Conflict is Your Friend: Dispatches from IS 2021, Part I

The 31st INCOSE International Symposium is now in the record books, and many of us are sifting through the content value that we acquired during the conference. I was fortunate to have presented two closely-related presentations on the “professional competencies” (a.k.a. “soft skills”) of conflict management (Conflict is Your Friend) and persuasion/negotiation (Making Your Case). The dialogue around and after the presentations has been an opportunity for me to grow in my perspectives and sharpen my focus on those skills. The questions posed by the attendees represent a number of viewpoints and concerns that are worth sharing here. I have used a number of them to construct a series of blog posts, of which this is the first.

The presentation on conflict management pointed up the value of conflict in the process of innovation and scientific advances. We used Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions as the basis of our discussion. We talked about Kuhn’s concept of the paradigm shift with its attendant conflict between the old and new paradigms and the difficulty of communicating between them. From there, we talked about the importance of managing conflict rather than trying to extinguish (resolve) it, and two techniques for effectively managing conflict: active listening and interest-based problem solving.

The problem of constructively managing the detrimental effect of conflict interested a number of participants. They asked questions about trouble spots in group conflict.

What do you do about the devil’s advocate?
Q: What about that person that we all know, Mr./Mrs. Black Hat. They take up the devil’s advocate position no matter the issue. Are they useful or an impediment?

A: They can be either useful or an impediment or a little of both. Unmanaged, they are definitely an impediment! The most effective technique I have found for dealing with the intentionally provocative person or “devil’s advocate” is to engage them in answering a series of questions designed to elicit what they really think. Depending on the situation, I might take an indirect approach to gradually discover their thoughts on the merits of the discussion. In other situations, I might go directly at them with something like, “I’m interested in your claim to be a devil’s advocate. Since the devil rarely needs additional advocates, I’d like to hear what you would say if you were (insert their name)’s advocate. From your own perspective, what do you think about this?”

In either approach, I seek to draw them out from behind the intentionally provocative devil’s advocate role and discover what is behind it in their own thinking. I don’t think that I have ever seen that fail—although sometimes it takes some cajoling and repeated entreaties to get them to leave the role alone. But when they do turn from it, they become an asset to the group.

How do you deal with persistent dissenters?
Q: As you try to listen and build consensus, sometimes people just don’t come around. Is there a point where a leader needs to simply say, “I’ve heard you, but now it’s time to move forward in this direction,” or do you feel that should not be allowed when managing conflict?

A: There is such a point at which the group must move on. But, there are some waypoints that should be reached on the way to this need to move on. The first is being clear from the outset that we want everyone to contribute their best thinking to our deliberations, but we must ultimately come to a decision. This may well mean that the decision is not ideal from everyone’s perspective, but we will strive to shine everyone’s light on the issues along the way.

Another is the point at which the leader/facilitator asks the person who is being conflictive for practical suggestions on how the group might deal with the issues that seem to be holding up their assent to the process. (Something like, “I understand that you are very concerned about X. I hear what you are saying. What would it take to address your concern and still move toward a solution that you and the rest of the group can endorse?”)

Another waypoint could involve taking the person aside and telling them, “I would like very much to help you address your concern over X, but we have a decision to make and I am responsible to the group to get them to that decision in the best way possible. Can you help me in getting that done while still honoring your input?”

How do you become an active listener?
The active listening technique also generated a number of excellent questions. One of the keys to active listening is silencing your inner voice—the voice that carries on an internal conversation within yourself, suggesting what to say next, voicing judgments about what is happening around you, etc. This sparked several inquiries.

Q: On the topic of active listening, the guidance is to “silence your inner voice” so as to be most receptive to what the person is really saying. Perhaps active listening is not for all use cases, but sometimes isn’t it important to listen from the context of your wisdom, your experience, your background so as to build on the inputs and integrate them into a larger picture?

A: The advice to silence your inner voice is absolutely contextual. It means that we should not allow the inner voice to lead us to pre-judge the situation, or to monopolize our mindshare with the act of formulating our next comment or making judgments. We all know the person who doesn’t hear what is said, but what they expect to be said. And many of us have participated in dialogues where people just took turns making speeches without hearing each other. Silencing the inner dialogue doesn’t mean setting aside what you can contribute. It means putting your contributions and opinions on hold while you explore what others are offering. Your contribution will be there, but if you turn to it immediately you may miss perspectives and information that you have not factored into what you planned to contribute. You don’t lose your context and knowledge by listening. But, no matter how wise and experienced you may be, you can’t build on or integrate inputs that you don’t hear or understand.

How do you foster internal focus?
Q: Are there any techniques to silencing your inner voice?

A: Fundamentally, this is a question of concentration. In the moment, it is a matter of focusing on the dialogue at hand and allowing what the person is saying to you to take your full attention. One of the most helpful things that I have done to prepare myself to get to that place involves breath meditation. To give an over-simplified, short summary, that practice involves sitting quietly and comfortably and just counting your breaths (1 in, 1 out, 2 in, 2 out, etc.). If your mind wanders, you just call it back and resume counting. Don’t resist the intruding thoughts—just turn away from them. This teaches you to be aware that your attention has wandered away and how to return to the present place of focus.

Sometimes I use an image that I learned from my Benedictine sisters where I imagine that I am sitting at the bottom of a river. My thoughts come unbidden like pieces of debris floating by. I don’t grab them or examine them but just let them go by without my involvement in thinking about them. Of course, you can’t practice these meditation techniques while in the process of listening and dialogue, but they help you get your mind used to the focus and presence in the here and now without carrying on that constant soundtrack that can be so distracting. That practice helps you learn to will yourself back to the present and the conversation at hand.

The foundation of any and all of these techniques is sincerity. Without it, the techniques become manipulation. This is easily picked up on by others. To avoid that allergic reaction and listen effectively, we must begin by sincerely wanting to hear.

Our techniques must flow from this place of sincerity, otherwise, they are just techniques. To manage conflict without losing its benefits, we must not only learn the psychology of conflict, but we must also begin with ourselves and learn empathy for our teams and colleagues. Then we can use conflict management and persuasion techniques to their best advantage.

I told the INCOSE audiences that there is no way I can teach them conflict management or persuasion/negotiation in a 30-minute presentation. The same is true for this blog or even a series of blogs. By writing here, I hope to make you aware that there are learnable principles and skills that can be used to make conflict a productive tool in your workplace and inspire you to learn more. I welcome your comments and questions. Perhaps I can help you on the journey to these professional competencies. (If you are interested in more about active listening, see these blogs: Listening: The Forgotten Side of Communication Competency, Part I, Part II, and Part III.)

In my next blog, I’ll discuss persuasion and negotiation—another interesting area of critical value in the 21st century workplace.


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