This was conflict resolution blasphemy. As my client shared her story – for the fourth time – about how a colleague had mistreated her, I realized it wouldn’t be helpful to continue to actively listen. Blasphemous because the sustained attention and feedback I usually employ pays high dividends. But in the late stages of this complex case I noticed my impatience as she again recited other people’s wrongs and touted her innocence. My focus, it seemed, threatened to reinforce her victim-perpetrator version of a two-sided dispute.
It was time for a dramatic shift to reawaken my attention and, more importantly, break an impasse. What I was about to ask was risky and precious. “Risky” because I’d have to take a withdrawal from the trust I’d built with her. “Precious” because what I asked for was among the few things that might be accepted by her nemesis.
This rare gem was her reflective answer to the question: “What bold, unexpected offer can you make to resolve this?”. I was asking her to actively, consciously overturn the well-worn dynamics of this years-long conflict. Let’s unbundle the question to give you another tool to guide employees to resolution.
Bold: It was too late for weakling comments like, “I'm sorry you felt upset when I called you lazy.” This was a situation to place real value at the feet of her coworker; the newly cliche “go big or go home” fits here. It was time for, “I’ve reflected on your reaction to my behavior and how it affected you. It’s inexcusable I called you lazy because you’re not. I’m sorry and I promise not to insult you again.”
Unexpected: Conflict is often a ping pong game in which the ball is tethered to a zip line. Person A says “X”, Person B responds “Y”. Back and forth it goes along a predictable route. So there’s real power in asking disputing employees to surprise each other by intentionally straying from the path. Think of it as constructive shock and awe.
Offer: An effective litmus test is whether it’s known in advance that the other person will happily accept the offer. Is it something he’s been asking for all along? In this case an important piece of her offer was to be fully receptive, rather than defensive, to his feedback.
It worked. She delivered a four-point offer in the next In-Accord facilitated, face to face meeting. As the ping pong ball dropped into an unexpected place there emerged acceptance, meaningful two-way negotiation and resolution.
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