Sunday, Mar 22, 2020

Conflict Resolution

Interpersonal conflict arises often. And almost always it is due to people:

Not fully sharing their feelings and thoughts.

Not feeling heard.

There is a laughably simple method to solving this issue. Stephen Covey shared the technique in his iconic The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Michael Rosenberg codified it in Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. And Chris Voss showed its effectiveness in his excellent Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It. I recommend reading all three of these books to get fully immersed in their techniques, but here is the thousand-foot view:

Most feel hatred for each other, because they feel unheard. For me to respect you, I don’t need for you to agree with me. But I do need for you to hear what I have to say. When I tell you my perspective (which I of course believe to be right) and you aren’t immediately convinced, then I assume that you didn’t really hear or understand what I said. If you start sharing your perspective, I will be uncompelled and unwilling to truly listen, because you haven’t been willing to consider mine. And the cycle spirals downward to hate and acrimony.

There is a simple fix. I only need to prove to you that I have “heard” you. And to do that, I only need to repeat back what you’ve said (summarized, of course) until you say “That’s right!” Then you will feel heard. You will now be open to hearing what I have to say. 

(Here is an experiment that proves this principle. The next time you encounter a person who is repeating themselves, stop them and ask if you can state back what they’ve already said. They will say “yes.” You then summarize what they’ve said and ask if you got it right. If they say “yes” again, then watch to see if they continue to repeat themselves. They will not.)

To resolve conflict, you only need to get each person to state their deepest, darkest thoughts, and then prove that each has heard what the other has said. This can be done verbally or in writing. I far prefer the written method as it takes about ⅓ the time, requires almost no facilitation (ie- its easy to stay on script), and the action items that come out of it are impeccable agreements.

If you are the facilitator, here’s how it works (the written method):

Step 1:  Ask each person to write down their deepest thoughts about the other person.

You say:

“Open up a Doc. Please give me (the facilitator) access, but do not give access to the other person yet.” 

“On the doc, write 5 categories: 

Anger (present)

Fear (future)

Sadness (past)

Joy (present and past)

Excitement (future)”

“In every major relationship that we have, we have feelings of Anger, Fear, Sadness, Joy and Excitement. When you think about the other person, and you focus on the Anger that you feel, what thoughts come to mind? Please state those thoughts in the following way: 

Feeling. I felt anger when …

Fact. I saw you doing …. (This should be only what a video camera would have seen; no opinion, thought or judgement.)

Story. The thought (or judgement) that I had was ….”

Here is an example:


I felt anger when I saw you walk by me the other day and I didn’t hear the word “hello”. 

The thought that I had was that you purposely ignored me, and thus were really saying “screw you!” to me.

As facilitator, look at both docs and make sure that they are filled out correctly. Encourage the separation of fact and judgement as much as possible. Make sure they are as specific as possible about the actions the other person did and how it made them feel. Realize that any conclusions drawn from the other person’s actions are simply stories in their head, only the feelings one has and any specific actions are facts. Make sure there are no sweeping statements or value judgements.

If one or both are reluctant to say anything, which is often the case, you supply the thoughts that you might have if you were in their shoes. Be dramatic. Become an actor. Get into the role. State the thoughts as explicitly as they would appear in your own mind. Use swear words.

The person will start to guide you. They are likely to say: “That’s close, but not quite it. The thoughts I have are more like …” When they slow down or don’t seem willing to go further, again state the thoughts for them. Each time you do so, it allows them to go further. Do this until each person has written down their raw, unvarnished thoughts around Anger toward the other. Once they get that right, they can usually get through Fear, Sadness, Joy and Excitement on their own.

Now ask each participant to cut-and-paste the Joy and Excitement sections to the top of the doc. For the person sharing their emotions and thoughts, it is hard to feel Joy and Excitement until they have first written down their thoughts around Anger and Fear. But when the recipient reads the doc, it is best for them to first see how the sharer actually has positive thoughts about the recipient. This validates the relationship and motivates the recipient to do what is needed to repair that relationship. Therefore, it is important for the recipient to read the thoughts around Joy and Excitement first.

Step 2:  Person A (the person with less power in the relationship) shares access to their doc with Person B.

Person B reads Person A’s thoughts around Joy and Excitement about Person B. Person B should simply say “thank you” to Person A when she reads these thoughts.

Person B then reads Person A’s first thought around Anger about Person B. You, the facilitator, then follow this script:

Facilitator asks Person B: “Do you want to make Person A feel Anger and have these thoughts?” 

Person B: “No.” 

If the answer is “yes”, then the two should not be in relationship together. That means that one will likely need to be let go from the organization. Regardless of seniority, the person to be let go should usually be the person who wants the other to feel anger. That person will likely create toxic relationships with others as well, and eventually will have to leave the company anyway.

Facilitator to Person A: “What request do you have of Person B?” 

Person A: “Please do the following: ….”

If Person B agrees, have Person B write down the action item (with their initials and a due date) just below the fact/judgement of Person A.

The goal here is to co-create a plan so that misunderstanding and acrimony do not enter the relationship again. Person A goes first. Person B adds their thoughts. They go back and forth until they have agreed on a written plan.

Verbal agreements are not impeccable. We all understand words a little bit differently. To make this agreement impeccable, one of the participants writes down the plan and the other adds their initials and a “+1” to note their agreement. 

Facilitator to Person A: “Do you feel heard? Do you feel that Person B wants to have a positive relationship with you?”

Person A: “Yes.”

If the answer is “no”, get curious and find out why. Repeat the steps above again until the answer is “yes”.

Do not move on to a second Anger item yet.

Step 3:  Person B shares access to their doc with Person A.

Repeat the same script as in Step 2. 

Now both Person A and Person B have:

Affirmed that they want to be in positive relationship with each other.

Have accepted the feedback and created an action item to resolve it.

Step 4: When the ah-ha moment of understanding occurs, seal it with a physical connection: a hug, a handshake, a high-5.

When Step 3 is complete, there will usually be a moment of understanding and compassion for each other. When this moment occurs, seal it with a physical connection. If the two have hugged in the past, ask them to do so again now. If the most they have done in the past is shake hands or high-five, then ask them to do that now. This physical connection symbolizes the new understanding and puts a capstone on the event.

Step 5:  Ask each person for feedback on the process.

What did they like that you (as facilitator) did? What did they wish that you had done differently?

Step 6:  Set a meeting for 1-2 weeks out between Person A, Person B and the Facilitator. 

At that meeting, confirm that both Person A and B have completed their action items. This will prove to each other that there is a real desire for a positive relationship.

Do Steps 2-4 on the remainder of issues identified under Anger and Fear for each person.

In my experience, when two people, who previously felt hatred towards each other, have shared their thoughts (and been heard) around all five of the basic emotions they feel toward the other, the two create an understanding and respect for each other, if even they still do not agree with the others’ positions. Please let me know if you experience something different.

Suren Avunjian
Suren Avunjian
Corporate Culture Training
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