Two Sentences that Will Move You Away from Conflict and Toward Collaboration
Conflict happens when our agenda and the agenda of another person are at cross purposes. Here are two sentences that crete clarity and movement.
Conflict is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be the first step toward collaboration. Keep reading to find out how.
As pointed out in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument, all conflict can be reduced to two basic areas of concern:
Concern for self, and
Concern for the others involved.
We might express this as “What I need” (my agenda) and “What you need” (your agenda). When these two items are not in harmony (or when we think they are not in harmony) we have conflict. When you foresee a conflict situation or find yourself in the middle of one, here are two actions that will move the situation away from conflict and toward collaboration.
(1) State, “Here’s what I need from you.”
The first thing you must clarify is what you really need in this situation. If you don’t address what you need, you are not just being a “nice guy.” Nor are you being a “servant leader.” You certainly aren’t being assertive. From a communication perspective, you are simply avoiding the issue or accommodating the request of someone else. What is most important to you in this situation? What needs to happen for you to view this situation as “successful”?
First clarify that for yourself. Then communicate that to others.
As you clarify, provide specific details. Be clear why you have this need, by when you need things completed, and how you need them to be done. That level of detail is especially important for successful delegation. The more clearly you can define success for yourself and communicate what success looks like for others, the more likely you will actually experience that goal. Make the goal so focused that there is no reason to miss it.
(2) Ask, “What do you need from me?”
If you don’t get this information, then you can come off as being aggressive and uncaring. If you want to be truly collaborative, both your needs and their needs must be addressed. By asking the question, you demonstrate humility as a leader. You don’t claim to know everything, and you are asking for feedback to meet the real concerns of others. By the way, you can address these items in either order. Sometimes you will want to start with “What do you need from me?” After you’ve clarified that, then you can add, “Here’s what I need from you in order to make that happen."
Imagine that you are working with a team of people to plan an event, and you need to determine who will speak at the event. You’ve communicated the need and asked the team to bring a list of suggestions. When you get to the meeting, no one is prepared with suggestions. How can you respond appropriately and keep your cool? Here is one example of both expressing your needs and being open to the needs of the group.
“As I communicated previously, we need to make measurable progress today on selecting our speakers for the event. That means we need an initial list of who we can contact to determine their availability. It will take time to confirm our speakers, and if some of them aren’t available, we will need additional time to find other options. So, what do you need from me in order to get that list of names together today?”
In our example, we’ve communicated the what (measurable progress), the when (today), the why (it takes time to confirm speakers), and the how (we need to create an initial contact list).
Based on “my agenda” and “your agenda,” we can describe four basic communication styles, which I have adapted from the Thomas Kilmann instrument.
Aggressive – High concern for “my agenda.” Low concern for “your agenda.” Essentially, “I win. You lose.”
Avoiding – Low concern for “my agenda.” Low concern for “your agenda.” Essentially, “I lose. You lose.”
Accommodating – Low concern for “my agenda.” High concern for “your agenda.” Essentially, “I lose. You win.”
Assertive/Collaborating – High concern for “my agenda.” High concern for “your agenda.” Essentially, “I win. You win.”
Note that different communication styles are appropriate for different situations, and they all have their benefits and challenges. For example, while “collaborating” sounds great, it takes time to accomplish. Also, if the building is on fire, we want the fire marshall to be aggressive in giving direction – this is not a good time for everyone to discuss their feelings and take a vote!
Here are some practical tips:
(1) Get as specific as possible. For example, instead of saying “I need more feedback,” try “I need to hear from you about both what I’m doing wrong and what I’m doing right. That way I can continue what’s working and correct what’s not.”
(2) Figure out what is most important and focus on that. Force yourself to determine what is most important right now. Don’t ask for more than three things – the other person will feel overwhelmed. If you want a direct report to make changes, don’t bury him in a list of seven different things. Identify the one thing that will make the biggest difference this month. Plan to meet again next month and re-evaluate the situation.
(3) Set a time limit for the conversation. Your boss or direct report may either (a) feel threatened by the request or (b) simply need time to figure out what they really need from you. When our family deals with conflict, I sometimes set a 10 minute timer and say, “We will get as far as we can on this in the next 10 minutes. If we can resolve the issue today, great. If not, we will come back to it tomorrow.”
Notice an overall theme for these practical tips: focus. As a rule of thumb, the more focused your change effort, the more likely you are to be successful. Set a goal so focused that there is no excuse for missing it. Getting clarity on “what I need from you” and “what you need from me” won’t fully resolve a conflict, but it’s a good start. Clearly identifying and communicating your needs and their needs will help you move away from destructive conflict into productive collaboration.