So let's drive right to the main point of this month's column by asking, "What can you do to zero in on the right conflicts and get more out of your confrontations?"
Based on experience and the collective advise of experts, here are the six essential steps that I recommend you take to improve your confrontation handling skills:
At first this may seem trite, but as human beings we have the tendency to color our reactions and respond to our interpretations. Essentially, we hear about or see a situation, we tell ourselves a story about why it happened, this engenders a feeling in us and then we act motivated by that feeling.
For example, say a business-unit leader sends you an accusatory email, copied to your peers and superiors. You may automatically assume that she dislikes you and is trying to get you ousted from the company. That, of course, will make you immediately dislike her, which in turn will influence how you respond.
Some of your choices in this emotional state will be to either come across as hostile (fight) by sending back an equally or more vicious email. Or you might withdraw and shut down (flight), feeling in jeopardy, and lay low to await a safe way of taking retribution. (For most CIOs I know, the latter is the less likely response.)
What you are responding to, however, are not the facts, but how you feel about the story you told yourself. The solution to letting your initial "stories" get the best of you is to explore other potential stories that lead to other feelings and potential conclusions.
In the example above, the business-unit leader may be responding to her own story about how they think you feel about her. Or perhaps, this is her attempt to secure resources from one of the people copied on the email. Or perhaps, the failure of this project would have an extremely disastrous impact on her operation that she is fretting over.
By exploring other potential "stories" you will avoid making assumptions based on your first story and letting your emotions trigger what may turn out to be a response that is completely off the mark.
2. Is It Worth Pursuing?
After you tell yourself all the potential stories that may be behind a particular behavior on the part of a colleague, another question to ask yourself is, "Should I pursue any of these factors as a point of confrontation?"
A simple way to decide what to pursue and what to ignore is to ask yourself, "How does this impact my strategy for my IT organization?" If the answer is zero to minimal, you may want to pass and not waste your energy on a low-return effort. On the other hand, if the impact if high, you may want to invest your time in putting together and executing a strategy to effectively address this confrontation.
3. Focus, Focus, Focus
As part of your strategy, break down all of the sub-conflicts that arise as a result of your confrontation and pick the one you wish to pursue.
For example, in the case of the accusatory email, you have a number of sub-topics for potential pursuit. One is the substance of the email or what was said. Was it true or untrue? The other is the fact that this negative information was broadcast to a group of people. The third could be that this is not the first time this person does this and so on.
In planning to talk to this person, you should select no more than one item as your focal topic for confrontation. Base your selection on the history of the situation and the sub-topic that you feel is the most important to address. Do not try to "cover all the bases." A blanket approach will only dilute your efforts and potentially lead to only venting with no resolution on any of the issues.
4. Avoid Judgments, Accusations
Open your confrontational discussion by describing the gap between a commitment or an expectation and what happened. Keeping with our example of the accusing email, let's say that you choose to hold your confrontation on the fact that the email was sent to a public forum. You can schedule a meeting, pick up the phone or go to the other person's office and get straight to the heart of the confrontation by saying, "You and I work within a phone call (or short walk) away from each other. Yet, you choose to send out an email copied to 10 people to convey your thoughts on why you think this project will fail due to my lack of personal participation in the process. Can we talk about why you did that?" No accusations or assumptions, simply a statement of facts followed by a question.