Last week’s post was meant to remind you why leaning into healthy conflict is so important. Today’s post is meant to remind you of the model itself.

The First Step: Begin the Conversation

In the Leaning into Healthy Conflict model, there are two ways to begin a healthy conflict conversation. The first is when someone is upset and comes to me with their issue. In this situation, I need to do my best to stay calm and move on to the next step in the conflict model.

The second way to begin a healthy conflict conversation is when I decide that I need to bring something out into the open. If a potential issue exists within me about another person, first I try to let it go. (I don’t mean avoid it; I mean really let it go so it doesn’t come to mind over and over.) If I can’t let it go, then I have to bring it into the light. I try to remember that I have blind spots, even though the issue seems very clear to me (Remember the “Count the Fs” exercise?).

My opening statement should be kind and straightforward, with no beating around the bush. It should take less than a minute—if possible, less than 30 seconds. If I can, I share solid data to represent my concern. If that’s not possible, I try to share some observations and examples of the behavior. If I don’t have those, I share some perceptions or feelings that I have about the potential issue. 

The Second Step: Seek to Understand     

Once the potential issue is in the light, I do whatever I can to understand the other person’s perspective about the issue. To seek to understand their perspective, I try to listen a lot! I think of my judging self as being off in a corner waiting to be called back after all the aspects of the other person’s perception is understood. 

I ask questions for clarity, never motivated from a defensive posture. I think of this phase as Q&L (questioning and listening).

After getting some initial understanding of their perspective, I try to dig deeper to find out if there is something more that might be behind their perception. I think of this as being similar to “The Five Whys” used in root cause analysis. However, actually using the word “why” can put people on the defensive, so rather than say, “Why did you assume that?”, I might ask, “What led you to that assumption?”

I try to keep them talking about their perception of the stated issue, while also trying to make sure to keep them on track and not veer off about other issues—a common challenge. I do this until I believe they feel understood. I check that they actually understand by paraphrasing back what I believe they are saying. If they agree without needing to correct or add anything, they will likely feel understood.

If you’re thinking, “I don’t have that kind of time!” I believe you’re fooling yourself. An unresolved issue now will cost you a lot more time later, and the issue may never get resolved.

The Third Step: Seek to be Understood

It’s rare in our culture for someone to listen well when they disagree with another person. So, assuming I did a good job of listening and understanding the other person’s perspective, it’s likely they will think I agree with them. This is why this next step is so important.

I need to be clear about what I believe at this point. I may agree with the other person and even need to apologize for misunderstanding what was really going on, OR I may need to let them know that I see it in a different way and then explain my perspective. 

Because I’m hoping they will come to understand my perspective, I may ask them to share what they hear me saying. If they don’t seem to understand, I’ll try to clarify. It’s important that I’m not trying to make them agree with me, just have them understand how I see it and why I see it that way.

The Fourth Step: Assess if We Agree

It’s not necessary that we agree in order to go forward in the model, but it’s good to have a sense of whether we do or not. If we are on different pages, my communication will need to be a little more careful and intentional. If we do agree, my communication will be easier.

I usually don’t need to ask if the other person agrees; I can tell from our conversation and their body language whether we’re on the same page or not. (However, if you’re unsure, it may be helpful to ask a few questions to clarify this.)

The Fifth Step: Discuss a Plan—Basically asking, “How will we go forward?”

At this point it’s important to be international about what, if anything, should be done differently going forward. Of course the dynamics are different when there is a difference of power. If they work for me, it’s okay to require a change stating that, “I may not be right in this, but I believe this is the right thing to do, and I need you to to make this change.”

If the person is a peer of mine, or if I work for them, obviously this changes the dynamic. I may end the conversation just by saying, “Thank you for allowing me to explore this and to be heard.”

The Sixth and Final Step: Follow Through

Going through the first five steps can cause a lot of anxiety, and by the time you get to this point it could be natural to just let things go. BUT it would be a shame to do all that hard work to discuss a tricky issue (assuming it was a tricky issue) and then NOT follow through on what was decided. If you don’t follow through on the plan, it would likely have been better if you had never brought up the issue in the first place. Why? Because your lack of follow-through unintentionally communicates that you don’t take it that seriously or don’t hold people accountable.

So this is the model for the number one thing we’re hoping to improve in West Michigan leaders. I hope you found this review helpful. And of course, if you have any issues with it, please let me know (yes…. by using the model!).

Be great this week!

Image by Alexandre Dulaunoy. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.