We all need to communicate. The whole life is a series of interactions with other people, and unless you live a life of Robinson Crusoe, you are required to interact with other people. When there is an interaction, there is a chance for conflict. In this post, I’m going to talk about conflicts with your colleagues at work, but the same also applies to your life outside of the office when you are with your family, friends, and community.
“Tomas, I really can’t work with Paul. He has no interest in sharing information with me, doesn’t help me when I ask, and doesn’t seem to be interested in talking to me at all. He is chaotic and impossible to work with.” This is how one colleague of mine approached me complaining about another person on the team.
These two people worked on the same project, and it was critical that they worked together to get things done. The fact, that they were not collaborating as they should be was a big problem. I wasn’t part of the team, it wasn’t my organization, but I was able to provide some coaching to the person, so he had a plan on how to approach the situation.
Let’s start with a quick glimpse into why most of the problems in communication pop up in the first place. Patrick M. Lencioni in his books The Advantage and The Five Dysfunctions of a Team talks about why teams fail and how to form them. Lencioni identified five dysfunctions, and they are all in some way relevant also to individual relationships within the group.
- The absence of trust – no trust among team members is the primary reason that leads to problems, unwillingness to admit mistakes, share information, and communicate at all.
- Fear of conflict – a natural extension of the trust problem. When people don’t trust each other, they seek artificial harmony instead of dealing with issues head-on.
- Lack of commitment – when people are afraid of conflict it leads to a lack of commitment as instead of arguing when they disagree, they grudgingly comply and then shirk their responsibilities.
- Avoidance of accountability – without clear commitment and unified vision people won’t feel accountable. Even if they do, they will not hold the other person accountable to prevent potential conflict.
- Inattention to results – and this brings us to the last dysfunction as defined by Lencioni. Lack of accountability is a breeding ground for people focusing on their personal success, status, ego, but definitely not on the collaboration with others.
As you can see it all starts with trust. Unfortunately, trust is a tough thing to build especially if it was broken in the past. The following steps outline a possible approach to situations with a lack of trust between two people. It assumes that at least one of the people genuinely want to change the relationship from dysfunctional to more productive. It also assumes that deep in our hearts we all want to work well with others.
- Start with You
The first step is to understand your feelings and internal narrative. Refrain from seeing yourself as a victim and the other person as a villain. Stories are powerful tools of influence, and those stories we tell to ourselves are double-edged swords. You are not a victim, and the person opposite of you is not a villain. You are two adults who mean well and who care not only about themselves but also about the mutual relationship.
Understand why you feel the way you do, but don’t blame anyone else for your own feelings. Only you are responsible for your own feelings. Something happened, the other person has acted a certain way, but only you have decided, subconsciously, to feel a certain way.
- Find neutral Ground
The worst thing you can do is to try to enhance your chances of winning an impending argument by projecting power. Don’t try to use the environment to improve your chances of winning an argument. Instead, try to find a setting that will help both of you to open up and to see the other person as equal. Don’t invite the person to your office, don’t stand up while they are sitting, don’t use a body language that indicates you are more powerful. Go for a we-are-equal pose and environment.
- Understand the Higher truth
Of course, you believe you are right. And of course, the other person believes that they are right. There is no absolute truth. Each of us sees the world through different lenses, and each of us can be right in our own world. Only because I believe that bread is more important food than rice and you believe the opposite that doesn’t make me a bad person. I live in my own world, and you live in yours. Our worlds may be similar in some ways and different in others. And that is fine. If everyone saw everything the same way, the universe would be a very dull place.
- Go with Trust
Trust needs to be earned. Or not. No rule says that you can’t extend your trust to the other person. At least in some ways. You may not trust in everything people are saying, but it is helpful to learn to trust that others have good intention. Because most people do.
Very few people are trying on purpose to hurt others. Most of the pain we cause to others is unintentional. Unless we are psychopaths. Being willing to trust people that they have good intentions and their primary goal is to resolve the conflict rather than hurt you is a great attitude that helps with fixing any communication or collaboration problems.
