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Sunday, 17 January 2016 16:20

The customer is always right. Right?

Managing challenging relationships - tips for great communication.

Our customers often challenge us to comply with some warped sense of expectation. Maybe we created this expectation or maybe they are MAD. Whatever the cause, the resulting conflict can damage relationships and reduce productivity.

  1. What is conflict?
  2. Listening and giving feedback
  3. The customer is always right. Right?
  4. Responding under pressure
  5. Team up to form, storm, norm and perform

1. What is conflict?

Conflict is an expected condition of interacting with the world. Managed well, conflict is normal. Dispute is a conflict that is uncontrolled where each person views the situation through a different lens – each person believing different versions of the truth. The cost of conflict is a vicious cycle. We need to learn about interactions where conflict competence is a virtuous cycle. Conflict management is best viewed as a spectrum, not a process. As such, our approach to peace is not steps to be followed in order. People may jump from point to point in any order and for unknown periods of time. The key to conflict competence is to assess where parties are at, and work with them to start considering interests toward resolution and settlement. If we keep things simple it will cost less, we will have more options and control over the process and the outcomes.

2. Listening and giving feedback.

There is an art to hearing more and reacting more positively (Mindfulness). Asking open questions to will encourage a more forthright response and empower the other person to remain present in the conversation. Open questions gather information to make informed choices, and have the other person believe you want hear their story and that you care about their point of view. Closed questions leave people feeling manipulated – especially when we know what the answer is and aim to manipulate the conversation. Closed questions easily provoke lies.

i. Empathy: 

When we build empathy, we generate empathy in return. This creates relationships of trust. Good communication leads to managed conflict and fewer disputes. Taking time to listen and hear is a key skill toward conflict management. Being able to hear the underlying interests of the other person builds understanding and generates further options. An agreement is a high level meeting of the minds where certainty is created through looking at the agreement from every angle to ensure that every contingency and risk has been covered – securing a mutual commitment is a key component to powerful and effective communication. Paraphrasing key points of understanding will allow opportunity for the person to feel heard and if there is a difference, provide opportunity for clarification.

ii. Emotion:

Emotion is full of information. However it can be difficult to handle highly charged emotional incidents. People who act out anger are often feeling something different:

  • Insecurity / fear
  • Mistaken identification of risk
  • Attack on ego
  • Embarrassment
  • Shame

The real cause of the anger and the conflict is often unknown so there is a perfect opportunity to ask an open question to discover what lays beneath.

iii. Intention and Impact:

How often do we hear people in conflict say to the other, “oh, that’s not what I meant – no you’ve got that wrong, I really meant…….”Sometimes in conflict we don’t intend harm, but we create it anyway. The point is, good intention is not enough to manage conflict, it is all about impact. Positive impact actually doesn’t rely on intention at all. It is based on delivery – Empowerment, empathy and great communication.

iv. Culture:

What values do we all share? The way we live and our beliefs and values all impact on how we manage conflict. Simply put, great communication pays respect to others. When we are mindful of how we are all different and in asking for information rather than making assumptions – we improve communication and manage conflict with improved impact.

3. The customer is always right. Right? – well, no.

But you don’t need to tell them they’re wrong. Seek to maintain a balance of inquiry and advocacy. Our competing interests and positions often upset the balance of peace in all relationships. If you are strong on your goals, and give no regard to relationship – then there will not be a relationship. Also, if you are strong on the relationship with no regard to goals, you may not achieve your goals. Collaboration balances advocacy with inquiry – where agreements become commitments secured collaboratively so that no single person has imposed their will over the other. 

  • Presenting others with positions – and why we should do less of this.

Advocacy is your ability to make a decision and form a view independent of the other person. It is the promotion of our own need to achieve our personal goals.

  • Understanding interests – and why it’s good to do more of this.

Inquiry is your ability to gather information, to ask a question. It is the consideration of the other persons view and needs.

4. Responding under pressure.

Managed conflict is normal but if things change, ensure you are safe. Confirm agreements and commitments. Where possible, get them in writing. Build relationships and ask open questions to seek clarity. Seek help to get communications back on track! Some of the people we meet may sit outside the normal spectrum of communication.

They may become MAD (Mistaken Assessment of Danger) – they believe that you are about to be a threat to them and their goals and ego. You are perceived to be a threat to their security. Because of the perceived danger they use behaviour that is BAD (Behaviour that is Aggressive and Dangerous) – to a greater or lesser extent. What we typically do is MIRROR negative feedback when they do this. This merely confirms their mistaken assessment of danger – now, not so much mistaken.  

This can become a vicious cycle that produces more BAD. You can sometimes break them out of this cycle by giving them your EAR (Empathy Attention and Respect). With a newly opened door to communication you may have created a more collaborative conversation. 

Some people may actually be a real and legitimate danger. They can harm you mentally and physically. A useful strategy is to use CARS (Connect using EAR; Assess our realistic options; Respond to inaccurate information particularly if it may harm you. Rumour and mistruths grow legs and quickly become the truth if you don't counter them with factual information; Set limits on misbehaviour.

At its worst conflict situations may place you in mortal danger. If your physical or emotional well-being is seriously at risk, choose a course akin to avoidance! Quickly remove yourself from the dangerous environment.

  • MAD: Mistaken assessment of danger
  • BAD: Behaviour that is aggressive and dangerous
  • EAR: Empathy, attention and respect
  • CARS: Connect using EAR.

Assess your realistic options. Respond to inaccurate information. Set limits on their behaviour.

5. Team-up to form, storm, norm and perform:

Typically when teams of people are assembled, they experience different phases after the formation. An initial stormy period where people find the pecking order is followed by some normalisation in the relationships. Once normalised, the team dynamic will settle to increasing performance. Note of caution. Change any dynamic of the team and the process starts again! The changes you make as individuals will have a collective positive impact on the success and reputation of your team. 

Conflict is normal – you can use it to enhance communication and seek clarity. Conflict is an opportunity to enhance a relationship. When we all adopt a common practice – the continuity toward good management of conflict will generate respect and improve reputations. Building team relationships is important. You must make a consistent effort in maintaining good communications.

  1. Make sure the real purpose of agreement is clear.
  2. Include all the people involved – don’t allow factions within the project act in isolation.
  3. If there is a mismatch in the communication, fix it quickly. Keep everyone singing from the same song sheet.
  4. Address the hard issues. Sorting gnarly issues will help stop others emerging and model how others should behave. Remember, if parties are challenging during negotiations, they will likely behave the same way during implementation.
  5. Turn agreement into commitment. Ensure all the risks are identified and managed. Reduced ambiguity results in better management of conflict.

Key points on teams:

  1. Gather information and listen.
  2. Use the negotiation to create a positive history of working together.
  3. Air your nightmares and work together to manage risk.
  4. Ensuring you make commitments that you can live up to.
  5. Keep going with your efforts toward good communication until you cross the finish line.

6. Conclusion:

Never underestimate the power of an open question. Asking a question will provide stressed conversations with a greater balance of power. It will slow things to a pace that gives you time to consider options and demonstrate to the other person you have empathy for their situation. Participants will learn how to prepare in advance. Flying by the seat of your pants is a journey to miscommunication. 

Fleetwood Peace Builders are available to make this information available to your teams in a interactive and effective workshop. Please contact Wayne Marriott to arrange an assessment of your training needs.


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