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#18 — Finding Common Ground (Part II)

In Coach’s Corner #17 we began looking at some general principles for negotiating and resolving conflicts, including:

1. Winning at the Expense of Others Is a Poor Solution

2. Look below the Waterline.

Next up:

3.You’re in Charge of Your Emotions, No Matter What the Provocation

An out-of-control reaction increases your provokers’ control over you---and may cause a similar response in them, sending all of you over the edge.

I’m not suggesting you become emotionally dead. Showing your human side---joy, sadness, excitement---can be crucial to sustaining the personal intensity you need when things get tough. And by showing your humanity, you invite others to respond in kind, creating the connections that will help you both reach for common ground. My experience is that the air of “professional detachment” that many lawyers and consultants adopt often prevents this from happening.

It’s letting fly with negative emotions, such as anger and frustration, that creates trouble. From my experience, when negotiations slide into conflicts and people get stuck there, often it’s not because they’re too dumb to figure out solutions, but rather because they can’t or won’t deal with their anger and frustration well enough to work things out. That’s true everywhere, from the Balkans to our own backyards.

Anwar Sadat once said that the Middle East conflict was intractable, but not because of specific points of contention, such as West Bank settlements and Jerusalem. What made it so difficult, he said, was decades of rage. Your situation may not be the West Bank, but the point’s still valid.

What’s Your Experience? Think of conflicts you’ve been in, at home, at school, at work---anywhere. Can you think of any that went on and on because people were stuck in anger and frustration they couldn’t get past?

Dealing with anger and frustration is almost always harder than dealing with the content of the conflict---especially if those emotions are tied to issues buried in the iceberg (Coach’s Corner #3). Not taking the easy way can require a lot of self-control, but there’s a lot to be said for being in charge of yourself instead of letting others jerk you around. And it doesn’t take a lot of thought to see that lashing out will just make things worse.

What can you do the next time anger and frustration threaten to send a conflict you’re involved in over the edge?

Try This: Catch yourself. In that split second before you reply with a rash statement or action, remind yourself of what’s at stake. An out-of-control reaction from you increases the provoker’s control over you. It may destroy any chance for an intelligent solution. Is that worth the momentary satisfaction of letting fly with what you feel?

Once you’ve managed that crucial bit of hesitation, do what you have to do to stay cool---count to 10, breathe deeply, fiddle with your keys, pray… Take another look at the situation, this time trying to see it through the other’s eyes; he or she is probably not all wrong. And in any case, it doesn’t help to blame others for goading you into an angry response, no matter how bad their behavior might be.

Key Point: It’s fine to be tough as nails and to fight hard. But it’s not fine if that turns to hate and if your intensity is distorted to anger. It’s not fine if you engender hate and anger in others. Forget this and you undermine your own power, you invite burnout, and you sour your own spirit.

4. Building Trust Is Often the Key to Success

Coach’s Corner #7 talked about the role of trust and caring in creating change, and #11 described how trust helps in building and sustaining teams. Now we look at the same principles used in still another way.

In negotiations, as trust develops, the talking becomes more open and cooperative. Trust reduces incentives to posture and play to the crowd, and it makes possible the kind of creative risk taking that leads people to generate or support bold new options for solutions. With trust developing, even difficult people begin to feel safe enough to be open in ways they wouldn’t have risked before---which can often lead to dramatic breakthroughs.

I’m not talking about the kind of trust you’d need to tell someone your deepest secrets. I’m talking about the trust that says, “OK, we have different views. But I think you’re being honest, that you’ll keep your word, that you’d like to find a solution, and that you’re arguing for what you really believe is the best course.”

Trust-building becomes even more important in conflict situations because of its power to defuse anger, fear, and frustration. Trust can calm people down---including you---so that you can explore solutions that simply couldn’t be seen before in the fog of emotions and ego that conflict can generate. Trust can embolden people to take a look at problems deep in the iceberg and to start dealing with what may really be driving the conflict. Once both sides begin to loosen their armor and climb down off their battlements, the discussions become less defensive and more honest. This is as true for global conflicts as it is for a fight with your spouse.

Key Point If you’re in a conflict, building trust may be the only thing that will allow you to find the common ground needed to resolve it.

