitment established at the beginning
Work environments damaged by conflict can be healed, and the integrity of the organization restored. Those directly involved in the conflict, and those brought in to assist need to recognize that this process is not without consequences. In my work with clients I keep two concepts in mind; equity and prudence.
I emphasize these two concepts because, in today’s environment, people accept the idea of collateral damage far too easily. I have an immense distaste for solutions that clear the field without any thought to innocent bystanders.
Food for Thought: In order to develop a complex argument it is necessary to ask what, how, and why questions. These questions will lead from observation to exploration and from there to an argument (from the Penguin Handbook).
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What Did He Say?
Every once in a while, when you are deep into a discussion, you hear something that sounds like “and the eagle flew upside down.” Your first reaction is what? What did he say? If the person was talking to you, your second reaction is, am I losing my hearing? So you ask, what did you say? The person typically will give an answer that removes the initial confusion, but it will not ease the sense of disquiet that the person listening missed an essential clue in the conversation.
It is a common feeling because many times we do miss important clues. During his career, Peter Drucker would tell executives he worked with that in a negotiation the most important thing about that negotiation is what is left unsaid. When saying that, one of the things he was alluding to is that neither side takes the time to learn what is important to the other party in the disagreement.
Whether you are negotiating a contract or helping two parties settle a dispute, the truth underlying Peter Drucker’s admonition is an enduring truth. Too many times I see parties in a negotiation assigning little or no value to the other party’s concerns. Having done this for some years now, I’ve learned to discuss this issue early either in a mediation or when hired to help someone through a negotiation.
When I am brought in to consult, I make it clear that the route to a failed negotiation is taking the position that winning on all your key points is all that matters. Some years ago I assisted in a negotiation that led to an impasse because the person I was helping went into the room convinced he was right and the other side needed to see it his way. Many of you reading this already know that the insistence on being right is rarely a winning strategy.
In this instance when my client successfully painted himself into a corner, I suggested we take a break, which he readily agreed to. During our meeting, I asked him what he wanted to do. His first reaction was that he could not give up his position, that the other party would “run the table on him.” I let him talk for a bit, and then I asked him, what are the two key points the other side raised, and why were those two issues important to them?
After a short conversation, it became clear he could not state clearly why those two issues were essential to the other party. He had not learned that before sitting down to negotiate, and he had not discovered it during the negotiation. I suggested that when they resumed the discussions, that he re-set the tone by asking just one question. What is it you want me to know?
It is a simple question, yet a powerful one. Surprisingly, it is one question both sides forget to ask. I recently attended a dinner where a gentleman with a great deal of experience in this field gave a speech, and it was downright eerie to listen to him talk about solving disagreements and using language very similar to the language I routinely use.
In the example above the two sides eventually resolved the dispute successfully, but it took a bit of effort to get there. (My client was young, successful, and brash). He had good control over his personal and professional life, except for his ego; which is common among very bright people.
I was reminded of this when I read the book, Multipliers, by Dr. Liz Wiseman. A number of the examples in her book resonated with me because of my own experiences in helping others to become better listeners. I urge those reading my letters to buy this book – after buying my latest book. It’s called The Battle for Ethics and Integrity in the Workplace: The Leaders Dilemma.
And this brings me back to the eagle flew upside down. When you experience such a moment, you will find you don’t have a hearing problem; you have a listening problem. There is a growing awareness of this, and more companies are providing training to their employees to become better listeners. Unsurprisingly, I find too many companies offering these classes to the wrong end of the organization chart.
It is hard to convince employees to engage in better listening exercises when those higher up the chain don’t walk the walk. Managers and senior managers have a hundred different ways of saying “make the problem go away, do it quickly, and as cheaply as possible.” We have all heard variations of that theme enough times to know it creates more problems than it solves. Still, it remains an all too common message employees receive.
The gap between agreement and disagreement won’t go away until you take the other side seriously and they perceive you are doing so. It applies equally to disagreements with coworkers as much as it does at the negotiating table.
