Society seems to work really hard to find the polarity between two sides. There doesn’t seem to be enough leaders with the courage to set their personal opinions, feelings or beliefs aside to seek the middle ground. This polarization seeps into our work space and because of this seepage, unselfish leadership that focuses on serving the middle ground versus one of the poles is more critical than ever. As a result leaders are often put into a situation of conflict. These stem from what are perceived to be “either-or” conversations. There are typically two opposing points of view and as the conversation progresses, the temperature of the room rises with the blood pressure of the participants as each party advocates for their point of view. How often have you been in a conflict at work and maybe even became party to these polarized conversations? I’ve seen relationships coming close to ending because no one had the courage or self-awareness to arbitrate for the middle ground. Projects are destroyed, work relationships undermined, friendships put at risk. To me, these are unacceptable consequences.
How does one lead others to find the middle?
First be self aware of your emotional engagement in the conversation. Once you’ve recognized that you are one of the polarizing parties, compartmentalize your emotions, opinions and even suspend your personal beliefs and set them aside. You do this because you acknowledge this argument isn’t about you anymore because it is putting the team and relationships at risk. As a leader of a team you want to develop open-minded, diverse and innovative thinkers. This type of team will have conflict. Your role is to allow these “prickly” conversations to take place in a healthy format versus the creating division.
Second you must, with your own opinions compartmentalized, listen carefully to each side of the issue with neutrality. Your role is to understand what “arguments” are real, which are opinion, which are based upon suspicions and which are based on proven evidence. Be using this inclusive, neutral ear you can separate the emotions of the parties and extract from each side the facts and objective points that have true merit.
Third You will often find it helpful during this discourse to ask each side to direct their comments to you versus at each other to create a conversation of building their case with you versus arguing their case with each other. The discourse will still be emotional but not as personal. Start this transition by saying, “I’ve got an idea. It is obvious you each have strong opinions on this matter so let’s make this about the issue at hand and not about each other. To do this I’d like each of you build your business case with me. You will each have an orderly chance to state your thoughts and rebuttals. How does that sound? Jane, why don’t we start with your position and then Jim, we’ll give you a chance to state your case. Then we’ll work on the rebuttals. As a demonstration of mutual respect and an acknowledgement that you both appreciate each other’s honorable intentions I ask each of you to listen for understanding and to hear points of common ground. Jane please start.”
Fourth, help each person identify the common ground by acknowledging them as they are made. This helps to create a climate of conciliation versus separation.
Fifth, at a point when each party starts to repeat previously made points and rebuttals it is time to redirect the conversation to the common ground versus the differences. This is done by stopping the back and forth and taking over the conversation. Start by identifying the key differences followed by the similarities. Then say, “Which of the differences can we eliminate as point of contention so we can expertly deliver on this goal/project/initiative?” If they are unable to self identify the common ground you step in with a directive statement on how the team is going to proceed forward and why.
Leading through conflict is the challenge of helping the team make the best decision from the diverse choices while not stifling the individual’s innovative thoughts or ideas. It’s not about being the loudest voice in the room.