Overcome Conversational Gridlock At Work

Overcome Conversational Gridlock“My project has the potential to be a big win for the company,” said Dave, a project manager. “I need Asha and Jake full time for at least the next 3 weeks.”

“Well, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush!” said Tom, another project manager. “Raven [Tom's project] is with our current biggest customer. Bluebird [Dave's project] can wait.”

His lips a thin line and his jaw hard set, Dave glared at Tom across the conference table.  Tom’s eyes narrowed and returned a cold, steely stare.  Neither project manager was going to budge. They had locked horns over the issue of shared resources, specifically the test engineers who supported both of their projects.  The company didn’t have the budget to hire more test engineers, so Tom and Dave were gridlocked in what was essentially a battle for dominance.

Their boss, who didn’t believe in micromanaging his project managers, could have been like Solomon and split the 2 test engineers, but that would have left both project managers feeling resentful, so he told them to “figure it out.”

Have you ever felt like this?

Wild Goats Fighting

What are some ways that you can unlock the horns, stop butting heads and move from gridlock to dialogue when you face an impasse?

Gridlock to Dialog

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1. Stop

When people argue, or are at a frustrating gridlock, emotions can be high and cause an automatic physical stress response, the fight or flight response.  The fight or flight response keeps us from danger by making us want to fight or run away.  Sometimes, the threat can be so overwhelming that a “freeze response” (“deer-in-the-headlights) is triggered.

Fight, flight or freeze, you may experience increased heart rate and respiration, red or pale face, tense muscles, rapid speech, sweating, tunnel vision and more.  What you won’t experience is your best quality thinking.  Stress can alter and disrupt the executive function of the brain, which affects memory, problem solving and decision-making.

Stop, take a break from looking at the issue the same way, and give yourself a chance to calm down, reflect and better examine the problem.

Here are some ways to “Stop”:

Take a break. “I think we need a little break.”  Depending on the circumstances, you could suggest anything from a  short “bio” break (15 minutes) to a few hours, or to another day.  For longer breaks, suggest that all parties do some “homework” to examine the true needs, which may involve getting more information, and considering possible alternatives.

Move on to something else. “We seem to be stuck on this issue.  Let’s move on to another issue and come back to this one later.” Ideally, the issue you choose will be one that you can have more conversation.  Elimination of conflict isn’t the goal, as long as the conversation is moving forward!

Reframe: Stop the trajectory. “Let’s take a look at this from a completely different angle.” Shift the direction of the gridlocked discussion.  In the example of the two project engineers gridlocked over which of their projects more deserved the test engineers, Dave, might have reframed the discussion.  “Let’s take a look at this from a completely different angle.  How would a delay impact each of our customers?”

New Eyes. Stop trying to resolve it yourself. Get another perspective: “I think getting X’s perspective might give us some insights.”  You could have a mutually agreed upon person give his or her perspective, or you could each pick someone to give a perspective.  Ideally the person giving a perspective would be one the other party respects.

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2. Listen

Listen fully, without interrupting, except to reflect back or clarify.  Resist debate until you have fully understood. Most gridlock occurs because both parties feel they have needs and expectations that aren’t likely to be met if they “give in.” Try to put yourself in the other person’s shoes as you listen to try to understand those needs and expectations.  Realize that you don’t know everything—there may be hidden issues.

In the example above, perhaps Dave had a poor performance review and knows that effectively managing this project is critical to his career.  Tom may not know this, and Dave is unlikely to tell him.  However, Tom might notice from Dave’s body language, voice inflection and choice of words (“My project . . .”, “I need . . .”) that Dave is personally very invested.

Here are some ways to “Listen”:

Focus.  This is not the time to be checking your email, or texting.  Nor is it the time to be mentally formulating your response.  Listening isn’t simply waiting for your turn to talk. Listen with your ears and eyes. Your ears hear more than words.  Ears pick up tone of voice and pauses.  Your eyes read facial expressions and body language, which will enhance meaning greatly (think about those times that someone has misinterpreted your email, because they couldn’t see your face or hear your tone of voice).

Limit talk. Limit interruptions to those which enhance understanding, such as reflecting back or asking clarifying questions.  Don’t jump in to make a point before you have fully understood the other person’s point.

Reflect back.  If you want to make sure that you understand a particular point, reflect it back (using the same words or paraphrasing), and check that this is really what was meant.  Visually reflect back by nodding. Nod when you agree, but also when you understand what someone is saying.  Nodding will encourage people to talk more. You can even give verbal nods of encouragement with sounds like “ahhh . . .” and “umhmm.”

Take Notes.  Taking brief notes will aid your concentration, give you some points ask clarification on and make the other person feel like you are taking them seriously.

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3. Clarify

Clarification, at the most basic level, involves asking questions to gain a clear understanding.

Some ways to “Clarify:

5 W’s and One H: Who, What, When, Where, Why and How. The 5 W’s and One H give you a framework for question categories. For example: Who is responsible? What are the goals? When is it due? Where does it go? Why is this important? How is it used?

