Addressing Conflict? Stop Writing and Ask Questions.

My job as a coach is to help my clients get from where they are to where they want to be. In doing so, I often help them see where the impediments lie, and then help them work through the process of overcoming them. And although often times, those impediments are self induced, there are also numerous occasions where barriers are brought about by other people. It seems that whether I’m working with a marketing director, sales person, or business owner, the challenge of “others obstruction” comes up pretty regularly. Unfortunately for my clients, I can’t coach the other person on what my client wants them to do. So, I help my clients by sharing what I’ve learned when it comes to dealing with conflict.

I’d love to say that there’s a “one size fits all” when it comes to resolving conflicts. There isn’t (I realize I’m stating the obvious when I say that). Each conflict has a unique set of issues, variables, contexts, etc. However, there are two significant actions that any of us can take that will go a long way toward resolving the conflicts and disagreements in which we find ourselves.

#1 – Put down the keyboard, pick up the phone, and call. 

I’m a big fan of the written word (or “typed word”, as it were). Email, texting, posting, etc. has made communication much more efficient. But this isn’t always the case when it comes to dealing with conflict. Electronic communication has become an all too easy-to-use crutch when engaging in a dispute or squabble. We’ve been fooled into thinking that it’s “easier” to just pound away on the keyboard, get our thoughts just the way we want them, hit “send”, and then wait for the response, or just forget about it all together.

The problem with this approach is that it limits other communication factors that are necessary to resolve conflict. Have you ever heard of the 7% rule? In the 1960s Professor Albert Mehrabian and colleagues at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), conducted studies into human communication patterns. Professor Mehrabian’s research concluded that communication is 7 percent verbal (or word) and 93 percent non-verbal. The non-verbal component was made up of body language (55 percent) and tone of voice (38 percent). Email and texting limits our ability to project emotion, emphasis, expression, etc.

But beyond that, we need to stop hiding behind our keyboards when addressing conflict.  Yes, I said “hiding”. We’ve been sold the idea that we’re addressing what needs to be addressed when we type it out and hit “send”. The reality is that most of us are doing it because we’re afraid of conflict. Electronic media gives us a way to avoid it, and at the same time, make us think that we’re addressing it rightly. There is a Jewish proverb that says, “An open rebuke is better than hidden love!” If you want to move faster to resolution, put down the keyboard, and pick up the phone.

#2 – Help me understand…

It’s usually at this point, my client will say, “But if I call, I won’t know what to say. How do I start the conversation?” Great question. And here’s the answer:  you do know what to say. You just spent an hour “crafting” your email. The issue is not what to say, but how to say it. Most of us avoid verbal conflict because we feel it will affect the other person negatively, and we’re afraid of how that will make us look. But conflict can be addressed in a constructive way. And the best way I have found begins with a question: “Can you help me understand…?” Starting this way keeps one from being accusatory, and positions you as open minded, and willing to learn first. Here’s an example…

“John, it seems that the reps are not following the new process like we agreed they would. Can you help me understand what may have changed since we defined the new process? I’m trying to get my head around it, to see if there are still any issues that need to be addressed.”

I’ve used this approach many, many times. Does it keep the issue from being a conflict? Not always. However, it does set the conflict off on the right foot, especially when delivered voice-to-voice.

We’re human, so we’ll always have conflict. But, we can choose to address the conflict well. Another Jewish proverb says, “Kind words are like honey–sweet to the soul and healthy for the body.” Not a bad guideline for times of conflict.