Avoiding conflict avoidance

May 22, 2017

Handle the difficult conversations by knowing who you are, learning about other people, and knowing what’s needed to win.

This time he went too far. Milo, your senior engineer, will not budge on his code interpretation, no matter what or who is involved. Milo has his codes memorized. Usually that’s an asset. Where it becomes a liability is when his strong opinion ignores a client need for more artful interpretation.

In the past, you have jumped in to smooth things over. After all, the client pays the bills. The client talks, you listen. With more information, you make the code work. Milo says nothing and sulks. The client emerges happy and Milo revives.

However, you resent the time you spend compensating for Milo’s rigidity. It takes away from your most critical role of pursuing new clients. So far, you’ve done nothing about it.

Then came yesterday’s meeting with Jeremy Archibald, a design firm CEO that sends you many projects. Jeremy loves to push the envelope with designs requiring creative code interpretation.

“No way!” squawked Milo after Jeremy insisted on a curvilinear building facade. Then Milo decided to get personal. “I’m sick of you artist types not respecting engineering standards. The code is there to produce sound, safe design, not to enhance your vanity!”

Jeremy’s eyes narrowed. “Looks like I’ll have to visit your president, again.”

Now you have a frustrated client and a badly behaved colleague. You and Jeremy will work things out. But what about Milo? You hate conflict, particularly with him, who responds to criticism with stony silence.

Fear of conflict is ubiquitous in the work world. At its heart lies the fear of not knowing how another person will react to a potential disagreement. The person might argue, turn silent, become emotional, or leave the room. Any of these responses can be uncomfortable.

Nevertheless, without working through the discomfort, you cannot uncover what is needed to improve matters. Worse, not dealing with it causes organizational ripple effects. Operational issues remain unsolved, substandard performance continues, and conflict avoiding executives do others’ work rather than their own.

Beneath conflict avoidance lies a fear of standing alone. To stand on your own two feet in the face of adversity, you must know who you are and what you need. It will clear your vision to learn what the other person needs to resolve the issue.

To maximize your chances of a positive outcome, consider three strategies for approaching conflict:

  1. Know what you need to win. Too often, we go into potential conflicts with the goal of being liked rather than advancing a cause. While it’s nice to be liked, you might make compromises that are not best for the business. You like Milo, but you need him to recognize the importance of putting client interests first. That means Milo must ask questions and figure out what the client wants. Then he’ll know what problem to solve. A whimsical building façade curve may be about wanting something unique, not the curve itself.
  2. Know who you are. Navigating conflict requires you to know your personal values, dreams, and life story. Values include everything from team cohesion to excellence. Your dreams are your personal vision. Your life story is your autobiography. What is your experience with conflict and how does it influence your feelings? You know that you value high caliber performance and need it from Milo. You also have the dream of a firm that provides spectacular client service. Your resistance to conflict comes from growing up in a combative home where opposing viewpoints were ridiculed and dismissed. Learning to separate the past from the present is important to see the present situation for what it is, not what it evokes from the past. Milo may sulk, but you know he values superior quality and your opinion.
  3. Learn about the other person. Everyone travels with personal fears, drivers, and history. To advance your cause, start by walking around in their shoes. Before confronting Milo, spend time learning about him from your own and the experiences of others. Milo cares deeply about his code expertise, but what fear prevents him from moving away from an orthodox, safe solution?

Investing time to know your goals, personal needs, and the needs of others can convert a difficult conversation into a beneficial one.

Julie Benezet spent 25 years in law and business, and for the past 15 years has coached and consulted with executives from virtually every industry. She is author of the of Gold Medal IBPA winner and Foreword Review Finalist The Journey of Not Knowing: How 21st Century Leaders Can Chart a Course Where There Is None. She can be reached at julie@businessgrowthco.com.

About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.