As you become aware of diverse conflict styles, you can easily use the two step discussion process, a conflict resolution strategy that can be surprisingly effective.
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 arrangements for 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.
When I have to deal with someone difficult I think about the two step approach. There are several forms. Given what I had heard I decided to use this sequence.
Step One: Take steps to establish or affirm the relationship.
Step Two: Engage in problem-solving or task activity.
That might look obvious to you. But it’s not the way I would naturally approach someone. When I have a lot of work to do I am quite task-focused. I probably would have strode into her office, said a quick good morning, and plunged straight into the situation I needed to resolve.That would have been polite, but not 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 facility well-organized and knowing where to find things.
My colleagues, of course, thought she was a control freak. But walking to her office I’d been searching for something positive I could say. It had occurred to me that there really was a good side to this annoying style of managing things and that I could honestly complement her for this.
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 I talked with her, to start with chit-chat for the first couple of minutes.
It’s probable that, like Kathy, a significant percentage of the people you live and work with 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.
Almost everyone who scores high in the Harmonizing style of my Style Matters conflict style inventory (in the Thomas Kilmann Conflict Mode Inventory, it’s called 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.
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 a human connection 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, 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, in small bits, during one.
People who are highly task focused, including most of those who score high in the Directing style of my inventory, prefer the opposite sequence. For them, the work at hand is ever beckoning. They usually prefer 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.
The two-step opens space for people to be more flexible than they would be without it. If you work with relationship-focused Harmonizers in ways that first take care of their concern for relationships, they often turn out to be highly effective and committed problem-solvers. As for task-focused conflict style Directors, they often demonstrate themselves to care deeply about relationships, after they can see there exists an intention and plan for getting tasks done.
The two-step belongs in almost everyone’s personal toolkit. The story above shows 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 of task and relationship. Facilitators can and must plan to address both.
In a later blog I will review other versions of the two-step, in particular a two-step approach that works magic with many people who prefer an Avoiding response to conflict.