Pursue What Matters
Episode 192: Task 3 of Conflict Management: Effective Problem Solving
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Dr. Melissa Smith 0:00
When it comes to conflict management, you must first manage yourself and then seek understanding of the other. But in order to make real headway, you’ve got to get good at problem solving.
Hi, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith, welcome to the Pursue What Matters podcast where we focus on what it takes to thrive in love and work. So over the past few weeks, we’ve been talking about conflict management, we all have it, whether at home or at work. And one thing that I have learned over the years as a psychologist and a leadership coach is most of us are very uncomfortable. With managing conflict, we tend to be conflict avoidant, or we’re overly reactive. And so of course, we can all benefit from skills. These are practice skills, that it’s not like you check them off a list at a certain point. But you know, we’re constantly having interactions, we’re constantly in relationships, hopefully. And so we’ve got lots of opportunities to practice these skills. But here’s the other thing, right? I mentioned, we all have conflict, this is true. If you don’t have conflict, that can be actually a bigger problem. So to start off this series, several weeks ago, I made the case that conflict can be healthy and is even necessary to get better solutions, tackle big challenges, strengthen teams, and strengthen relationships. So today, we’re going to wrap up this series series by focusing on the third task of conflict management, which is problem solving, right, we gotta get to better solutions. And here’s, here’s the thing when it comes to conflict management, the sad news is that many actually never get to the point of problem solving, because they failed to master the first two tasks of conflict management. So again, the first task is, you’ve got to manage yourself, you’ve got to manage your stress response in the moment, so you can show up to those conversations with curiosity, and not defense, and then second, you must seek understanding. So it’s really important to take the time to understand the perspective of the other person, because you might feel like you understand the solution perfectly. But you’re not alone. In that situation, right. There’s another person, there are other team members. And they have different perspectives. And they might have perspectives and goals and expectations, that conflict with yours. And so it’s really important to prioritize seeking understanding. And so these first two tasks really set a strong foundation for effective problem solving, because we have a better idea of what we’re up against. And so every week with the podcast, my goal is to help you pursue what matters by strengthening your confidence to lead in one of three areas. So first, I want to help you lead with clarity, which is all about purpose, where are we going? And why does it matter. Second, leading with curiosity, which is all about self awareness, and self reflection. And third is leading and building a community. And so each of these tasks is really focused on helping you lead and build a community. So effective teams, effective relationships. And so that’s really what we’re going to be focusing on today. So let’s first start with the need to identify a plan.
So right, we’re looking at this task three, which is effective problem solving. So you’ve managed yourself, you’ve gotten your, you’ve gotten your problematic responses out of the way, right, so we don’t have defensiveness, we don’t have anger, we don’t have blaming. And now you’ve also taken some time to really seek understanding, recognizing that that’s an ongoing pursuit. But we really want to prioritize listening and getting the other perspective. And now it’s time for some problem solving. And so the first thing we want you to do when it comes to problem solving, is to identify the plan, okay? So identify what can be problem solved in real time and solve it. So when someone comes to you with an issue or concern, they want a solution, right? Like there’s, there’s some suffering, there’s some discontent, there’s some concern. And so, you know, whether this is with clients, whether this is with an internal team, whether this is at home, if we can provide real solutions in real time, we’re going to have a lot more satisfaction in our relationships, and we’re just going to be more effective. And so we want to take action in The moment as much as possible now, we don’t want to be over reactive, we want to be thoughtful about that. So if you consider, okay, this is something I can do in real time, but ooh, there might be some concerns with it slow yourself down, it would be better not to do that than to do something rash, and have that undermine you or the work or the relationship down the road. But often, when we get into these conflict situations, or feedback situations, a mistake many of us make is we talk about the problem, instead of solving the problem. So of course, we want to understand it, that we can spend a lot of time up in the clouds talking around the problem without actually solving it. And so if there are targets, that can be identified that can be solved in that moment, do it right. Sometimes if we think about in the in family, relationships, marital relationship, sometimes the, the solution is acknowledgement or an apology, okay, and you can do that, right. Like