Conflict is everywhere; we cannot avoid it. That is why we need to master difficult conversations rather than shy away from them. Running away from our problems will not make them disappear. By facing them, we can contribute to a solution, obtaining new information that offers a fresh perspective on what is going on at a company or with a project.
To be an effective leader, when we are working with a new team, it is useful to have a working agreement in order to encourage everyone to work harmoniously and toward the same goal. A large part of success is based on effective communication and mutual understanding. Putting a man on the moon is an excellent example of team leadership and of mastering difficult conversations. The process was no doubt riddled with problems, but they were overcome with incredible results.
Soft Skills to Stand Out
Although hard skills (technical ones) remain very important, in today’s world soft skills (social skills, communication skills, etc.) make the difference. When we are looking for a job, we are not competing in a local market, but in a global environment with a lot of people who have the same technical skills we do. What is going to set us apart is how we communicate, how we handle conflicts, how we lead, etc.
According to the Carnegie Institute of Technology, 85% of our financial success is due to our personality and ability to communicate, negotiate, and lead; only 15% is due to technical knowledge. Once we have the hard skills, it is the soft ones that will give us an edge. Increasingly, platforms such as Google or LinkedIn are paying attention to how effectively we communicate, how we motivate people, what skills we use to deal with conflicts, how communication can change everything, etc.
At Booster and Aerdron, we had to find a way to fly a drone over an airport in Spain, and we were the first ones to do it. The process involved six months of very difficult conversations with local authorities. The key understood the relationships and each party’s needs. Sometimes those needs were very different; other times, they overlapped. The secret to our success understood that first.
Although hard skills remain very important, in today’s world soft skills make the difference.
What Do You Want This Orange For?
For a conversation to be successful we cannot talk about what people want; we have to know what they need. There are three types of needs: individual, team, and task (how we organize ourselves). Team excellence is based on communication, the operational aspect (which could be the everyday routine), and strategy.
When trying to understand people’s needs or motivations, we have to dig below the surface. A classic example is the dispute over the orange: if two people are fighting over an orange, what do you do? How do you resolve this conflict?
If we simply decide for them, which is what leaders sometimes try to do, we may be providing a solution, but we won’t know whether the parties are satisfied with it. Therefore, we have to ask them: what do you need the orange for? Only then can there be a discussion that will allow us to understand their motivations and needs, not just their wishes, that is, understand what the orange means to them. This challenge has a perfect answer. If we ask them what they need the orange for, we will soon have two answers. The first might be, “Thank you for not deciding for me. Thank you for asking. I only need the peel to make a birthday cake.” Meanwhile, the second might be, “Ah! No one had asked me that yet. I don’t need the peel; I just want the pulp to make juice.” In other words, the needs may be different, but complementary. Before skipping to the solution, we should ask the parties.
Positions, Interests, and Needs
The Positions, Interests, and Needs (PIN) model can help in negotiations. It refers to what we want to know about our interlocutor (their position on a matter and their interests and needs). In order to obtain this information, we need to use active listening, show empathy, and exhibit warm body language to make the other person comfortable and feel like they are being heard and can communicate their situation. To this end, we need to take several factors into account:
How we ask the question matters. With closed questions, we get a yes or no answer. At a meeting with a colleague or team leader, a closed question can make that person feel like they are being judged. The greatest benefit of having a difficult conversation is obtaining new information that changes people’s perspectives. Open-ended questions such as “What brings you here today?” encourage the other person to share the information they are comfortable with.
Non-verbal communication must be positive. Preferably, the conversation should be one-to-one, on equal footing, without any physical barriers such as a table, and with eye contact, to show the other person that what they are saying is important.
Check and clarify. Make sure you have understood. Every so often, check that you have really grasped what the other person is saying before proceeding based on assumptions.
Find a way to encourage the other person to open up to you.
Reflect and summarize. Although we rarely do it, periodically summarizing what the other person has said is helpful. It is an effective way to make them feel like they are being heard and can delve deeper into the conversation and give more details.
Sometimes, we can also use silence. Most people are uncomfortable with silence, which gives them pause. However, if we can be comfortable with it, the other person may feel something new.
SING! Story, Impact, Needs, and Goals
There are many tools we can use. I use and teach one called SING, for Story, Impact, Needs, and Goals. Beginning with a conversation about what has been happening for the other person, the story, prvides us with context. Once we know that, we can move on to the impact. This word, impact, elicits different kinds of responses: sometimes, people only talk about work; other times, they talk about something external to the workplace, such as their family. All this information can give us some perspective on what is happening to them. Being listened to helps reduce stress and makes it easier to deal with a difficult conversation. The next step is needs: what does this person need to move on? Finally, we have to look at the goals: what is the future focus?
The aim is to understand each other in order to tackle challenges and create innovation and value. The difference between a good company and an excellent one is the culture that has been created in it and is achieved through leaders able to understand, motivate, and appreciate their people.
Motivating to Achieve Excellence
In today’s competitive world, where resources are similar, small differences are what make the big differences in business. To motivate people to innovate, excel, succeed, give that something extra, etc., you need a positive corporate culture, in which people feel valued and connected and can share. It is not what we say, but how we say it.
There are three main factors that, when included in the corporate culture, as well as our own, make teams much more successful:
Purpose/goal. People want to feel like they are contributing something, like they are part of something “bigger.”
Sense of autonomy and trust. People want others to trust in their abilities and they want to be able to choose how to do things.
Sense of progress/learning. People want to feel like they are making progress, like they are part of something that is evolving and that helps others evolve.
Abraham Lincoln said that the best way to predict your future is to create it. That means having the courage to tackle things, but we need tools to do it. Running away is not an option.
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XEDGlobal Program Choices for Managing Conflicts
- Harvard Kennedy Executive Education - Leadership for the 21st Century: Chaos, Conflict and Courage
- Northwestern Kellogg - Negotiation for Executives
- MIT Sloan Executive Education – Negotiation for Executives