Four Steps To Resolve Conflict

1. Look for some type of common ground as soon as possible.

A number of years ago, I owned a small manufacturing company. We had grown to the point we needed to triple the size of our rented space. I located a building just down the street from the existing location and began negotiations with the owner. We needed showroom, office and manufacturing space. My intention involved spending a sizable amount of money renovating the existing space, including adding air conditioning. The owner presented me with an onerous rental agreement. He and I began arguing, continued arguing and historically agreed to disagree. I lost a good location (very near my home) and he lost an excellent tenant who would have spent many dollars upgrading his building. Even if you use every one of the principles in this article consistently, human disagreement remains inevitable. Of the many ways to deal with disagreements, arguing with the other party is one sure way to guarantee you will not find agreement. When we argue, each side becomes defensive, and a person who is defensive will rarely see the logic of the other's position. If the ultimate goal is to persuade the other person, it is a good idea to find some common ground.

What about the two positions is similar? What points can both agree upon? I suggest you tear down the defensive walls so both parties can find a logical, satisfying conclusion. Let's go back to my manufacturing company, which needed more space. The next building I found was twice the size I needed. It was much further away from my home and required considering renovation. This time, the owner began our discussion by telling me how much he wanted us as a tenant. He then showed me how the building had showroom and office space that was already air-conditioned. There was ample manufacturing space. I mentioned my willingness to air condition additional parts of the building and sign a seven-year lease. In short, we both were looking for common ground. The existence of common ground wave us momentum to construct a lease to benefit both parties. Whenever we reached areas of disaggregation, we found it easier to work together. He reduced the rent to match our budget, giving us access to a space much larger than we thought we needed. I increased the length of the lease from 7 to 10 years, giving him a long-term tenant. In an adversarial relationship, the opponents sit across the table from each other. When we find common ground, we are sitting side by side working together. The emotions and defensiveness are diminished and compromise becomes easier for both parties. Using the concept of common ground and the other principles from this section, we can find our way to satisfactory conclusions much more often. So, when you feel an argument brewing, find some common ground as soon as possible.

2. If you find that you are in the wrong admit it.

Are you perfect? Do you know anyone who is? If you answered, "Yes", to either of these questions, go talk to somebody who knows you well. You will likely find that they have a different opinion. I am asking these two questions to point out the folly of pretending you never make a mistake. I once had an assistant manager who was extremely difficult to supervise. Each time we would attempt to discuss a topic of improvement, he would begin blaming his subordinates, condemning the specifics or using the SODDI defense. You know … "Some Other Dude Did It." At one point I tried discussing with him his resistance to supervision counseling. His response … "No, not me!" This story has an unhappy ending. Since he believed himself beyond guilty, above slipups and never in need of supervision, I could not work with him and had to fire him. I can still picture in my mind the look of astonishment on his face when I told him. Part of the human condition is we stumble and fall, pick ourselves up and keep trying.

In the workplace everyone from the President to the person who started yesterday in the mailroom is undeniably human. Since errors are to be expected, do not be surprised if you make the next one. I once put together a bid for a large commercial project. It was my responsibility to gather all our vendor's prices and determine a bid price to submit to the potential customer. On one component I misunderstand the vendor's per unit cost as the total cost. So I divided the actual per unit cost by the total number we were ordering. I was amazed at how inexpensively we could purchase that component. Our final bid was the lowest and we won the contract. When we ordered the components, we quickly heard from this seller telling us the pricing was wrong. When I recalculated, I discovered we would have paid less per completed unit than our expenses simply to buy the components. My error was going to cost the company tens of thousands of dollars.

The position I held with the company would have allowed me to shift blame and cover up my error. Instead I called my key employees together and told them what I had done. Everyone got involved in finding ways to save money on this project. I called all the vendors and told them I had made a mistake. Many of them offered to help out by lowering the price of their component. The salesperson contacted the client who offered to pay for the shipping – a cost we were to have borne. The manager in production found a way to complete the project more cost effectively. We did not make any money on that job, but with the team pulling together we did not lose our shirts either. Why was most everyone willing to help in some way to ease the pain? I believe it was because I admitted my mistake openly and quickly. I was willing to say, "I've broken this plate and can not put it back together without help." The next time you "break a plate," admit you're human and need help. See how quickly all the other humans come running with the glue.

