An easy way to expand your conflict resolution ability is to begin using the two step discussion process. This is so simple that you might say, “Isn’t it obvious?” Well, no. It certainly wasn’t to me for many years. So here’s a personal story that shows its power.
In a large institution where I worked, people rolled their eyes about the facilities manager. Kathy had been there for ages and people said she was an inflexible nitpicker. Everyone had a story – we all had to go through 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 – which she tightly controlled. I also needed her permission to bring in special equipment.
Overview of the two-step.
The two step approach looks like this:
Step One: Take steps to establish or affirm the relationship.
Step Two: Engage in problem-solving or task activity.
If you’re new to the concept of Task versus Relationship or rusty on it, see the diagrams below or view my 5 minute video, Intro to Conflict Styles. In every encounter with others, we have to make choices about two things. One is: How much to focus on our agenda or goals?
A second choice is: How much to focus on pleasing others?
When I am busy and stressed, I’m 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 requirements. For people with conflict style preferences like me, that’s great. But for maybe a third of human beings, to plunge straight into a task without connecting at the level of the relationship is a big mistake.
These people are slow to cooperate until you establish a relational connection with them. In a conflict style assessment, they show up as high scorers in the Harmonizing conflict style (also known as Accommodating style). I suspected Kathy belonged in this group, and that if I ignored her needs I would almost certainly walk away muttering the same things everyone else said about her inflexibility.
The two-step in action.
When I arrived at Kathy’s office I had prepared a different strategy. I knew my tendencies and from the stories I had some clues about Kathy’s. I devised a simple two-step strategy to prevent a repeat of history.
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 that was also honest. It occurred to me that there really was a good side to her firm-handed style of managing things that I could sincerely complement her.
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 business. She listened carefully to my needs, booked the rooms for off-hours without hesitation, gave me the policy description 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 sailed across her desk. I simply made sure, whenever we talked, to start with chit-chat for a 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, and only 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 conflict styles.
If you scored high in the Harmonizing style of my Style Matters conflict style inventory (or in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory, the Accommodating style) you almost certainly favor relationships over task. If you scored high in the Cooperating style you also have a strong instinct to connect to the human beings with whom you work. For more details on how task and relationship shape conflict styles, view my 5 minute video, Intro to Conflict Styles.
It’s the small stuff that counts.
You don’t to make have to make a big deal out of it to attend to a relationship. Just start with something that clearly acknowledges or affirms the human being in front of you first, 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.
But be careful! This two-step isn’t for everyone. People who are highly task focused, especially those who score high in the Directing style of Style Matters (Forcing in the Thomas Kilmann) , generally prefer the opposite sequence. For them, the work at hand is ever beckoning and takes priority. They prefer to keep social pleasantries perfunctory and move promptly to tasks.
Not just for individuals but also for groups.
My story highlights dynamics with an individual, but conflict style knowledge is equally valuable with groups. Things go better when discussion process honor the diverse preferences that are present in every gathering regarding the balance of task and relationship. Facilitators can and must plan for this.
Usually you’re working with both kinds of people in the same room. If you’re in charge, you can walk the tightrope by starting with something like, “We’ll jump into our work in a minute. But first, let’s make sure we’ve got everything we need. Bathroom’s down the hall. Coffee will be here in a minute. Is the temperature OK?” Your first phrase signals the task-oriented folks that you share their commitment to serious work; the rest reassures the relational folks that you care about their well-being.
After the work of the moment is done or well underway, of course, even many task oriented people appreciate relaxing for a few minutes for personal exchanges that deepen relationships.
The two-step brings out the best in others.
If you are skilled with the two-step, you bring grace to those you work with. These strategies make it possible for people to function with more flexibility than they otherwise would.
For example, if you work with relationship-focused Harmonizers in ways that address their concern for relationships, they often turn out to be highly effective and committed task partners. Task-focused Directors, for their part, often show themselves to care deeply about relationships, after they see evidence of an intention and plan for getting tasks done.