Making progress out of conflict.

How to escape from wrestling in the mud

Pretty much everyone I’ve met in a leadership role understands the importance of alignment: of having all our people working to common aims, pulling in the same direction and so on. But at the same time, good leaders also appreciate the value of creative tension, constructive challenge, and healthy disagreement.

Those two things can happily coexist and in the best companies they do, but it relies on those creative tensions pulling the group forwards in the right direction; those challenges helping to construct a better solution; and above all, those disagreements being healthily resolved.

And that doesn’t always happen. Often, we see a situation where some people think a choice has been made, a decision agreed, a strategy finalised, but it hasn’t been… not really. While other people have said “OK”, their quiet reservations haven’t gone away.

The next time there’s an issue, or something unexpected happens, or plans go astray, up those reservations pop again. Perhaps there’s a different pretext, another reason for a different path, but underneath it’s the same itch that’s not been scratched, and the same decision that’s about to get unpicked.

This repeating pattern doesn’t just frustrate those involved, it distracts and disengages teams, and slows the speed of strategy execution right the way through an organisation. For every two steps forward it’s one step back and instead of making great strides we’re stuck wrestling in the mud.

The reality is that you can’t resolve an argument by simply repeating it, however often you try. Even if the decision goes the other way this time, there will still be resentments and frustrations. Wherever there’s this pattern, it’s because the itch runs deeper than the discussion.

We’ve all been witness to plenty of arguments whether between spouses, siblings, friends or colleagues, where we all know that what they’re arguing about isn’t really what the argument is about. And until they talk about what the argument is really about, they will just keep arguing.

So, how do we scratch the itch? How do we get out of the mud? How?

Funnily enough, asking “how” can be a great first step.

Ultimately, the key to resolving the disagreement is for both parties to really listen to each other, to recognise how much they agree on, how much common ground they share; to tease out those individual grains of disagreement and begin to understand where they come from, what’s driving them, and how they can be constructively and creatively resolved.

But that’s easier said than done. Usually, once people have danced the same pattern a few times, their ears stop working. The conversational paths are laid out, the ruts have already formed, and the mud is deepening under their feet with every step.

To break the pattern, you need to move to conversation out of those muddy tracks and onto some fresh ground.

Instead of discussing what the decision should be, you start discussing how the decision should be made: on what basis, using what criteria, taking what into account?

And if that doesn’t lead to consensus, you start discussing why that is – not why you disagree on the issue, that will simply drag you both back into the mud, but why you disagree on the how. All of this is about moving away from the mud so we can see and hear each other more clearly.

It may be we agree that a big factor in the decision should be the sales forecast; we just disagree on what that forecast should be. Which means we’re now getting somewhere. We’re communicating. We’re learning. We’re homing in on the itch.

I’ve lost count of how many of these conversations I’ve mediated and facilitated between business leaders and owners, but what I can tell you is, nine times out of ten, by moving the enquiry up a level, then up again, we find a resolution, and not just a short-term compromise but a long-term reconciliation.

One in ten, it turns out to be a point of principle, a matter of ideology or personal belief that simply isn’t going to change, and the only routes through are to accommodate or separate.

But we’ve finally found the itch. And we’re ready to make real progress out of the conflict.