if you’re not too prideful, if you don’t have too much ego. Going in there, if you don’t have too much defensiveness, you could solve that problem, right, you could acknowledge the concern, you could apologize, you could take responsibility for your actions. And that’s super effective. And it helps to ensure or make it less likely that this problem will keep coming up again. And so we want to first solve what we had in the moment. But then we want to identify a clear plan for problem solving that maybe can’t happen in real time, right? So not all of that can happen in real time. So in that case, let’s let’s identify a plan for the problem solving. Now, when we do this, we want to be as specific as we can, we want to pin down specific dates, tasks, responsibility, who’s going to do what, and when it comes to conflict situations, right, they’re uncomfortable, they’re quite vulnerable. And so you know, our body is telling us you need to flee, you need to get out of here, which is why we need to manage ourselves. But if you’re not careful, you can short circuit, that process, because you just want it over with right because it is more distressful. And so my recommendation here is to is to actually slow yourself down and, and make as specific of a plan as you can. Because a lot of times, you know, when it gets to the problem solving stage will say, Okay, we’ll do this and that, but we’re failing, we’re not pinning down, I mean it down, it may not be realistic, we haven’t given anyone accountability. And so the recommendation is to be as specific as you can make sure we have accountability pinned down. And then, right as part of identifying the plan, we want to provide a timeline and help the individual or the team members who have the client, whoever you’re talking to help that individual understand where they’re at in the process.
So here is, here’s the timeline for moving forward. This is where we’re at now, these are the next three steps, right? So identify what’s done, identify what’s due, identify the percentage to completion. Now, this is very straightforward when it comes to task driven work or project based work, right, because maybe we have assets, we have specific calls that need to be made. And so we can really pin down the specifics of that plan very nicely. And having details helps us to manage our uncertainty, right, because uncertainty leads to distress. As humans, we don’t like uncertainty. And yet much of Life is uncertain. We, we can’t pin everything down. But for those things we can pin down. We should do that because it helps to convey both competence and confidence. It also builds trust, because the individual that you’re planning with knows that you’re taking their concern seriously. Another thing that you can do as part of the clear plan for problem solving and providing a timeline is you can paint done. Now I’ve talked about this skill on the podcast before this comes to us from the research of Dr. Brene. Brown, her dare to lead Leadership Research. If you want to learn more about that. Definitely follow up with me I’m a certified dare to lead facilitator. Paint done is probably one of the most useful tools that teams have found. So teams that I have worked with, whether that’s in a coaching relationship, whether that’s me going into organizations and doing trainings or doing keynote addresses, paint done is super helpful. And so what we do with paint done is we when we are doing task assignment or planning, we paint done right we paint the picture of what what done will look like so you ask the question, what does done look like what will be required or who will need to be involved. So right you think about, there are these five C’s of strategic planning, decision making and delegation. And so these five C’s really help you to round out, paint done. So you think about color, right? Give us that color commentary, the details that maybe we don’t know if we’re not in. If we haven’t seen the timeline from beginning to end, we provide context, right? So why is why is this timeline important? Or why is this component important? Right? You really help to frame the task or the assignment in the larger picture of a project or a growth initiative. And we also provide connective tissue. So how does this task relate to what what’s happening in other areas of either the project or the organization, so those connecting links are really important, those really help us to, to buy in to purpose and to understand how our work fits into the larger picture. And that’s really important, because that gives us a sense of purpose and meaning it helps us to be more engaged at work. So it’s really valuable. The next C is consequence, right? So what are the consequences of not doing this? What are the consequences of doing it? Right. So if we don’t get this task done on time, it’s going to throw the whole project over budget, and over time by six weeks, right? Like, that’s, that’s a big consequence for many organizations, right. And that’s a big consequence when it comes to client work. And so having that clarity, and that understanding is really important. Because it again, increases motivation and buy in to say, Wow, other people are counting on me. And you might not like that, right? That might feel like pressure, but it’s actually one of the most important factors to keep people engaged at work, we want to be part of something that matters. And we want to see how our work connects to others.