When something you read raises a question, don’t be bashful. Give us a call. We can be reached at 346-561-0612, 832-452-8537, or at: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also learn more about CDC Integrated Services by visiting our website at www.cdci-mediation.com
Food for thought: Beyond the precise meaning found in a dictionary, judgment is more than just the ability to make good decisions about what needs doing. It begins by thinking carefully and critically, which are skills that come through practice. You cannot acquire them by going to a conference or a seminar.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays
We at CDC Integrated Services wish to take a moment to thank everyone who chose us to aid them with the issues brought to us during the past year. We are grateful for your business and wish all of our clients a safe and peaceful new year.
Peace and Goodwill to all.
From Jerry Cooper and the CDCI team
“People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do”. (Isaac Asimov)
Mediators who do not allow the principle of self-determination to guide the mediation’s outcome will risk seeing that mediation fail.
Mr. Mark Baer, a mediator who writes interesting articles, posted a recent study about mediation and shared it with us on his LinkedIn page. The study focused on family law mediation in California, and the data developed as part of that study identified an interesting fact. In the state of California the field is saturated with retired judges and attorneys. Having wrapped up their legal career these judges and attorneys turned to mediation as a second career.
I found several other facts in this study to be interesting as well. Their careers and experiences did not prepare them on how to use mediation effectively. The study reinforced the basic fact that good mediation combines skill, training, and experience. The researchers concluded in fairly blunt terms that mediation requires skills that …”judges and lawyers do not possess by virtue of having decided cases in a courtroom…”, and in that state surprisingly few retired judges and lawyers have any formal mediation training.
The study further disclosed that there is a higher instance of these mediators pressing or directing the parties in these mediations towards a preferred or suggested outcome, such that a higher number of mediations didn’t hold up, and the parties to a dispute reverted back to litigation. It confirmed what I had seen at an anecdotal level. The dry nature of the data understates the burdens these failures place on those who find themselves back in court
Mr. Baer has written before about the risks attorneys run when they, under the guise of mediation, begin to subjectively evaluate the actions and positions of the parties and attempt to lead to or suggest a particular settlement. It is a risk that I have written about as well in my posts.
A successful mediation changes the perceptions and relationships of the parties in dispute. It breaks down the distrust that the parties have towards each other, and helps rebuild trust. Successful mediations encourage the parties to decide the outcome(s) they want through consensus by using the process provided by the mediator.
When the process is set in motion correctly, the parties are able to step away from entrenched positions and it allows them to look at alternatives; and looking at alternative solutions is at the heart of successful mediations.
The message here is to think carefully about how you choose a mediator or a third-party neutral to assist in resolving any potential dispute. Ultimately, you need to have confidence in the outcome of any negotiation, and be well satisfied that it sets things back in balance to the point you can move forward.
We at CDCI follow this principle and encourage you to contact us if you have any questions. You can reach us at 832-452-8537, or contact us through email@example.com. We also respond to texts messages.
After the Shock Wave
This week’s blog can also be called Ethic’s Seismic Fracture, and here is why.
Wells Fargo Corporation opened fake bank accounts and fake credit card accounts, and charged its customers fees for accounts they did not know existed. These actions were both illegal and unethical and will have significant consequences for all those involved. It has all the trappings of a soap opera scandal and everyone is piling on adding his or her opinion wherever they can. But the story is not over and I think there is more to come.
This is an ethical failure of seismic proportions, and I will likely write about it in a future letter, but it is too soon because I don’t believe we know the whole story. It does offer an excellent segue into a related issue that I think is relevant to this story.
An article in the Harvard Business Review discussed the subject of listening and why this is such a critical skill for CEOs and other leaders. The author noted that a recent survey indicated as many as 25 percent of CEOs of major companies were either not good listeners or down right bad at it. The article went on to explain that this deficit at that level of leadership in a company can have severe consequences to the point of damaging the company. I think it’s safe to say the authors of that survey got that one right.
When such a deficit exists at the top level, imagine what the absence of this skill would mean in someone heading up a major business unit who must communicate and receive feedback from other business unit leaders. Information naturally flows up an organization making information transfers across the various organizations difficult at best, but it is made more difficult if the person in charge of one of these organizational structures does not listen well.
