Is there a lazy co-worker who bothers you? A manager who only cares about impressing her higher ups? A client who is trying to be as difficult as possible?
A universal problem in conflict is that we often get the other person wrong. We look at their words and behavior and we tell ourselves stories that explain those words and behaviors. And we believe those stories are true.
A simple example was shared by a student, