Over the last few years I have radically improved my approach to resolving conflict. The change in my success at resolving conflict in work situations has been astounding to me. I’ve changed an angry “you will never do that” to a supportive “of course you can” within 5 minutes. I’ve moved “that’s not a good idea” to “actually that is the best way forward” in 30 minutes. One of the achievements of which I am most proud, was enabling someone to say “It was a real buzz to work on the project with you” from “I’m just worried about being humiliated again”. That last one saved the client £200,000. Healthy Resolution of conflict can be very profitable and personally rewarding.
My new approach is not based on “winning” at the cost of the other side. My new approach is about removing unnecessary distress and increasing human potential. People absolutely love you for it. I’m going to share one technique to stop doing, that is stopping you successfully resolving conflict.
When I was 29 years old, I decided I would convince my eldest brother of the error of his ways. I knew something had to change. I knew that I was right and he was wrong. For his own sake, he had to give up smoking. I loved him and didn’t want him to die from lung cancer (this is still true!) So, I set out to convince him of the error of his ways, through reasoned arguments. However, annoyingly, he would not listen to sense. I could not work out why he would not accept my logical way forward. I tried every avenue. I told him, at length, how he would die from cancer if he didn’t quit. He was lectured on what death from lung cancer was like. He had to listen to how much money he was wasting. Every argument I could think of, I attacked him with. I really told him! Never once did I consider, perhaps my wonderful, intelligent brother may have had these thoughts himself.
At one point, I pridefully told him that “I would never get addicted to cigarettes. Even if I had a few, I hate the tobacco industry so much that I wouldn’t give them my money”. I’m sure he could sense his little brother’s arrogance. He smiled and said “yes that’s what I thought”. This mildly delivered line really cut through my delusional sense of superiority. I was not being curious to understand what drove my brother to smoke: his thoughts and feelings were irrelevant. I already knew the “correct” answer. He MUST stop now.
I had made a classic negotiation error. I was not working with my brother to solve a joint problem. I was attempting to “fix” my brother by force. My chosen ineffective approach was the “just one more fact” technique. It does not work, but I see it used a lot. I still sometimes find myself falling into the trap. When I spot my mistake, I take a deep breath and rather than giving someone a piece OF my mind, I give them a space IN my mind. I get curious about what is driving them!
When we are trying to achieve a goal that involves others, and we start facing resistance, we often assume it is because of something THEY don’t know, rather than something that WE don’t know. We start to think that “they just don’t get it” or “they are being so irrational”. We have “the truth” and need to force them back to rationality by giving it to them. To educate them, we keep throwing fact after fact at them. Resistance is a clue that there is something that we don’t know rather than an signal to double down with our truth.
I have a rule: never trust anyone that knows they HAVE the truth, especially if that person is you. Truth is found between people in dialogue. In this instance truth is that insight that both of you agree on, that helps you both move forward. One of the great joys of life is finding that truth together. So if you want to change someone’s mind, don’t tell them WHAT to think but instead give them SPACE to think. Don’t work ON them, work WITH them. Most of all, be open to changing your mind.
If you have a vision of what you want to achieve then you naturally want to to pass that on to someone else. Take note of your desire and just put it on a shelf temporarily. First take the time to listen to see if you can find a shared vision that you both want to achieve. This will need to be in language that is persuasive for them, rather than you (or at least not just you, but if you use their language it forces you to consider them). Listen even more deeply to fears they have about the change. We are far more motivated by fear than by desire: we feel loss more than a gain. Here is a fun fact: if people sense that you are trying to dominate them then their reaction will be to resist you. Irrelevant of the “rational” argument, they will naturally try protect they sense of independent self. If you have enough power you can dominate them, but don’t. Not only are you creating misery, but you are creating long term resentment and bitterness. Sure you might force them today, but how will they behave when you are not around?
In truth, my wonderful brother was very patient with his little yapping brother. He had neither sought my opinion, nor my help. He knew very well what smoking was doing to him, and like Mark Twain allegedly said “Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world. I know because I’ve done it thousands of times.” (I know it was Mark Twain who said it, because the internet told me so with no source to check it myself! I love having ‘the truth’.)
I was on the receiving end of “just one more fact” recently and it drove home to me, how ineffective it is. This is going to be sad, so strap in. In December 2021, I was faced with an impossible situation. My wonderful, beautiful but terminally ill son was going to be taken off life support and taken to a hospice. This was to provide James with the best possible end of life that he could have, surrounding by family rather than doctors. The day of the move came and the paramedic came with the stretcher to move James from the hospital bed to the ambulance that would transport him to the hospice.
This was best for James but obviously I was crushed. Moving James onto that stretcher signified the beginning of the end of my almost 13 years with this extremely disabled little boy, who filled my life with joy and meaning. I reacted on impulse. I decided that the final act of moving him from the bed to the stretcher would be a familial act, rather than a clinical one. I would move him, rather than the staff. I knew they would not like it, but in this moment I did not care. I said quietly, but loudly enough for everyone to hear, “just so you know, I will be moving my son onto the stretcher.” I was ignored as the medical staff got ready for the move. They pulled the stretcher up along side his bed.
I went over and hugged my son. I hugged him for all the times we would not have together. I hugged him for the guilt of my part in the decision, despite it being best for him. I hugged him to bind myself to that little bundle of joy that would be soon be leaving me. In a mild voice that belied my resolve, I repeated “just so you know, I will be moving my son.” I know that when something is important to me, I don’t need to scream and shout to get what I want. I can be mild and immovable. Usually I am able to not worry exactly how something is done, but focus on finding a way forward that works for me now, future me and those around me. However, in this moment, performing this last act as a father for my little boy was the most important thing in the world. I would be moving my son on my own or I would be dragged out.
The lead paramedic looked up at me, really for the first time and my wife tells me that she had panic in her eyes. I was blocking her way forward. She was not my enemy. She was a caring and wonderful person, just trying to do her job. Just by being there, she was enabling me to choose a more dignified death for James surrounded by family. I was grateful to her, and still am. However, she knew with certainty what the way forward had to be and she simply could not imagine another way forward. She needed to be in charge, following the protocol that she had followed hundreds of times. This was, she knew safe and effective, so best for James. For me, I had not done this hundreds of times. This was my little boy. I would do this once. I knew with certainty what the way forward would be, I would pick James us by myself and move him.
She was not curious to understand what was driving my behaviour, she just needed to get a job done. I knew what was driving her behaviour, I just didn’t care. To convince me she talked rather than listened. She fell back on onto the “just one more fact” trap. She said “we need to move him.” I repeated that I would be moving him. She tried from another angle, “you can help us if you like.” I softly repeated “I will move him.” She said “he might be in pain.” I replied “Yes.” I had considered that but I knew my son and his needs, far better than this lady who had never met him. If anyone was going to get hurt it would be my back. That was an acceptable price for me. She was getting frustrated now. She tried again “there are wires everywhere”. She was really scraping the fact barrel now. I was there. I could see the wires. I replied “I know.”
There was a shared vision available: we both wanted the safe transfer of James. We both had our positions and saw no merit in the others. We were at a stale mate. Neither of us would budge. Thankfully, a sensitive, beautiful woman saw a way forward. My wonderful wife said to me “shall we do it together?” I had not considered this option, but as his mother this fit with my need for the move to be familial. Everyone agreed and shared a collective sigh of relief: we had found our shared vision. I held his arms and my wife held his legs and we safely moved him onto the stretcher. I then hugged and kissed him.
James lived to be able to spend one more beautiful Christmas with us and then peacefully died in a place where he and his family could be supported and loved.
How often do you have the frustration of the wonderful paramedic, my prideful younger self or my resolved older self? You know the best way forward but THEY won’t listen! When I am working with anyone to achieve a goal, I am very conscious of trying to FIND the best way forward rather than IMPOSE it. When I do fall into this trap, I am almost always wrong to do so and afterwards I review what I could have done better. I will apologise where I can. However, finding a shared way forward does not mean you have to give up on what really matters to you. The opposite is true. You get to find a better way, that will actually work in the real world. You get to change potential into reality.
Being curious is the first step to creating a shared vision of the future which all parties want to achieve and creating the optimum conditions for success. Get in touch if you want to know more, but even If you only take the first step, you will have much more success. You will reduce resistance and resolve more conflict in a healthy way.
I’m still mad though. My brother quit smoking cigarettes with no help or insight from me. You can’t win them all.
Good luck, and if I can help feel free to get in touch!