And then the last C is cost. So what are the costs in terms of time in terms of resources, and in terms of money, if we don’t get this, right, and so when we paint done, we paint the picture of what’s required with the task. And we provide as much information as we can to help team members to help individuals to help clients be successful. It that’s also a really, it sets the foundation for accountability, which is what we’ll talk about next. So the first task or the first step with task three, is identify the plan. So we’ve just talked about that. And now, let’s head to the second step, which is we need to structure accountability, right? So we’re focused on task three, which is effective problem solving. And so accountability is really important. So first, we think about structuring the conversation. So when you’re in a conflict situation, it’s really important to slow it down and structure the conversation provide, provide some guidance, some organization to that, because that’s going to help bring down the physiological arousal of everyone in the room, right? Okay, we have a plan, we’re gonna go through one, we’re gonna go through two, we’re gonna go through three. And it helps us get out of some of the crazy making that can happen in our minds with the stress response. So for example, you might say, based on these three concerns, I would recommend this plan for the rest of this call, I would recommend these steps for this coming week. And maybe these steps for the next quarter, right. So you just lay it out, clearly, succinctly. Let’s help people to really get online with the linear thinking when it comes to problem solving. And then we also want to identify the next steps, and we need to get agreement on those steps. So of course, this doesn’t mean that everyone in the room will agree on all of the details of each step. But we are getting agreement on what the process will look like. Okay, so we’re agreeing that these are the three next steps we’re going to take and we have understanding of why it’s important to take these three next steps. Now, there might be lots of disagreement in the details of those steps. But right now we’re getting buy in into what the process will look like, which helps us to organize the problem solving process. Okay. So after we structure the conversation, we then want to move into gathering information. So of course, some of that information you can gather in real time in the moment, some of that information will need to be done offline and that might be some Saying that you, you know, you delegate and that different team members take different responsibilities. So what do you do in that conversation? First, you identify the steps that will need to be taken in order to gather the information and solve the problem. One of the things that I have seen happen with teams on client calls, you know, you have a client get on a call, they’re really frustrated, because they don’t know what’s going on, or they have a lack of clarity that can can often happen, right? Because we kind of get in our bubble doing our thing. And we make assumptions that the client is with us. And they might not be because we haven’t communicated that clearly. And so then, you know, so they’re bringing up a concern, I don’t have clarity about this, do not ever tell a client that they can look it up, right? Help them, help them get that information in real time as much as possible. So be proactive, don’t, don’t push that responsibility on them. Of course, if it’s if it’s information that they own, that they need to bring to the conversation, that’s a different situation. But still, we would want to use some problem solving language to look at, okay, this is the information we need to get, can you can you get that information for us, let’s put a timeline on that. Let’s build the case for why that’s important. So, right, as much as possible, we want to help individuals find the information that they need, we want to support them in that and share with them how they can help themselves moving forward, right. So maybe they don’t have clarity about how your system works. And so some coaching through that can be really helpful. So when you you have an individual with a concern, right? Like, why is this not happening? Again, we want to resist that tendency to get defensive. So you might say, Hey, that’s a really good question. I’m going to need to follow up with maybe this person to get you an accurate answer. Can I Can I follow up with you, you know, by Wednesday to make that happen. And so you take accountability for what you will do, even if you can’t do it in that moment. Okay, so so the next thing that we want to talk about when it comes to structuring accountability is having timelines and deadlines. Now, remember, I said, Be as specific as you can with your planning, put a deadline on yourself, and confirm that the deadline is acceptable. So if you’re having a conflict conversation, it’s like, okay, these are the steps that need to happen. Put, put deadlines on everyone. And then obviously, make sure you’re sticking to those and follow up with the other person by the deadline, or even better before, right, and we want you to communicate all along that timeline so that you’re helping them to have the progress updates, because here’s the thing, if there’s been a conflict, if there’s been a concern, we have had a breakdown in trust, right. To some