Competence, accountability, and honesty build trust: everybody in the negotiation or conflict needs to know not only that you cando your job, but also that you willdo it---and that you will tell the truth and keep your word.

Respect for others’ experiences, situations, and viewpoints also builds trust.

But the critical factor, as we’ve seen before, is caring. Your success may depend on your ability to see the humanity that others share with you---to put yourself in their shoes as best you can and to actively listen to their concerns. Even one simple caring act---a kind word, a small favor---can open channels of communication and shift an atmosphere away from conflict and toward cooperation. Remember the story about how a gift of a map helped rally my neighbors to fill potholes on a shared road (see “A Caring Toolbox” in Coach’s Corner #8.

Here’s a weightier example:

Case Study: Communication Workers of Canada

Some years ago, I gave a series of workshops on conflict resolution for the leadership of the Communication Workers of Canada (CWC). For several years, the Canadian telecommunications industry had been in serious trouble, with many phone-manufacturing jobs moving to Mexico because of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Management (Northern Telecom) had already closed a few phone-manufacturing plants and wanted to close more. Jobs were evaporating. A strike seemed imminent---one that would be very costly to both sides and to the country.

NAFTA was creating a critical problem for both the union and management, and that fact made the traditional negotiating strategy of us-versus-them suicidal for both sides. Nobody could win if union and management simply scrapped over a smaller pie; the aim had to be to create a bigger pie.

The union needed a negotiating strategy whose purpose was not to maximize union gains at the expense of management, but rather to build enough trust between the two so that both sides could agree on solutions to the NAFTA-created crisis coming down on both their heads. To get there, we had to bring the leadership of both sides to a better mutual appreciation of what it was like to be in the other’s shoes.

In the union workshops we simulated a negotiation, with the union boss playing the role of the Northern Telecom CEO. Within 10 minutes a key truth emerged: both union and management leaders were under very similar, intense emotional pressures---on the one side from shareholders concerned about falling stock prices and on the other from union members concerned about job security. This discovery led to a rich dialogue between the “CEO” and the union leaders on the stressful predicament they both shared: trying to meet seemingly impossible constituent demands.

When the role playing ended, union officials saw the management position in a new and more sympathetic light. The union chief was convinced that if he could get his counterpart to see the commonalities he’d just seen, management would see the union in a new light, too.

That’s in fact what happened when the real negotiations began a month later. Union leaders successfully coaxed their management counterparts to see how similar the pressures were on each side. Enough trust was established at a personal level to begin exploring entirely new options for solutions. Both sides looked for ways not to divide up the old pie but to create a bigger one.

Those talks led to decisions by management not to close a key plant in Ontario but instead to retool it to produce a higher-tech product line, and to retrain workers instead of laying them off. These innovative solutions (and the avoidance of a crippling strike) attracted government support, and the total package became a model for other Canadian industries forced to adjust to NAFTA.

Both the union and management made a courageous choice---one they had to struggle to defend to their own constituents. They could have dealt with conflict the way most industries do when labor and management can’t agree: each side could have stayed focused on its own needs, dug in its heels, and seriously damaged their mutual long-range interests. In this instance, labor and management agreed on a different path. They put themselves in the other’s shoes, they built some trust, and then they calmly and creatively focused all their talents on building new options that served all sides.

.What’s Your Experience with Trust? Think of a conflict in which you trusted a person on the other side, even though you disagreed with his or her views. Now think of another conflict in which there was no trust anywhere. How did trusting, or not trusting, affect your actions---and the result?

Reality check: It’s not always possible to build trust with people who don’t agree with you. Despite your best efforts, some of them will try to take advantage of your attempts. You might collect a few bruises, and your memory of those bruises might make you reluctant to try trusting again.

My advice is to acknowledge these risks and take them anyway. Others usuallydorespond positively. And nobody---certainly not me, with all the scar tissue I’ve got---is suggesting that you be a pushover. If efforts at trust building fail, then you have to defend yourself. You put your armor back on, and at worst you’ve lost a few points early in the game.

Photo credit: http://tinyurl.com/nt8kayv

All content © 2015 John A. Graham. All rights reserved.