- Point out Priorities
Don’t try to out-shout the other person and win at any costs. Understand that having a good relationship with the other person is more important long-term than winning this particular fight. You may win the fight but lose the war. You may show them that you are right, but they will never talk to you again.
Trying to win every small argument and be right in every conversation is a guaranteed way to destroy relationships and your ability to work with other people towards a common goal.
Don’t be afraid to say this out loud to the other person. In the heat of the battle, or argument, people tend to forget what is essential. Grounding the conversation and showing that the relationship with the other person is important to you will calm things down significantly.
- Be clear on what you Don’t want
The follow up of the previous point is to put in words what do you feel the other person may feel. By making it clear that you are listening and understanding what the other person is afraid of you can make it go away. Saying something like, “I feel you may be worried that I’m trying to blame you for the failure of this project. That is the last thing on my mind. In no way I want you to take the blame, and I apologize if I made that impression. My goal is to find a way how to prevent similar failure from happening in the future.”
- Show Vulnerability
When you are clear on what you don’t want for the other person, you may also follow up with how you personally feel. Don’t blame the other person, don’t say that they made you feel this way. Remember the first point, only you are responsible for your own feelings.
By letting the other person know that you feel hurt, or confused, or disappointed, or scared, without blaming them humanizes you and may help them to get on a similar path. You showed a bit of vulnerability, and they may be willing to do the same.
It is a great way to connect on an emotional level and start building some trust. But you need to go first. Don’t try to push the other person to do something you are not able to do yourself.
- Get to Know each other
When you start building trust feel free to talk about your agenda and disclose as much as you can without hurting your credibility. You don’t want to look like a loser who doesn’t have a clue about life, but you also want to make it clear what is important to you and why.
You shared what you don’t want, now you share what you want. And then ask the other person what is important to them. And listen. Really listen. Let them talk and when they stop do your best to summarize what you heard. Verify that it is really what they meant.
- Don’t get Too emotional
Showing a bit of emotion is good but don’t let them take over the conversation. You can talk about your feelings without shouting with rage. When you see that you can’t keep your own emotions in check then stop talking before it is too late. We can say many things when we get emotional, things we regret later on.
If you feel like you may lose control, it is better to stop and take a deep breath to calm down. But don’t leave and don’t blame the other person. Let the silence take over for a bit so both of you can collect your thoughts and get emotions under control.
- Don’t leave Too early
Some conversations with lots of bad blood between the people can be very painful and emotionally draining. Too often people rather end up the conversation and leave than showing vulnerability and weakness.
It might be a bit exaggeration but don’t leave until both sides cry. Or at least until you feel that everything that needed to be said was said and understood.
Leaving too early doesn’t solve anything. It just postpones the conversation for another time, and in the meantime, things will continue to be bad.
- Agree on a Framework
Once you both feel that everything was said and understood and you agree that the mutual relationship is important you are almost there. Now it is just a question of setting up a framework on how you will work together.
Make a charter with each other that will reflect the needs of both of you as well as the relationship. If you can make it a bit fun even better. Part of the charter should also be a discussion about a way how you can hold each other accountable by friendly reminders. By doing this, you can always point back to the charter as something you both agreed to uphold. It will not look like nagging or blaming the other person when you remind them to do something they decided to do. You just follow the charter.
Putting it all together
As you can expect fixing communication between two people is never easy. However, following these steps gives you a blueprint of how to approach it. Before you open the conversation, it is advisable to prepare. It will make it easier to focus on the other person, listen, and drive the conversation to a successful outcome.
Hopefully, you will use the approach when the disagreements are still small and manageable. The longer you wait to address the communication problem the more difficult and emotionally charged the conversation can get.
What are your tips & tricks on getting on the same page with people you don’t see eye to eye with? How do you solve disagreements in the team when two great employees just can’t find the common ground? How do you prevent a small disagreement to eventually turn into an all-out war and a toxic atmosphere in the team?
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