Kerry Patterson is coauthor of four New York Times bestsellers, Change Anything, Crucial Conversations, Crucial Confrontations, and Influencer.
Dear Crucial Skills,
Any advice for those of us caught in the role of “moderator” (willing or not) of a crucial conversation? Both as a manager of a team of high performing individuals and within my large family, I occasionally find myself stumbling upon a crucial conversation and must help the participants reach safety, understanding and resolution.
As a manager, it seems I’m expected to “make a decision” about who is right or wrong, when it’s clear (at least to me) that both parties have stories and objectives that need to be clarified in order to reach resolution.
Within the family, while it’s rarely my job to keep the peace, I recognize the value of healthy relationships and want to help out any way I can.
Can you share any tips or techniques to help others work through conflict.
Dear Accidental Moderator,
I think your challenge is one many of us face. We see a conversation digressing into various forms of attack or retreat, are neither emotionally nor intellectually aligned with either side of the argument, and would like to lend a hand. But how do you do so without getting pulled into the argument or labeled a meddler? And how do you do so without an invitation?
There are a couple of things you can do without becoming too obtrusive or heavy handed. I find myself doing this all the time. One, you provide the contrasting statement the arguing parties are overlooking. For instance, two neighbors are arguing about transporting their kids to a park in the back of a pickup. Linda states that she doesn’t want her kids to ride in the back of the truck because it’s unsafe. Marcy, the other neighbor, fires back that she drives safely and doesn’t appreciate being told how to parent her own kids. They both look to you for help. You respond: “I don’t think Linda was trying to telling you how to parent. It sounds like she’s just worried about safety issues.” This is the contrasting statement Linda might have supplied on her own, but didn’t—so you’re lending a hand.
When you provide such a clarifying statement, it not only removes the ill-intent from the conversation and focuses on the real issues at hand, it also models a more civil tone. You’re speaking calmly and pleasantly. If you then ask why Linda thinks it’s unsafe, it requires both her and Marcy to muse over the facts and, in turn, rely on higher-level cognitive processing than is required when simply tossing out accusations or attacking each other’s characters. This not only helps reduce anger but it also establishes a healthier climate for dialogue.
The second skill that can be readily applied by a third party draws on the techniques used when exploring others’ path to action. You’re watching two people go at it hammer and tong and it’s not long until both are sharing hasty and ugly conclusions.
Tim: “I can’t believe what you just did in that meeting. Obviously you get a kick out of watching my career go down the toilet.”
David: “I don’t know where you come up with this stuff. You’re such a drama king.”
Now, before the argument continues down this nasty conclusion-paved path, you might step in by clarifying the observed behaviors that led to the harsh conclusion. David did something that led Tim to conclude that David actually enjoyed seeing him do poorly in the meeting. But what did he do? So you help explore Tim’s path to action.
“I’m curious, just what did David do? You suggested that he enjoyed watching you do poorly in the meeting. Exactly what did he do that led you to conclude that?”
“I’ll tell you what he did, he was selfish and I don’t like it when people are selfish.”
As you can see from this example, when you ask people to share the observed behavior, they often come back with another harsh conclusion that shines no light on the subject, but instead adds more fire to the argument. You’ll have to try something else.
“Was it because David said nothing to support the proposal you gave?”
“I’ll say! David told me he was in favor of the idea, but when the boss spoke out against it, he clammed up. I needed his help and didn’t get it. What kind of friend is that?”
David then explains that he figured the idea was doomed at the moment and wanted to regroup and gather more data so the two of them could re-approach the plan with better support material. From there, the two calm down, return to dialogue and the conversation continues productively.
The idea in both of these cases is to fill in the missing skills as unobtrusively as possible. You don’t intervene per se; you help fill in the blanks. The same would be true with any skill that you think might help others return to dialogue. What you don’t do is stop the conversation and point out that the others have somehow digressed into silence and violence. This is not only intrusive; it typically comes off as sanctimonious, alienates you from the two, and cuts off any possibility of your helping them return to dialogue.
Good luck in your strategic and unobtrusive mediation. I commend you for your willingness to increase the pool of shared meaning.