Last week I delivered a session on conflict management for managers. It’s a topic which I’ve not touched in a while, and it cause some interesting reflection for me. First, I came across this TED talk by William Ury. Take the time to watch it, it’s good stuff.
What I like in particular is this concept of finding a third side of the argument for common agreement, and from there finding a way to move forward. As Ury says, it’s quite simple, yet very potent. What is this third side? He describes it as being the people affected by the conflict, but not the ones on either side of it. And often, that third place is more important than either party’s argument. By focusing on this third side, we allow ourselves to discuss the issue in an impartial way, and possibly finding a solution which is the right path to take, as opposed to doing the right thing for one party over another.
Almost serendipitously on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday morning, they had a piece where they were interviewing Roman Krznaric about conflict and the importance of empathy.
I look at both of those ‘solutions’ and I think – This is what L&D/HR pros are trained to do, surely.
When I think about that ‘third side’ typically, I’m meant to think of the organisation I work for as being the natural third side. But that tugs at something inside me that says ‘That’s not always the case’, and ‘maybe the third side is something better’. We can easily get lost in the rhetoric that the organisation is fundamentally a good organisation, and it does everything right by its staff. If this were true, every organisation would have an equal chance of winning the likes of ‘Great Places to Work’. We know this is not true.
Sometimes an organisation makes a God awful decision. Sometimes, a representative group makes a bad decision. Neither of them gone into that conflict with the idea in mind that their organisation is the glue that binds them together. They go into it with the idea in mind that they’re being hard done by – and it’s an organisations fault.
As someone who might have to mediate between different party’s, it adds an extra dimension. I am a corporate function. I can’t talk against the organisation, because I’m meant to live for the organisation. I’m helping to make things happen within the organisation that are meant to be about helping people to be their best at work. If I’m then faced with a situation where one party over another is unhappy because of a fundamental failing of the organisation, how can that be then seen as ‘the third side’.
So it bears then that we must look elsewhere for the ‘third side’. I’m not claiming to have that answer, as with any mediation situation it’s all about the context. As Ury describes, the third side must have meaning to both party’s and that’s where you can find a positive point of collaboration to work from.
And this is where I think it’s important to have empathy. At Learning Live, Neil Denny said ‘We are never more wrong than when we are most right’, which is such a prescient point. It comes down to ego. We can’t help it. We have to prove our point, and sometimes forcefully so. It’s almost primal. If I can’t stand up for what I believe in I will be weak, and if I’m weak I’ll get killed.
Thank God we have the capacity for empathy.
And when you’re in conflict – any conflict – the hardest thing to do is truly listen and understand the other person’s point of view. I know I find it hard. I need to overcome my own reactions and feelings and depending on what I’m faced with, this can either take minutes or it can take days. If I’m particularly taxed it could take more. How can I listen when I’ve already decided I’m right?
Empathising when you’re not directly affected is easy. You sit, you listen, you ask questions and you help the other person feel heard.
Empathising when you’re already convinced you’re right is just hard. You only want to hear things you can defend or attack. Your listening is confined to hearing the things that affirm what you believe. You only want to help the other person by laying down demands.
Ego. It’s a bitch.
Yet, when you can help two party’s empathise, is when things become better. The appreciation grows, the hurt lessens, and the desire for resolution increases. You start to hope again, and become optimistic. It’s an idyllic result, and it’s hard to reach. It’s why conflict is so often avoided by many people, because they don’t want to face up to their own egos, and thereby taking the time to empathise.