In Kathryn Schultz’s TEDTalk On Being Wrong, she reminds us of how the coyote chasing the roadrunner. If you’ve ever watched the cartoon you know he doesn’t realize he’s fallen off the cliff until long after it’s too late. In fact, the coyote believes he is on solid ground until he looks down. She uses this as an analogy for when we are wrong…but don’t yet realize it. We still feel like we right. Her talk got me to thinking about how we approach conflict management. Both parties in the conflict believe that their perspective correctly reflects reality. Kathryn goes on to say that because we believe we are right, we make three unfortunate assumptions. We offer three humble suggestions to managing conflict by being aware of the unfortunate assumptions and busting through them.

Three unfortunate assumptions in conflict management according to Kathryn

Assumption 1# With more information, the other party will realize their error and agree

This is the part in the disagreement where both parties lay out their ‘facts’ and evidence supporting their perspective. It is also the part where both sides start off by not listening.

Assumption #2 Given all the facts, the other party must be an idiot not to agree

If there were a ‘last exit’ sign on the freeway of conflict management, this would be it. It is the point in which the conflict becomes personal. No longer are you arguing with facts, you’re now arguing with someone who has a personal intellectual flaw. Realizing this is the last exit before the downward spiral into assumption #3

Assumption #3 If the other party isn’t an idiot, they are clearly Evil

There is nothing like vilifying the other party to end all hope for conflict management – never mind resolution. No longer are you trying to convince the other party – you are now righteously fighting for Good.

If you could have seen me listening to this TEDTalk, you’d have seen me with my fist in the air saying, “AUGH! I do this ALL the time!” I followed up with the thought that I’m terrible at conflict resolution and should not be giving advice. Yet here I am…

Three humble suggestions to be better at conflict management

Suggestion #1: Decide if you really want to resolve the conflict

This one seems obvious. Yet, it was the one thing that smacked me in the face when I found myself in a conflict, armed with all of my conflict resolution tools. Again, humbly I admit that in that case I did not want to fix the problem. And, until I wanted it (or the other party wanted it), we could not work together to manage the conflict. So ask yourself this “Do I really want to work this out?”

If the answer is no…then resolve to live with the consequences of the conflict remaining. This is not the time to judge yourself as ‘bad’ for not wanting to resolve the conflict. Sometimes, bridges need to be burned. And that’s ok.

If you answer the question with yes…you have taken the first step down the path of conflict management. Now here’s the part where you have to be brave. You have to ask the question no one asks. Ask, “Do you really want to work this out?”

Assuming they say yes, move on to suggestion #2.

Suggestion #2: Seek to understand

Ok, I swiped that idea from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. Alas. This concept is basically to focus on asking questions. Keep your facts to yourself to start. Just listen. Try to understand their perspective. Try to find what about their perspective you can agree with – something that you share. Listen some more. Listen openly without thinking about your rebuttals.

Suggestion #3: Focus on the issue, not the person.

Ok, I borrowed that idea from Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High, Second Edition. (Why reinvent the wheel?). But, this suggestion will help you combat Assumption #2. Check in with yourself periodically to check whether you are still discussing the issue or if either of you have gone personal. If you have…stop it. Bring it back to the issue. If they have…remind them that this isn’t about you or them, it’s about the issue. Consider asking for a break to regroup and refresh before continuing.

Bonus Suggestion #4: Realize that they are making the same three assumptions about you.

Don’t take this the wrong way but…the other party thinks you are an idiot and/or evil. I don’t mention this to make you upset. I mention this so that you can understand what might be going on in their own mind and why they may be reacting the way they are to you.

Here is one last quote from Kathryn, “It is possible to step outside of that feeling (of being right) and that if you can do so, it is the single greatest moral, intellectual and creative leap you can make.”

What other tips to manage conflict should we remember? Leave your humble suggestions in the comment section!

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