Handy Additions to Your Conflict Resolution Toolbox


Debra L. Bruce, JD, PCC.

“I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail,” observed the famous psychologist , Abraham Maslow. When it comes to conflict resolution, the only tool that most lawyers get from law school is a hammer.

Hammering your opponent might work in a trial, but it doesn’t create optimal outcomes in a casual disagreement. It doesn’t work very well when your “opponent” is your boss or someone you care about. It doesn’t foster healthy and productive on-going relationships at the office. Hammering the other side and trying to “win” tends to spawn resistance, rigidity, passive-aggressive behavior, escalation or chronic difficulties. Defeating your opponent rarely results in genuine resolution of the issue.

Lacking other tools, ironically, some lawyers avoid confrontation on their own behalf. I know a very effective trial attorney who wouldn’t return a shirt that was the wrong size. Conflict avoiders allow the biggest rainmaker or the loudest bully in the office to control decision-making, without benefit of their valuable input. Meanwhile the law firm experiences low morale, costly turnover, missed opportunities and wasteful mistakes.

To help you become more effective at resolving your own conflicts, as well as at helping clients resolve theirs, here’s a brief primer on a few techniques to add to your tool box.

1. Listen to understand.

Lawyers tend to fear that they will appear weak or lose control of the situation when they aren’t talking. In reality, we learn a lot more when we shut up. Unfortunately, as trained debaters, when we do listen, we tend to listen for the flaws or weaknesses in someone’s assertion. Instead of truly listening to their concern, we’re usually thinking about our next counterpoint. Often we don’t even try to understand why they want what they want or believe what they believe. When we listen only to “win,” we tend to get stuck in “either-or” thinking, and fail to notice the myriad other viable options for resolution.

In addition to increasing the likelihood of uncovering a mutually acceptable solution, listening to understand has other benefits. People are more willing– and even more mentally capable—to listen to you once they feel heard. When you seek to genuinely understand their position, their fears diminish and they become more flexible. It becomes easier to find common ground.

2. Blend and lead.

When we directly confront someone or push to get our way, their natural response is to resist. Begin instead by finding a way to make them right. Look for common ground. Build on their point, rather than disputing it. Help them see how your idea will get them something they want. Join with them before trying to turn them in a new direction. It is much easier to introduce someone to your perspective, while standing in theirs. When I explained this to a coaching client who was associate general counsel of a publicly held company, he said, “Oh! That’s why (‘Joe’) is so effective in difficult meetings. When someone challenges him with an attacking question, instead of getting defensive, he says, ‘You’re right to ask that question. It is a complex issue,’ then he responds and explains his perspective.”

You may have to keep stepping up to a higher plateau to find mutual ground. When a partner keeps dumping files on your desk with little guidance about the current status or optimal course of action,” he probably doesn’t care about your challenges. He just wants to get projects off his desk. Begin the conversation by demonstrating your alignment with his values or concerns. You might say something like, “I have some ideas about how we can produce a better quality product for our clients and reduce the number of interruptions you get. It will also increase efficiency, allowing us to charge a premium on these matters.”

3. Contrast your good intentions with their negative assumptions.

If you can predict how you might possibly be misunderstood or what they are really afraid of, assuage their fears first. It’s harder for them to hear your point when their warning bells are clanging. Many disagreements arise because someone assumes you have self-serving motives or want a different outcome from what they want. So begin your statement with contrasting what you don’t mean with what you do mean. Here are some examples of how such contrasting might sound:

“I don’t want to tell you how to do your job. I just want to get the information I need in order to do mine. Would you be willing to give me that data before the draft gets circulated?”

“I’m not saying you are unreasonable. I want to understand why you want that, so that I can see if there is a way to get both our needs met.”

Not everyone will dismiss their wariness about you the first time you refute an assumption, especially during a difficult conversation. You may find it necessary to gently use contrasting again and again, whenever you sense resistance.

4. Remove “but” from your vocabulary.

This little tool has a big impact. Whenever we say “but,” it has the effect of negating or trivializing whatever we said immediately before that. Either substitute “and” or eliminate the conjunction altogether. By way of illustration, imagine hearing the following sentence:

“You have a valid point, but the time frame is too short.”

Do you notice a little resistance coming up for you? Does your reasoning really feel validated? Imagine hearing this instead:

“You have a valid point. And the time frame is too short.”

Do you feel a little more cooperative and willing to consider a different time frame?

When you hear, “This is a good first draft, but…” you begin doubting the sincerity of the first statement and tensing before you even hear the rest of the sentence. Wouldn’t you rather hear, “This is a good first draft. It needs a little polishing.”

“Conflict is inevitable; combat is optional,” says Justin Patten, an employment law mediator in the U.K. De-escalate the conflicts in your life. Before swinging your hammer, try out a few of these tools.

Adapted from and reprinted with permission from the author’s article in the June 10, 2010 issue of The Legal Intelligencer. © 2010 Incisive Media US Properties, LLC. Further duplication without permission is prohibited. All rights reserved.

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