As much as you might dream of floating into work on flower petals and completing projects in the land of Total Agreement, the people on your team aren't cookie cutter. Subsequently, they're going to challenge and even infuriate you with differences of opinion. The success of your business is going to depend on you resolving those conflicts effectively.

Many potential scenarios, universal and timeless advice

During a talk she gave this week at the University of Minnesota, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor answered a series of questions from audience members, acknowledging how hard it can be in her job to come to decisions with others. She noted with poignantly humorous honesty how she and the late Justice Antonin Scalia hadn't always seen eye to eye. "I've told people there are things he said on the bench where, if I had a baseball bat, I might have used it," she said.

The key to getting past battles, Sotomayor claims, is a three-prong approach to respect:

  1. Remember that the person you're arguing with doesn't have it out for you personally. "Sometimes, you just have to let people vent," Sotomayor said, "...understanding that that venting is born from that desire to take that person and...shake them and say, 'Why can't you see it my way?' But...if we've lost anything, it's that. Remembering that differences don't have and don't stem necessarily from ill will. Because if you can keep that in mind, you can resolve almost any issue. Because you can find that common ground and be able to interact with each other."
  2. Acknowledge that the other person shares your passion for the activity or end goal. It's tempting in a business dispute to assume that a lack of the same opinion corresponds to a lack of feeling or motivation, but that's typically incorrect. "[The justices and I],know that each other has an equal amount of passion and love for the constitution, for our system of government and for doing what's right under the law. We can disagree what the answer to that is in any particular situation, but we know we're motivated by that equal passion. And that can forgive a lot."
  3. Be empathetic and make it clear to the other person that you've really made an effort to grasp their feelings and rationale. " What gives [people] a sense of vindication, even when they lose," Sotomayor explained, "is to hear a judge say, 'Look, I ruled for this reason, but I do appreciate what the other side is experiencing.' I can't tell you how many people have come to me when I've written a dissent and said, "Look, I lost, but at least I understand that someone understood what I was saying." And that's the only comfort you can give a loser, because remember, in every single case in court, somebody wins. And what happens to the other side? They lose. And when they lose, they often don't think justice has been done. So the only way, I think, people can feel that sense of justice is if they think they have been fairly heard, even if they lose."

From concept to action

How you best use Sotomayor's advice with your team members will depend on factors like their personalities and the specific problem you're trying to solve. But these strategies can get you started:

  • Offer documents and other resources and ask what the other person has found.
  • Provide equal time for the presentation of facts or explanation of views.
  • Find small ways to demonstrate you care despite the tension, such as getting the other individual a cup of coffee or taking a break when you see they're getting fatigued.
  • Use unifying language, such as "we" and "our".
  • Summarize what you've considered.
  • Work collaboratively to set milestones or establish a plan of action.
  • Make evaluation criteria clear and specific.
  • Give praise and say thank you for specific contributions.
  • Provide an incentive everyone can enjoy together after you've come to a decision, such as a lunch at a restaurant.

Resolving conflict is never a walk in the park, but a concentrated effort reminiscent of the golden rule lays the foundation for effective progress. Just as Sotomayor unpacks big problems, recognizing the core psychological needs we all have, you can too.