Liz Kislik
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We usually think of conflict as something that happens between people. After all, who's there when things go wrong? People. And people can be very annoying. (Laughter) But they're really just the part of the story that's easiest to see. In almost 30 years of working with employees at every level, from warehouse associates and service reps to CEOs, I've seen over and over what happens when we hold the mistaken belief that conflict would not exist if those annoying people would just get themselves together and work things out. Unfortunately, when we operate out of that belief, we tend to say and do things that cause conflict to persist and to create even more damage to both organizations and the people in them. And that's true whether we're talking about businesses or non-profits, schools, even families, and entire societies. If we want to solve conflict, we've got to do some digging. We have to look at the structures that lie underneath the conflict,

and I am going to give you an example and then five steps that you can take to fix conflict wherever you are. So, a couple of years ago, a CEO brought me in to work with two senior executives. I'll call them Amy and Bill. And they were locked in a serious conflict. And the CEO described it to me as a communication problem, and it looked something like this. Now, I interviewed Amy and Bill, and they told me a different story. From their description, the conflict actually looked more like this. They didn't see it as a communication problem. They saw it as differences in departmental opinions about how the work should be done in the company, based on their beliefs about each other's functional roles. But then I interviewed Bill and Amy's team members and other people in the organization. And it turned out that the situation really looked like this. You can see that underneath what looked sort of like a person-to-person-conflict or a departmental conflict, we have these deeply embedded structures, including everything from company history and cultural norms to work processes and procedures. It seems unrealistic to blame individuals and to treat them as if they have sole responsibility for conflict, when as you can see, they're really only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. And it also seems unrealistic to think that we can come up with simplistic, interpersonal solutions like sending Amy and Bill off to communication training or even to anger management classes. No, we have to excavate what's under the conflict and bring it out into the open so that we can analyze, understand, and begin to resolve the human conflict that's building on the top. And now, I am going to give you five steps so you can do just that wherever you are. Step one: We need to rule out the unfortunate possibility that a single dysfunctional individual is actually the source of conflict. I don't mean somebody who makes mistakes. I mean someone who's really a danger. In organizations, a common example of this is someone who's a bully. Bullies don't have the self-awareness to recognize when they're hurting other people, and it's very hard for them to give up whatever kinds of nasty behavior they believe has worked for them in the past. A second common example of the kind of dysfunctional person who can truly be the source of conflict is someone who's an incompetent. They create a lot of mess. They sometimes fake their way into a job, and in other cases, you may have seen people promoted beyond their capability. Now, the lucky thing about workplace conflict is that it's completely legitimate and appropriate to screen out dysfunctional individuals or to deal with them through a combination of coaching, counseling, and corrective action. So once you have dealt with or screened out your dysfunctional person, you can go on to step two. And that's asking the right people the right questions. You might think that you should start with the folks who are in control, the people who have power and status, but it doesn't work because they're not close enough to the real action. Instead, you need to interview the people who are experiencing events on the ground. And you need a full range of their opinions because even though they'll try to give you their honest opinion, each one by its very nature is incomplete because they're bounded by their individual experiences and their perceptions. So you need a broad range of views, and that permits you, when you have the full picture, to start to see the patterns and dynamics operating underneath. And what kind of questions can you ask? Here are some that I like to use: Can you tell me what goes right here? What's the thing that whenever it happens, it makes you nuts? Is there something that would help you do your job better? Why do you stay if it sounds like there are so many problems here? So let me recap: We rule out the dysfunctional individual, and then we ask the right people the right questions, and that lets us go on to step three. And that's making sure that everyone is aligned, that they have a consistent understanding of what the goals are, who's responsible for which decisions, and who does what to whom. You would be amazed at how many sincere, well-meaning people can have deep disagreements about goals and means, including fairly obvious things like who has budget authority and who has responsibility for which decisions and who can take credit for success. An example: At one of my client's, a senior leader assigned overlapping responsibility for the same turf to two different executives. These two execs and their teams fought for an entire year over who got to call which shots and who was going to take the blame for declining performance results. The human resources group came in, tried to facilitate a truce, encourage a better behavior. But until the senior leader left and the overlapping assignments came fully to light and were completely redefined, there was no change. Because it's very hard to think that just a little good behavior, pleasantness, trying harder is going to make a difference when you have two different sets of feet standing in the same space. The fourth step is to find allies at all levels in the organization to help you implement the change. Because even if you've ruled out the dysfunctional individuals, and you've asked the right people the right questions, and you've aligned around the goals and the means, if you don't have a critical mass of participation, nothing substantial is going to happen. At one of my client's, there was a persistent conflict in the executive team itself. I was facilitating a group of mid-level managers, and these people really needed to get their work done. So they were willing to work on concrete, practical solutions together in ways that their bosses were not. Over time, we were able to build bridges across the various departments. These allies communicated the concepts down to their teams, and eventually, they were able to start managing up in ways that created better performance, better productivity, and definitely better behavior even within the executive team. And the fifth step: Teach new habits for managing differences. I've talked about the problems with structures and how you have to recognize them and what their impact can be. But from time to time, people do have significant interpersonal communication problems. So it only makes sense to teach some new techniques and habits that can help people deal with the strong feelings and the stressful thinking that conflict brings with it. Here are just a few of the habits I teach my clients. The first one is called "lizard listening." I remind clients that our amygdala, our ancient lizard brain, interprets emotional cues as if they were present physical danger even before we have a chance to assess what's going on or interpret them logically. I encourage them to reconsider what they've just said or are planning to say to their counterpart in conflict, and to think about what will happen when that counterpart filters the conversation through their lizard brain, what misconceptions could come up - inaccurate, negative beliefs - what could be misconstrued - even perfectly good intentions - are there ways to reframe those negatives so that the next conversation can be more persuasive and more positive? Then we have the evil-logic check. When somebody bothers us, we tend to think of them as a bad person. So when clients complain about the bad people they work with, I ask them specifically if they think their counterpart is evil. And that's the word I use because it's so strong. No, no, they have to step back. "She's not really evil; she's just annoying." So then I press a little bit further, and I ask, Why would a smart person do such a stupid thing? This leading question helps people reconsider what's really going on with that annoying person. And sometimes, in addition to the alternative explanations for what they meant, they can even develop some compassion for the annoying person's situation because after all, when we label behavior as bad and stupid, it is usually coming from some form of pressure, fear, or threat. And then my favorite are these elephant cards. Sometimes, there is something important and true that needs to be said, but it's too uncomfortable. Most of us don't want to be the one to put someone on the spot. We don't like to say something that sounds unkind. It can feel like a real risk to put undiscussable subjects on the table. I distribute these elephant cards at my facilitations. When there's something important going unsaid, anybody in the room can play an elephant card. I have clients who are doing this years later. The very act of playing the card raises the possibility with other people who understand the significance that you can discuss topics which previously would have been impermissible. Okay. So, we have ruled out dysfunctional individuals, we've asked the right people the right questions, we've ensured that we have alignment, we've looked for allies to help us implement the change, and we've taught some specific techniques, so people feel that they have a better way to communicate with each other. Now, let me tell you: Working through these five steps, it's not easy. It takes courage and commitment. It takes a little humor, and it takes a heap of effort to get traction on persistent conflict. But if we are ever going to help our schools, our workplaces, and our civic organizations function better, if we want to help people make the real contribution that they can, we have to uncover and understand what's truly underneath any conflict in any situation. Then we can help people work together successfully for everyone's benefit wherever we are. Thank you. (Applause)