CONFLICT

3 Questions to Defuse Office Arguments

Ensure disagreements stay professional and constructive by utilizing these three magical questions.
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The dirty little secret of effective collaboration is that, like a tangy recipe, it needs to be spiced up with a certain amount of conflict to actually be effective. Without friction, you're unlikely to unearth the best possible ideas or spot potential problems far enough in advance to fix them. But add more than an appropriate pinch of conflict and you waste valuable time soothing hurt feelings, getting enmeshed in personal power struggles, and repairing relationships.

So how can you ensure your working relationships have that required hit of disagreement while still keeping conflict healthy and professional? Entrepreneur and author Lauren Bacon recently tackled the problem of maintaining this tricky balance on 99U, offering a host of questions you can use to defuse office disagreements and get through conflict quickly and constructively. Some, like "What are our goals here?" are pretty straightforward (and incredibly useful). Others you almost certainly won't have heard before.

Here's a taste:

1. Are we arguing about intent or impact?

Office conflict, like all types of conflict, is often heightened by disagreements about intent. I, for instance, think you left me off that important email chain deliberately. You're outraged that I'd even consider such a thing; obviously it's just an oversight. The result is inflamed feelings all around, even if the meat of the issue--whom to include in a particular discussion--could be simply remedied going forward.

"Intent doesn't matter, if the impact is negative. And that impact must be addressed if you're to move forward," writes Bacon. So what's to be done in order to get past predictable but unproductive hurt feelings? "If you suspect an intent vs. impact conversation is in order, try broaching the subject with an opener like, 'I'm not sure what your intent was when you made that comment, but the impact on me was ________,' or 'I'm concerned that when I said X, it may have had an unintended impact of ________.' Then invite the other party to share their perspective, and do your best to listen with an open mind," she suggests.

It's an approach that's also been endorsed by CEO advisor Peter Bregman in his writing on the HBR Blogs. "Always start the conversation by acknowledging how your actions impacted the other person. Save the discussion about your intentions for later,"  he advises those looking to avoid a fight.

With misunderstandings over intent thus worked through, you can move on to the comparatively simple task of sorting out what needs to be done differently in the future. (When it comes to issues of intent, it may also help for everyone to bear in mind Hanlon's Razor, which reminds us to "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.")

2. What would you do in my place? 

Absolutely stuck and unable to see eye to eye with a colleague? Give that person a ticket for a short glimpse into your reality with this question, suggests Bacon, who lists three steps to employing it effectively:

  • Step 1. Describe the problem to the person on the other side.
  • Step 2. Ask, "What would you do if you were me?"
  • Step 3. Shut up--anything you say next will weaken your stance.

Is it a sure bet that your opponent will immediately see things your way? Nope. But the exercise should reveal a lot about everyone's real priorities, which, with any luck, will at least provide a firm foundation for more useful discussion.

3. How would our customers want us to answer this question? 

Bacon offers this this final, quick bonus question at the close of her post, but it's one that seems particularly useful for small business owners and employees: It "can pull you out of navel-gazing ruts and into creative, empathy mode."

Last updated: Jul 8, 2014

JESSICA STILLMAN | Columnist

Jessica Stillman is a freelance writer based in London with interests in unconventional career paths, generational differences, and the future of work. She has blogged for CBS MoneyWatch, GigaOM, and Brazen Careerist.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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