Small businesses are often like families, in ways good and bad. As a lawyer who focuses my practice on estate planning and elder law my practice involves a great deal of actual and potential family conflict. As a holistic lawyer my goal, whether I am serving as an advocate or mediator, is avoiding or diffusing conflict and preserving family unity whenever possible. This article will attempt to pass on lessons I have learned from working with family conflicts to help you as you try to diffuse conflicts within your small business family.
Do Be Calm & Respectful
Whether you are trying to diffuse conflict among subordinates or manage your own conflict with co-workers, you will have more success if you remain calm and respectful throughout the process.
1. Wait to address the conflict until you, and whoever else is involved, are rested and free from distractions.
2. Connect with your own core values. People often enter conflicts with at least some thought to what they want to happen at the end of the conflict. Fewer people take the time to remember what kind of person they want to be at the end of the conflict. The clearer you are with yourself about that second issue the more likely you are to make good long-term decisions. If you are someone who prides yourself on being “honest,” “kind,” or “compassionate,” taking a minute to remind yourself of that will make it more likely that you notice when you are not reflecting those values.
3. Remind yourself of your “opponents” humanity and value to you. Recapture your most positive memory with that person. Take stock of what losing or damaging the relationship would mean to both your business’ bottom line and you personally. It may keep you from making statements or ultimatums you will later regret.
4. When you feel yourself slipping, breathe deep, count to ten, and let your voice in your head remind you “I am going to be calm and respectful.”
Do Break Problems Down to Manageable Units
If your problem or conflict feels overwhelming, break it down into manageable units. Consider bringing a draft agenda that reflects those units. Be open to the other people revising that agenda. Give yourself and everyone else involved a pat on the back each time a unit is resolved. People love progress.
Do Really Listen
Attentive, compassionate listening is the difference between a fight and an attempt at resolution. If you are not ready to listen to what the other people involved have to say, take time to get yourself into that place. Real listening means that you are patient and focused. It means being as non-judgmental as possible. It also means being curious. Assume the other person has a perspective or information that will be new to you and that you can learn from. Ask open-ended questions.
Do Understand & Acknowledge
Cultivate a desire to understand all points of view in your conflict. Understanding is not the same as agreeing. You don’t need to agree with everyone. You probably won’t. But you will come to the best resolution if you can understand them with empathy. Realize that empathy is not just knowing what the other person would “say,” it is imagining how the other person would “feel.” Repeat back what you hear in your own words to check if you are really hearing what they mean. If you notice someone is repeating themselves, before getting annoyed, check if you have signaled that you have truly taken in what they have said. Rather that responding with “you have said that five times already,” try saying “I understand that you think....” Trust me. It works better.
Don’t lie or heap praise where it is undeserved but realize that the need for acknowledgement is often the root cause of conflict. To the full extent it can honestly be done, acknowledge efforts, emotions, good intentions, and improvement. Also acknowledge legitimate challenges such as time pressure, lack of training, and conflicting obligations. Acknowledge changes that make old patterns ineffective in the current environment. Make these acknowledgments in both your conversations and any written reporting. You may find that these acknowledgements go a long way toward diffusing the conflict. If nothing else, they will help you to be and seem reasonable.
Do Use Normalizing Language
We save our most dramatic feelings and language for fights with those that we are closest to. Such language often gets in the way of solving problems. Whenever possible use the most normalizing or non-dramatic language that you can when stating your position. If the other person is using high drama in their language, don’t match it. Instead try to mirror back what they have just said in the most normalizing language you can. If they say “Jane has been spending the last few month obsessing on ways to sabotage me!” Trying saying “I understand that you feel that Jane has been acting in ways that undermine your ability to succeed.” It can be hard if the dramatic language is about you or your actions but it is a powerful tool to guide a discussion toward the most successful possible outcome. Ask parents of teenagers. Saying “I understand that you are angry” is universally more effective that yelling, “yeah, well, I hate you too” and slamming your own door.
Do Look for Contributions to Problems Rather Than Blame
Most problems are complex. Yet all too often we search for the simplest explanation, finding one person or one thing to blame. Whenever possible, try to shift your thinking from looking for who or what is to blame to looking for the many contributions that might be leading to the problem. That does not mean that all contributions are equal or that all people involved in a conflict are equally right. But once the focus has been placed squarely on finding what is contributing to the problem, you are opening yourself up to a more complex, collaborative approach to solving it.
Do Distinguish Between Impact & Intent
One of the most fascinating features of working with people in conflict is discovering how often people focus on their own intentions and on the impact of other’s actions on them. We are always more generous in attributing our own intentions than we are about others.
Failing to distinguish between intent and impact often leads to us making unfair assumptions about the intentions of others. Being accused of being “spiteful,” “insecure,” or “thoughtless,” puts people on the defensive. In the case of “spiteful” it can also be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Focus your discussion on how the other person’s actions impacted you without assuming that impact was intentional, and you are likely to make more progress.
Similarly, focusing only on your own good intentions can blind you to the negative impacts those actions can have others. Good intentions don’t sanitize bad acts. Someone can not mean to be sabotaging or exclusionary and be so nonetheless
Intentions can never really be known by anyone other than the actor themselves. Arguing about them tends to be fruitless. Impacts may not always be obvious but because they are external they can at least be meaningfully debated.
Do Focus on Solutions
Past actions can be apologized for, regretted, forgiven or resented. They cannot be changed. So the focus of any useful discussion needs to be an understanding of what went wrong and a plan for the future. That plan may involve making amends through future action or avoiding repetition. Keep your eye on those goals and remember that is where success can lie.
Keep an open mind until you have talked to everyone involved and done your homework. We all have a tendency to stick all conflicts, no matter how complex, into the simple scripts that we have in our minds from our own personal lives or our cultural stereotypes. Assumptions will limit your ability to get information and make good choices. Remember that people who develop a reputation for agreeing with the first version of every conflict they hear encourage people to run to them first with every problem so the other guy doesn’t beat them to the punch. That is a sure way to introduce more drama into your life than you need or want.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
I am a big fan of people attempting to resolve their own conflicts without involving others when that is possible. Sometimes it simply isn’t. If you can’t find your way out of a conflict and you value the relationship for either business or personal reasons, consider the possibility of bringing in a professional mediator or other neutral to help you find a collective solution. Mediators can be lawyers, counselors, or others who have training and experience in helping people solve problems together that they are unable to solve independently. Mediation services are confidential. Mediators bring not only facilitative skill