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Advanced conflict management for leaders

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In my consulting and coaching practice, I often have to manage tricky meeting dynamics and coach my clients to do the same. As I admitted in a previous post, many of my secrets are on in the simple and powerful principles of “The PRIMES” by Chris McGoff. I’m writing this “meeting whisperer” series of posts to help you learn to use these powerful principles to manage meetings effectively and become a stronger leader, whether it’s your meeting going haywire or someone else’s.

Full disclosure: I helped McGoff edit “The PRIMES.” I’m a fan for a reason. This stuff really works!

Often when conflict arises in a meeting, you can manage it by seeing how the two sides are unable to appreciate each other’s perspective. As you verbalize the two perspectives so others can see them more clearly, the conflict often clears up. But sometimes, just pointing out perspectives isn’t enough to actually resolve the conflict — it’s only step one. When this is the case, you need to deploy deeper conflict-resolution skills.

I gave an example of meeting conflict in a previous post and how the Big Hat-Little Hat PRIME was in play. In a meeting I attended with my client, the accounting folks were championing a “big hat” perspective — working to protect the company’s broader interests in maintaining a uniform accounts receivable policy. This contrasted to the product team’s “little hat” perspective — where they were championing the narrower interests of a few beta customers who didn’t want to pay for a service that wasn’t working yet.

Naming these perspectives didn’t clear up the conflict, though it did diffuse it a bit. To bring the meeting to a satisfactory conclusion my client had to deploy a deeper principle.

The power of acknowledgement

When naming the perspectives in a meeting works and moves the meeting to more productive direction, it’s because naming the two sides actually invoked a deeper principle that McGoff calls Right vs. Right. This deeper principle recognizes that in most arguments, the energy driving the conflict is the simple need for each side to feel that the most important thing they are trying to protect is heard, acknowledged and appreciated.

As soon as the combatants feel their deepest point has been truly acknowledged, a lot of the angry wind falls out of their sails, and even if it doesn’t all dissipate, everyone else in the room gets a clearer view of the true challenges that must be managed. Right vs. Right conflict cannot be “won,” it can only be managed. Once everyone realizes this, things move forward more smoothly.

This principle honors the fact that everyone in an argument is working to protect something “right and good.” Even if they are doing a bad job of identifying what that is, when the “right and good” thing they want to protect is surfaced, everyone can appreciate it more clearly. When the group can acknowledge the “right” thing each side is advocating, then leader can guide the group into a productive problem-solving dialog that seeks to manage this collision of “right and good” interests.

In the example above, the accounting department’s “right” thing was the fact that uniform accounting standards allow for efficiencies in processing the financial lifeblood of the company and build in principles of fairness in how the company deals with customers. These are right and good objectives.

Despite the way the accounting team heard the argument, the product team wasn’t arguing for an exception because they wanted to create inefficiencies. Their “right” thing was an interest in maintaining a strong relationship with an important customer base using a beta product. They recognized that when the product isn’t working, insisting on payment is likely to damage the customer trust that the company is working so hard to establish during the (often painful-by-necessity) beta process.

To move the group towards productive resolution, my client had to actually name both the “right and good” aspects of this discussion — accounting efficiency and fairness vs. customer trust-building and relationship — and specifically point out that neither of these perspectives was wrong. Both perspectives were important to the company’s success. She then tasked the people in the meeting with managing the two right perspectives in the discussion instead of trying to make someone on the other side wrong. The meeting concluded with an agreement to develop an accounting exception policy that would honor beta customers’ unique experience and allow for payment when the product was functioning to meet their needs.

Managing baggage

Broken down like this example, the two “rights” can seem rather obvious, but many of us are not very skilled at unbundling the “right thing” we are championing from the baggage we carry, including relationship dysfunctions we might have had with the individuals or teams on the other side of our arguments. Sometimes we go into a meeting about accounts receivable policies without having put aside resentment about how the revenue-recognition debate ended last quarter. Before you know it, the two “right” issues at the core of the present argument are confused in our minds — and everyone else’s — and the argument is completely out of control.

Using tools like Big Hat-Little Hat and Right vs. Right are powerful ways to manage these kind of meeting dynamics, move past baggage and initiate productive discussions. In some cases, one of the “rights” at issue has to do with baggage, and Right vs. Right will help you unveil the old baggage without making anyone “wrong,” thereby avoiding teeing off the old argument again.

You don’t have to be leading the meeting for these techniques to be effective — anyone can do this. I had a senior executive client come to me last week aglow because in a joint venture meeting she’d attended (but not chaired) she’d used the Right vs. Right principle to bridge a conflict between partners, turning a 3-year-old argument into a productive discussion in less than 30 minutes.

I’ll cover more meeting-whisperer topics and ways “The PRIMES” can help you manage them in the months to come, but don’t wait for me. Go buy the book and get a leg up!