A good way to expand your conflict style awareness is to begin using the two step discussion process. This is a strategy so simple that you might say, “Isn’t it obvious?” No, it’s actually not, including to me in certain moments. Give it some thought and make sure you’re using this little game changer.
In a large institution where I worked for many years, I heard stories about the facilities manager. Kathy was an annoying and inflexible nitpicker, I was told. Everyone had a story – we all had to work with her to arrange space and technical support for our meetings and workshops.
Soon after I arrived, I too had my moment with Kathy. I needed access to meeting rooms at unusual hours. This required a special key – one she tightly controlled. I also needed permission to bring in special equipment.
How to Use the Two Step
In a situation like this, the two step approach is one of the first to consider. It is easy to adapt to a variety of dynamics. Given what I had heard I decided to use its simplest form:
Step One: Take steps to establish or affirm the relationship.
Step Two: Engage in problem-solving or task activity.
That’s not the way I would naturally approach someone. When I have a lot of work to do I am pretty task-focused. It would have been easy for me to dash into Kathy’s office, say a hasty good morning, and plunge straight into my list of requirements.
Even if I managed to do it in a cordial way, that would not be conflict style aware. I probably would have walked out a few minutes later muttering the same things everyone else said about inflexible Kathy.
When I arrived at Kathy’s office I had prepared a different strategy: I opened by mentioning our recent email exchange. I said I was happy to put a face to the name. Then I said that she had a reputation for keeping the facilities well-organized and knowing where to find things.
My colleagues, of course, thought she was a control freak, the kind of person that in an earlier blog post I jokingly referred to as a high power donkey. But walking to her office, I’d been searching for something positive I could say. It occurred to me that there really was a good side to this annoying style of managing things and that I could sincerely complement her for it.
It worked. She smiled and said it drove her crazy keeping track of everything. I commiserated and said we’re all lucky I didn’t have her job because I’d lose everything in a week. She smiled about that too.
Now it was easy to get down to serious business. She listened carefully to my needs, booked the off-hour rooms without hesitation, reviewed the policy on off-hour facilities, and told me when to come and get the key.
The fabled Kathy, my ally! Cost to me? Caring enough to try, a few minutes of forethought, and three minutes of chit-chat. In the years that followed, every request I made of her sailed across her desk. I simply made a point, whenever we talked, to start with chit-chat for the first couple of minutes.
It’s probable that, like Kathy, a significant percentage of the people with whom you live and work are wired with a strong inner sense that relationships come first, then tasks. There are cultures, of course, where it would be rude not to begin nearly every conversation with small talk. But even there, some individuals are wired with a stronger expectation than others to connect before turning to tasks.
Connection to Style Matters and Thomas Kilmann Inventories
Almost everyone who scores high in the Harmonizing style of my Style Matters conflict style inventory (in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory, the Accommodating style) is in this group. Those who score high in Cooperating also have strong needs to connect to the human beings with whom they work. For more details on how task and relationship relate to conflict styles, view my “Intro to Conflict Styles” slideshow.
Don’t Make a Big Deal Out of It
You don’t to make have to make a big deal out of it to attend to the relationship. Just make sure to start with something that clearly acknowledges or affirms the human being in front of you before turning to serious work. Bring a cup of coffee or donut as a gift, inquire about a family member, chit-chat about sports or local gossip, notice a new hairdo, appreciate a picture or souvenir on the wall. A couple of minutes is all it takes, at the beginning of every work session and occasionally perhaps, during them.
When to Lead with Task and Not Relationship
People who are highly task focused, including most of those who score high in the Directing (Forcing in the Thomas Kilmann) style of my inventory, mostly prefer the opposite sequence. For them, the work at hand is ever beckoning and takes priority. They value a process that keeps social pleasantries perfunctory and moves promptly to tasks. But after the work of the moment is done or well underway, even many task oriented people appreciate relaxing for a few minutes for personal exchanges that deepen relationships.
Conflict Style Awareness Opens Space for Creative Responses
Like other conflict style strategies, the two step still requires you to figure out solutions. But it opens space for people to be more flexible than they would be without it. If you work with relationship-focused conflict style Harmonizers in ways that first take care of their concern for relationships, they often turn out to be highly effective and committed problem-solvers. Task-focused conflict style Directors, for their part, often show themselves to care deeply about relationships, after they see there exists an intention and plan for getting tasks done.
The two-step belongs in everyone’s personal toolkit. The story above highlights its value for individuals, but it is essential also in group decision making or conflict resolution. Things go better when discussion process honor the diversities of preferences present in every gathering regarding the mix and sequence of task and relationship. Facilitators can and must plan to address both.
In a later post I will review other versions of the two-step, in particular a two-step approach that has nearly magical impact on people who favor Avoiding as a response to conflict.