degree, we don’t know how big that breach is, it depends on the situation. But one of the ways that we can rebuild trust is by increasing accountability, and communication. And so we do want to communicate all along that timeline. And what I would say is communicate even when you don’t have anything to report, right, so I want to give you a status update, I’m still working on gathering that information that we talked about on Monday, I’m, I’m having a bit of a challenge getting that information, or I need to wait until this person is back in the office to get their assistance on it. So I can get that information to you by Friday. So you communicate every step along that timeline. And then the last point here, when it comes to structuring accountability is ask for what you need. So if you’re in a conflict situation, say with a client who’s really frustrated, right, you can say in order for us to most effectively help you, we need this from you, right? We need this information, or we need you to be consistent with your appointments, or we need you to show up to the meetings. And so don’t be afraid to ask for what you need. Consider what will make the work more successful. Consider what will help you, the client, your team, whatever the situation is being more successful, and then ask for what you need. Right? Do that directly do that respectfully, but do it. It’s a real problem. If you you know, in these complex situations where you’re moving to problem solving, if you don’t ask for what you need that’s on you. And that’s going to come back to bite you later on guaranteed. So be proactive and asking for what you need. Now, sometimes we don’t do that because we feel badly. It’s like, oh, well, I’ve already messed up. I don’t want to ask more of them. But when we get to problem solving, this is where we really need to pin down responsibility. And so you’ve got to ask for what you need, you also need to make the case for what you need and, and why and how their cooperation will facilitate the process. So it is a collaboration, you, you’ve got to work together. And it’s important to build that case for why that matters.
So okay, here we’re talking about the third task, which is effective problem solving. We’ve talked about one step, which is to identify the plan. And we’ve talked about a second step, which is to structure accountability. And now we’ll talk about the third step, which is to skill up. So this is where we really want to use some great tools that come to us from the dare to lead research. And so first, we have rumble starters. And these are tools specifically for starting conversations. And so some of these rumble starters can include, tell me more I’m curious about helped me understand, that’s not my experience. So we disagree without being disagreeable, right? We help to kind of broaden the conversation sometimes, in a conflict situation, we can kind of get tunnel vision, and we can get a little rigid in our thinking, right? We can start using all or nothing language or always or never. And so this rumble starter of that’s not my experience is a really nice way to kind of expand perspectives and open that conversation up. You can disagree without being disagreeable. Well, let me tell you, what’s what’s worked for me and approaching this person. Another rumble starter is I’m working from these assumptions, what about you? So we make sure that we’re clear on assumptions. And then another one that I think is so helpful, this is very, very helpful in complex situations, is asking, what problem are we trying to solve? It’s not uncommon to recognize that we’re trying to solve two different problems. And obviously, that becomes really difficult to do. And so we want to really pin down those expectations, and assumptions. And then I want to talk about the rumble tools. And these are tools specifically for giving and receiving feedback. So maybe you are giving someone feedback, or maybe you’re on the receiving end of feedback. The first one is asking, what’s my part? So how have I contributed to this concern, or to this conflict, this is really important, it’s so good, because it helps us to look in the mirror first, rather than casting blame at the other person. And so it helps us to first be self reflective. And that can really soften our conversation. As we move in to the conversation. You can also ask What does support look like? Right? So like, you identify the gap, this is the problem. This is what needs to happen, right? We have absolute clarity about that. And then what does support look like? How can I support you in this, like, what’s going to make a difference here? And then we also ask, what key learnings can we take from this? So this is messy, we’ve got a, we’ve got a plan in place to problem solve. But what are the lessons we can learn from this right? One of the lessons might be we’re not going to make exceptions anymore, or we’re going to be more thorough in our vetting process. Or we’re going to respect our process, because when we cut corners on our process, things fall apart. And that can often be one of the key learnings. We also need to examine hidden intention. So Are there hidden intentions that we need to name whether that is someone having ill intent for the other person or saying that they’re on board, but really being kind of undermining in their behavior? And then similarly, we want to examine stealth expectations.