Think for a moment about a company much like Wells Fargo where employees at multiple levels in an organization are trying to convey important information up the chain of command; information that signals the train is going too fast and is about to go off the tracks, but that information doesn’t move up the organization. It meet resistance that shows itself in several ways. These can be procedures that require detailed explanations and lengthy reviews for no apparent reason, a set of well-established routines that do not conform to any written procedures or policies and which cannot be bypassed, and a culture that says to the average manager or employee “make your numbers first and save your complaints for later…” The transition from poor listening skills to an un-willingness to listen is a very short step.
One of the most important skills a leader has is the ability to listen. It is one of the ingredients of leadership that separates a leader from the rest of the crowd. Does this mean that you can’t achieve a leadership role without this skill? No, it doesn’t; a person can achieve a leadership role in a company or organization without this skill, but the chances of doing well in that position are significantly diminished without it.
The leaders at Wells Fargo failed in their leadership role. It is not the first company to suffer a severe failure of leadership, and it won’t be the last. As more time passes I think we will find there were ample opportunities to change the work ethic in that company, but the warning signs were ignored. I believe the failure to listen at various levels of the organization was the catalyst that sowed the seeds for disaster.
Successful leaders learn early in their careers that listening is part of a process designed to produce communication with others that works so that misunderstandings are reduced or eliminated. I encourage those who read my letter each month to read, or if you have already, then re-read Stephen R. Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He understood that listening, especially empathic listening requires training. Sometimes leaders trained themselves to achieve this level of listening, and sometimes leaders found someone to teach them how to achieve this level of listening.
In chapter 5 of his book Stephen Covey wrote that there are several principles of communication and he begins by saying “seek first to understand then to be understood”. I believe those principles are as valid today as when he wrote his book some 30 years ago.
The idea that you first needed to understand the person you were talking to was a completely foreign concept to the vast majority of people. In the business world of that era it was seen as an impractical point of view, and that view was not hard to understand in that most communication at time was directive in nature where the boss told his employees what to do and when he wanted it done and the employee was expected to figure it out.
I am firmly convinced that empathic listening as he wrote about has a sound ethical foundation and provides the best framework for building listening skills of the scope and reach that will separate you from the crowd, and sustain you in your role as a leader.
A strong ethical culture requires the right kind of action. Listening is an action and so it must be supported by the right kind of action to be successful.
Food for thought: Great readers and great listeners all have great work ethics. They work hard at what they do and they are devout about their reading and listening. (Andy Wilkinson)
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Much of what I do as a mediator involves disputes between companies, employee disputes, intra and inter-organizational disputes, and disputes between individuals. I have mediated disputes between individuals and companies often vendors they did business with. When it comes to divorce mediation, I turn down most of those requests such that this type of mediation is less than 15% of my work.
It therefore something of a surprise that I was approached last year to mediate a dispute involving a blended family, and from that experience I have since been approached to assist in several other disputes, all of which involve disputes within a blended family environment.
Unlike divorce mediation where the mediator is tasked with assisting couples bring to closure a relationship which was destroyed and deal with the aftermath and its impact on children, the dynamics of blended families is underpinned by hope. Here are people trying to build a new family structure for themselves and the children they now share with their former partners. The families I have assisted want very much for their new family structure to work, for their children to be happy and to feel safe in the new environment.
I think what I enjoy best about this new aspect of my practice is how willing the parents are to do everything they can to make things work for the children. I do not diminish the obstacles the parents face in a blended family and I have made it clear to the parents that solving the more immediate issues is not the end of their journey. The children especially need a way of voicing their concerns and fears, and they need to do that with the support of a trained professional. But what is really rewarding is the pleasure and sense of accomplishment the new parents gain by climbing out from under the anger, frustration, and uncertainty about doing the wrong thing. The biggest thing they have to learn is that the best solutions begin with small steps. The children cannot be expected to immediately love the new mother or the new father, but it is a major step forward if the children like being around the new parent.
I have treaded very carefully in this new environment, and so far the feedback has been positive.