Clarify Scope of Issue.  What’s the problem?  How big is it? What does it affect?  What are the likely limitations in solving the problem (time, money, resources, technology)? Is there a process?

Clarify method of Issue analysis.  Are you just going to talk about the issue or will a formal format or method be used? Will you drill down by asking “Why?” repeatedly?  Will you use a SWOT analysis (Strenghts, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats)? Lists? Mind maps? Cause and effect diagrams? Problem tree?

Clarify Criteria. What are the critical criteria for making decisions?  Are there specifications to meet? A deadline? How will solution alternatives be evaluated?  What is the set of required or mutually acceptable criteria?

Clarify facts vs. opinions.  Facts can be checked.  Opinions can be supported by facts.  Do you have enough relevant facts to form well-supported opinions?

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4. Agree

Find a point of agreement.

In gridlocked conversation, people can become so entrenched in their opposing viewpoints that they fail to see the many areas of agreement.  A small point of agreement can lead to an avalanche of agreement.

Zoom off.  If you can get other people saying “yes” on other issues (“move on to something else),” you not only get a break from the issue at hand, you also build positive lean-forward momentum.

Zoom out.  You can zoom out of the situation and look at it more globally, finding agreement on the “big picture” or the company’s mission and values and then zoom it back in to the issue at hand.

Zoom in.  If you can you can get them saying “yes” on minor points (or even points that are not in contention), you change the nature of the discussion and make it easier to come to an agreement.

You can even have a series of easy questions, that all have the answer “yes,” in order to move from gridlock to dialogue.

In the example of the 2 project managers:

Dave:  “Tom, we’ve been butting heads on this issue all week” (Tom nods “yes”)

Dave:  “Going ’round and ’round is getting us nowhere, right?”  

Tom:   “You’re right on that!” (a second “yes”)

Dave:   “It seems the problem boils down to us both wanting the same resources at the same time.” (Dave goes for agreement on what the problem is)

Tom:  “That about sums it up.” (a third “yes”)

Dave:  “So, if we could find a way to use different resources or the same resources, but at different times, then our problem would be solved, right?” (Dave sets up for another way of thinking about the problem).

Tom:  “Yeah, but I don’t see how that would happen.” (a fourth “yes,” qualified with skepticism)

At this point, Tom is opening to hear some of Dave’s ideas, which might wisely include bringing in a 3rd party perspective.  Gridlock has turned to dialogue.

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5. Focus on Solutions

In a gridlocked conversation, the problem often seems to be the other person.  You end up in a “You vs. Me” battle.

Win or lose, you lose.

If you win, it is a hollow victory if the other person feels resentful and vindictive towards you.

Another approach is “We vs. the Problem.”  It’s not You vs. Me, it’s We vs. the Problem.  This has the advantage of encouraging cooperation and is a useful mindshift.  An even more productive mindshift is “We Find a Solution.”

It’s not that understanding problems isn’t important.  But as humans, we have a tendency to get mired in the problems.  The reason we tend to focus on problems rather than solutions is that our brains are prediction machines, continually trying to predict outcomes of actions while at the same time trying to minimize risk and maximize reward.  Problems are often based on past experience, so it is easier to focus on them.  Solutions lie in the uncertain future.

Here are a few ways to get started on focusing on solutions:

Simplify the situation by stating the major clear goals (don’t start with a comprehensive, detailed list).

Big Picture. Think whole to parts.  Consider the big picture first and then the relevant details.

Small Steps. Act parts to whole.  Solve small parts, in small steps.  Consider trial solutions to gather data as to feasibility.

Minimize  problems with the possible solution, at first.  Give the solution a chance to grow in the imaginations before you allow people to snipe at it (“let’s focus on how this can work before we pick it apart”)

In the example with the project engineers, Dave might have proposed the following trial solution:

Dave:  “Tom, would you be willing to try an idea for 3 days? Asha and Jake are willing to work overtime–up to 12 hours a day each, 6 hours for each of our projects.  Actually, they both would like the extra money and are OK with working hard for a few weeks. I got the OK from John to try it for a few days, if you are agreeable.  He said there would be enough money in the budget to do it for a month, if it works out.  Are you willing to try it for 3 days?”

Tom:  “Well, I guess we could try it.  It will probably push out the schedule.  But for 3 days . . . let’s do it.”

Move your conversations from gridlock to dialogue:  Stop. Listen. Clarify. Agree. Focus on Solutions.

I’d love to hear what works for you!

“In solving a problem, think whole to parts, but act parts to whole.” –Diane Windingland

This post is 6th in the series 7 Principles of Making Relationships Work at Work.

This content is also featured in, The Respect Virus:  How to Create a Contagious Culture of Respect

The Respect Virus

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About Diane Windingland
I speak for organizations that want their people to have better, more profitable conversations.

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