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Difficult Conversations: Part I – Designing for Conflict

Difficult Conversations: Part I – Designing for Conflict

Gordon Eby's picture
Gordon Eby
August 14th, 2018

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Even professional facilitators are scared by “difficult conversations.” I say this as a professional facilitator and recipient of a Master’s degree in Dispute Resolution. However, this experience has also taught me that with the right approach and techniques these conversations can be highly productive. If your job description includes convening groups of people—large or small—to discuss issues and decisions that matter, you want to know how to design for and manage conflict. I will focus on each of these strategies in a two-part series.

Part I: Designing for Conflict

My approach to conflict is informed by “Interest-Based Negotiation” which holds that conflict can be resolved by addressing underlying interests. In other words, resolving a conflict over tangibles like money, authority, title, etc. can be better accomplished by surfacing a person’s needs, hopes, desires, and fears. As a facilitator, you want to “design” ways to surface these interests early. By doing so you enable the group to discuss and solve for what’s really going on and you equip yourself with the knowledge necessary to guide the discussion.

I once facilitated a session for a pharma company focused on a new product launch. The challenge: the new product offering overlapped with a successful existing product. The marketing strategy had to ensure the new product did not cannibalize existing product sales. “Susan,” the executive in charge of the existing product met each proposal for marketing the new product with cynicism, raising tangential objections (e.g. the differences in the way the new drug was administered, and how it was to be reimbursed by payors) and fueling tension in the room.  In order to create space for a productive conversation, we needed to surface the underlying interests informing Susan’s response. To date, Susan’s company standing and professional identity had rested on her product’s strong performance. Recognizing the Susan’s deeper goal was to continue to be an influential executive, we could focus on linking this interest to the organizational goals of increasing overall market share. We shifted from debating reporting structures and titles to highlighting how her in-depth market knowledge would enable her to play a key role in the new product’s success. 

Individual Perspectives

So how do we ensure that a group surfaces and aligns on underlying issues? One way to do is through an exercise called “individual perspectives.”

Each participant is provided with the same future state success scenario and asked to define that success and how it was achieved. Participants work individually to capture their responses on large flipcharts or whitewalls. Responses are then shared in sub-teams and participants are asked to identify key areas of alignment and divergence.  Depending on the group size, this step is followed by a full group report back and discussion intended to synthesize the team-level output.

Several things contribute to the power of this process. First, each person has a chance to articulate his or her perspective on success. Second, questions regarding the future state and how it is achieved are designed to invite deeper level responses. In the face of a major organizational transformation, you might ask “what was the change like” and “what were the challenges you faced” to encourage individuals to articulate the impact on their interests. Once these interests are on the table, the small group sharing allows space for identifying areas of alignment.

The full group share and discussion relies on harnessing the collective wisdom of the group—it’s self-policing function. If one person pushes back on an idea based on interests that only apply to them, the group generally corrects this imbalance by shifting conversation back to the needs of the collective. In the case of Susan, when she attempted to focus solely on how the new drug would negatively impact her current marketing strategy, the group began to discuss key differentiators associated with the new product. When there is space for facilitated dialogue, interests that aren’t germane get tabled and the needs of the group as a whole come to the fore.

Read, Dialogue, Apply

Another effective exercise is called “Read, Dialogue, Apply” in which participants work in small teams to explore a set of topical readings, discuss a set of thought provoking questions, and then apply their learnings to their current situation.

I recently used this approach in a session focused on the impact of the Affordable Care Act on physician compensation. The majority of the participants were doctors whose incomes were about to change—this was personal stuff. However, while we often think of money as being the root cause of things, for these physicians it was about what it represented: security, recognition, prosperity, value, etc.  In order to align the group, we needed to shift from a symbolic discussion of money, to the motivating factors.

We selected a set of readings intended to expand our discussion by focusing on the role of doctors in modern health care and their triple aim of enhancing patient experience, improving population health, and reducing costs. During the dialogue and apply portions, we prompted participants to consider sources of professional fulfillment (helping patients, status in community, financial security, upholding the Hippocratic Oath) and strain (workload, insurance, technology, etc.). By shifting the focus to population-level interests and needs, we were able to return to the topic of compensation with a greater ability to engage in a dialogue focused on addressing underlying interests.

Give these techniques a try and check back for Part II of this series to learn about Managing Conflict in the Moment.

Gordon Eby holds a Masters in Dispute Resolution from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Prior to becoming a facilitator he worked in mediation in the Boston court system, Harvard Law School’s Program on Negoatiation, and United Nations Office of the Ombudsman. For additional reading on Gordon’s thought regarding marrying facilitation and mediation tools, check out http://www.collectivenext.com/blog/marrying-two-methods

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