So are there expectations that one party has that the other parties are not aware of? So I was like, okay, yeah, we agree to an eight week timeline, but one of the parties actually has a stealth expectation of six weeks. And so when when the team isn’t aligning to the six week, stealth, expectation or timeline, they’re they’re getting up in other people’s grill, or they’re getting frustrated. And it’s like, the rest of the team is like, what is going on? Right? Because as far as we can see it we’re on track, things are going along nicely. And so really looking at when things don’t add up when there’s a gap when there’s a concern, are there stealth expectations, right? So hidden expectations that we need to honor that we need to pay attention to. And then the last rumbled tool that I want to talk about today is assessing if there is horizon conflict. So horizon conflict just recognizes that anyone right on a project, a conversation, a team, there are many different horizons at play, right? One horizon might be in the next hour, another horizon might be that day, another horizon might be two months, three months, three years out, and recognize Anything that the horizon you’re paying attention to really shifts your approach to problem solving, it also really shifts the kinds of timelines that you have. And so if you’re working on a project and one team member has a two year timeline, and everyone else has a six week timeline, you can see how you’re going to run into conflict. And so there is going to be conflict horizon conflict, right, because there are multiple horizons. And that’s not necessarily a problem. But we need to understand the horizon conflict so that we can problem solve to say, Okay, I didn’t think I needed to do this for another two months. And what I’m hearing from you, is you need it by the end of next week. Okay, that’s helpful information to know. So how do we get to alignment on our goals, and that’s what horizon conflict is all about. And then the last thing that I want to talk about here with the third step, which is to skill up, is to be willing to clarify expectations as needed. So, you know, being able to say we’re here to understand your concerns and clarify expectations. So when we have conflict, and we get to that problem solving mode, what we might recognize is what we’ve done to this point isn’t going to be effective, right. And that can be for a whole host of reasons. This is why we want to understand the problem. We want to gather information. But you it’s okay to clarify expectations, it’s okay to make adjustments as needed, as you have more information and more understanding. So we want to solve your problems and identify a productive path forward. In order for our time to be productive, right, we ask that everyone show up professionally, that we address specific concerns directly and respectfully, that we avoid personal attacks. So you’re setting expectations for the conversation, you’re setting the expectations for the work, you’re identifying what your boundaries are. And these should always hue to the boundaries of professionalism, right? ethical professional behavior, it’s very appropriate to assert boundaries as needed.
So if expectations that you’ve set out are violated, you can set the boundary, you can end the meeting, you can say I don’t think this is productive anymore. We’ve talked about these expectations, and 123 times you violated them. Be clear about why you’re ending the conversation, though, and then include follow up to say, I don’t think that this meeting is effective at this point. So why don’t we all take some time and reflect on the next steps, and then we can follow up next week, let’s pin down that time. So that you always do have the follow up, but you give everyone some space to just settle down. And you’re also setting the expectation that we’re going to abide by professional boundaries. And if you don’t do that, it just opens the door for people to behave badly. Moving forward. And obviously, we want to avoid that. And so today, we talked about the the third task of conflict management, which is effective problem solving. And I talked about three steps to really help you problem solve. So first, we need to identify the plan. Second, we need to structure accountability. And third, we need to skill up and I shared several skills from the dare to lead research. I talked about clarifying expectations with that. And so I hope that these three tasks can be helpful for you that you feel like you’re going into conflict to have more skills, more confidence, and you can have the conversations that you need to have. It’s one of the most important skills of effective leadership is that willingness to say what needs to be said to have those conversations in, in the uncomfortable space. It’s really what separates good leaders from really, really stellar leaders.
And so head on over to my website, to check out the show notes with the resources for this episode www.drmelissasmith.com/192-conflictmanagementtask3. So again, that’s www.drmelissasmith.com/192-conflictmanagementtask3. And so I hope this is helpful for you. I’ve got lots of more resources, lots more resources on Instagram @dr.melissasmith I’d love to connect from you. Connect with you there. I’d love to hear what you want to hear about on the podcast. In the meantime, I’m Dr. Melissa Smith. Remember love and work, work and love. That’s all there is. Until next time, take good care.
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