How to Handle Confrontation, Part 2

By Joe Santana

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So how did you do in last month's confrontation quiz? Regardless of the outcome with any of the three groups, I believe you will find the tips in this column to be of value to you in your quest to become a better "confrontationalist."

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:

1. Get the Facts Straight in Your Own Head

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.

Remember your goal is not to attack or trick them. You don't want to make them feel defensive by opening with a statements like, "You made me very angry when you sent out that accusatory email to 10 people in the company without first checking your facts."

Always avoid opening any confrontation in this manner, with your judgments. On the other hand, you don't want to come across as weak, patronizing or plain silly either by saying something like, "I really like you and your team. So why did you send out the stupid, hateful email? Nice office!" This so called "sandwich conversation" fools no one.

5. Be Sure to Listen

Next, listen and be flexible. The next few words that come out of the other person's mouth may raise another more important issue that needs to be addressed or provide insight into why the other person did what they did and/or any combination of results. At this point, the most valuable thing that you can do is to listen carefully, adjust if needed and keep the discussion focused on getting to the facts in a non-judgmental way.

For example, the business-unit leader might tell you that two of the people copied on the email are holding her personally responsible for the outcome of this project. She wanted them to know that even though you were not involved personally day to day, that you were in fact responsible for the project.

At this point, you might reply, "So, let me see if I understand you. You want these two people to know that I am responsible for the project as the head of IT. You choose to send out an email copied to 10 people stating that you thought the project would fail due to my lack of personal participation in the process in order to convey that I am responsible for the project to these two people. Why did you believe that it was necessary to convey that I was letting the project fail in order to establish that I am responsible for the project?"

Based on the next response, you can continue to drill down into how to get to the root of the issue and address it.

6. Seek Positive Action to Resolve Conflict

Finally, make sure you close the confrontation in a manner that motivates a positive commitment to action. In order to motivate yourself or someone else to act, you need to lower the pain associated with the action and increase the pleasure.

In the case of our example, the final action might be to jointly meet with the two senior executives to discuss your role and ownership versus the role and ownership of the business-unit leader. Also, another action might be a note from the business-unit leader to the original 10 people that summarizes your discussion, agreements and partnership (not quite a big apology, but certainly a show of willingness to work together as a team).

A few things that will lower the pain of taking the right actions are having a clear idea of what you will discuss with the two senior executives and having a clear position to communicate in the note. (You may, for example, volunteer to draft the message for the note.) Factors that increase the reward or pleasure for taking these actions include knowing that you are both building allies and increasing the chance for a successful project for which both of you can receive credit. Make sure you clearly build and communicate these so that there is commitment to the actions decided upon during the confrontation.

Summary and Conclusion

There are clear rewards to the CIO for effectively managing internal IT and IT-to-business conflicts. As Joseph Grenny, one of the co-authors of "Crucial Confrontations," states, "Effective IT leaders realize their role is more culture change than technology change. This is why those who are most capable of stepping up to challenging interpersonal situations succeed the best. Improve your crucial confrontations skills, and your IT leadership will take the next step forward."

Nevertheless, even with excellent techniques, handling conflicts still present moments of discomfort. To that end, if you have not effectively handled conflicts in the past (ran away or exploded in anger), I recommend that you start small and work your way up to bigger confrontations. As you face bigger and more uncomfortable confrontations, I advise you to take heart from the words of Thomas Paine, the American patriot and political philosopher, who once said, "The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."