Facts are married to emotion. As a leader, it’s your job to ask the right questions that lead to what the key issues are. The natural tendency for most people is to deflect the real reasons for hurt and feeling discounted. It’s the emotions that will resolve the conflict, not just the facts.
Here’s what happens in just about every office on the planet when conflict rears its ugly head:
- Gossip increases
- Paranoia surges
- People feel overused
- People feel undervalued
- Cliques develop
- Physical ailments intensify
- Humor is biting and nasty
If tasked with the responsibility to get past the tensions and anxiety, you will, naturally, want to get a quick solution. It’s what most of us do much of the time.
Stop. That’s a mistake. This is when it takes courage to discuss the elephant in the room. It’s not easy, yet, the effect is longer lasting.
First, you lead by taking a deep breath and slowing down the talk. Literally, slow down…pause, reflect, and then speak. And when you do talk, your best approach, is to guide everyone by asking open-ended questions.
Open-ended questions can’t be answered with a simple “yes” or “no.”
You use the investigative method of excellent journalism by making people accountable for their part in the situation. Ask “how, why, when,” and especially ask the king of questions, “What do you want as an outcome of this meeting?”
Think of a basketball game for a moment. Both teams are shooting wildly, sometimes shooting the ball right into the hoop, other times just getting it to the rim. Then you, yes you, get the ball and slow it down, on purpose. Slow it down just enough to regroup and get a clearer view of what is going on, so the frenzy can stop.
You see, when conflict is escalated, the natural tendency is to get it over with as fast as possible, get as many points across as possible, and win the argument, much like the desire to land as many baskets as possible, as fast as possible, to win.
After you slow down the responses, the next and most important way to handle conflict, is to listen for tonality.
You need to trust your intuition here. You will be right, more than not. For example, when someone says, “That never bothers me,” and what you are really hearing is, “I feel embarrassed and angry,” ask that person to say more. Don’t just glide over it.
Don’t let people simply react and point at others merely using facts. If you simply rely on facts, you will never get to the deeper feelings lying just beneath the facts – feelings of being discounted, undervalued, made to feel foolish.
Once someone begins to tell the emotional truth, not merely the fact truth, real progress can be made.
Once someone says, “Maybe I was too harsh,” or “maybe it was inconsiderate,” the frozen quality in the room begins to thaw.
In my experience as an executive coach and team facilitator, I have seen remarkable changes occur once the first person (how about you) connects the emotions to the facts.
For example, when John says something never bothers him, and you say, “If that had happened to me, I would have felt really discounted,” just that, may be enough to slow things down and get to the heart of the matter.
Facts and emotions are a package deal. You, as a leader, will be in the strongest position when you help everyone begin to acknowledge the real feelings that go with the data. Then, “he said, she said,” has deeper meaning and honest exchanges will lead to long-term success.