3. Admit one of your own poor decisions before pointing out a similar error by others.

My first job as a supervisor took place at a residential childcare facility operated by a county government. I had been a childcare worker and was promoted over my former peers. My boss, Larry, had worked at the facility for years. He also started his career as a childcare worker and was now Superintendent. In our first meeting after my promotion, Larry said to me, "You have a really tough job." I know and when I was in your position I made every mistake in the book. Would you mind if from time to time I pointed out some Areas where you could make improvements? " I agreed. At my first management meeting, I thought it would be a great opportunity for me to resolve several childcare worker grievances. I brought up topics, which were not on the agenda. After being told to submit each issue for consideration on next month's agenda, I argued passionately for the immediate need.

My request was denied. After the meeting Larry asked me to lunch. He told me when he was a new supervisor he took advantage of a visit by a County Commissioner to bring up some matters he felt were not properly addressed by the facility's then Superintendent. The Commission referred him back to proper channels and Larry was "written up" for failure to follow the chain of command. He pointed out to me how important it was to follow existing procedures. This would allow other managers the opportunity to gather facts and discuss the issues intelligently. I learned how presenting non-agenda items would be counterproductive because the discussions would be based on emotions rather than facts. Larry consistently applied this leadership principle. Anytime he observed me doing or saying something potentially problematic, he would matter-of-factly say, "I remember back when I …" and he would proceed to tell me about the time he had made a similar blunder. His indirect coaching allowed me to save face and helped my career because I did not have to make the same mistakes. Larry now runs the county's Department of Human Services.

I recall how easy he was to work with and realize other supervisors I had had since then been distant and authoritative. I recognize now he was the first truly professional manager I had. I learned a lot about leadership from him, but the process was subtle. Telling people what they are doing wrong builds walls. Nobody likes hearing they have made a mistake. On the other hand people like hearing they are not the first person to "push" when the sign on the door reads, "pull." Admitting your own mistake helps establish a connection. The next time you are dealing with a subordinate's error, think of the time you did the same thing or something very much like it. A good technique for this is to clear your mind, think of the error and say to yourself, "that reminds me of the time." Usually a picture or thought will occur, giving you a story to share. Your willingness to share your experience along with the lesson you learned will be more readily accepted and their behavior more likely to change.

4. Mendences whenever possible.

This principle sounds like common sense, but it is uncommon in practice. Many relationships have ended with one party feeling slighted by the other and yet side being willing to make amends. The longer we wait, the more the problem rankings. Someone must make the first move and the someone is you. As President of a company doing wholesale work for the hospitality industry, I occasionally needed to mend wings. One client was a chain of restaurants. We had gotten verbal confirmation for over a half million dollars ofcoming business and were waiting for the purchase orders. A couple of months passed and I asked the Sales Manager if he knew why we had not yet received the paperwork. His response was he thought it had something to do with billing on a previous job, but he had not been able to get a straight answer from his contact. Sensing something was wrong, I asked the Office Manager what she knew.

She indicated there had been some difficulty in an accounts receivable billing a couple of months previously and harsh words had been replaced. The client had finally paid the account in full. When asked further, she explained she had made several errors in the invoices and the buyer for the restaurant had been very "difficult" on the phone. Our former bookkeeper had been "shouted" at and the Office Manager had "straightened them out." With a sinking feeling, I called the Vice President of Operations at the restaurant. He told me their VP of Finance had dropped us as a vendor. Several of the projects verbally promised to us had been awarded to a competitor. He told me there was nothing he could do about the situation because the VP of Finance decided which vendors were approved for use. I immediately put a call in to the VP of Finance. Over the next few days, she would not respond to any of my messages. I re-contacted the VP of Operations and asked if he might be aware of any other unresolved problems. He said no and told me he preferred us as a vendor. Deciding not to wait any longer, I composed an email offering sincere apologies for the difficulty her department had experienced with our billing process. I informed her the bookkeeper had been let go, which was true, and we had upgraded the position by hiring someone with a BA in accounting.

As a result of this change, our Office Manager's responsibilities had also changed. I closed by requesting a face-to-face meeting to personally insure her I would do everything in my power to ensure the relationship worked more smoothly. Realize, please, if the Office Manager had apologized quickly for our errors, the business probably would not have been lost. When making your apology, be sure to indicate what personnel or policy changes may have occurred and what you plan to do differently in the future. In the end the most important steps are to take responsibility and make the first move. Oh … if you wonder how the story ends … We lost around $ 200,000 worth of contracts, but won the relationship back. The lesson is clear. Mend encounters with those you have wronged, and do it quickly.