During a recent workshop on handling difficult conversations, a participant made a statement that really stirred my passion. We were discussing some tools and strategies that can be used to help people obtain a better outcome when we are caught in the middle of a very difficult conversation. The participant said something about it still is dependent on the person wanting to improve the communication. In order for the difficult situation to turnout well for both parties, both parties must first want it to be better.
I know the workshop participants thought I was over-reacting, but this statement really is true from my experience and is at the crux of a lot of misunderstanding and conflict. In far too many situations, I have experienced at least one party who doesn’t really want to work things out for the betterment of both parties. And sometimes this is the case with both parties involved. So my immediate reaction was to reinforce this statement and proceed to explore what happens when one of the parties doesn’t want to work through the difficult situation or conversation.
The difficulty in many of these situations is that the individual who does not want to work to make things better is not even aware that this is the case. Many times these individuals will state emphatically that they are trying to work things out. However, their behavior is clearly headed in the other direction. In these cases, the individual has confused the spoken desire to work things out with the unspoken intent to get the outcome to be what they want it to be. In these situations the individual wants to have more tools to manipulate or convince the other party that the solution to the difficulty is what the person manipulating the situation really wants.
I find the work of Roger Schwartz to be very useful in these situations. In his book, The Skilled Facilitator, Dr. Schwartz describes two models that explain what is happening. The first model is the Unilateral Control Model and the second is the Mutual Learning Model. In the Unilateral Control Model the person is operating under the values and assumptions that the outcome is to achieve their goal or “to win” because this person really knows what’s best for everyone. A person operating under this model really believes that he or she is right and that she or he knows what is best in this situation. Therefore, the behavior demonstrated is to do whatever is needed to control the situation, with whatever tools are at their disposal, in order to win. However, the consequences of this model include mistrust, misunderstanding, and defensiveness. And again many people operate out of this model without their being aware of it.
On the other hand, operating out of the Mutual Learning Model means the individual starts with the values that people make free and informed choices based on shared and valid information. An individual operating out of this model believes he or she has some of the needed information and the others involved have additional needed information. Through the sharing of information and different ideas, everyone has the opportunity to learn more. Thus, the parties involved in a difficult situation may end up changing their perspectives, leading to new and fresh outcomes. Consequences of operating out of this model are increased understanding and trust with the reduced need for defensiveness.
So when the workshop participant stated “you really have to want to work things out”, he was describing the difference in operating from a Unilateral Control perspective versus a Mutual Learning perspective. And learning the tools and strategies from the workshop is only as good as your perspective. If you just want to get better at winning, then learning the tools will help you win; but at what costs? You will still experience distrust, misunderstanding, and conflict. You will not reduce your involvement in difficult situations. In fact, you will probably increase your involvement in difficult situations or conversations.
If your desire is to reduce your involvement in difficult situations, first checking out your perspective and becoming aware of your intent is critical. Then you can use the tools and strategies of the workshop to help you be better at building trust, increasing understanding and reducing conflict. When your perspective is congruent with the tools and strategies, you have a far better chance of achieving the desired outcome of reducing your involvement in difficult situations or conversations.
So the next time you find yourself in a difficult situation or conversation, do a quick assessment of your perspective and decide your intent. Make certain you are acting out of the right perspective as you interact with others.
Until next time, hopefully you find your involvement in difficult situations decreasing and, when being involved in a difficult situation is a must, be certain you want to handle it from the right perspective.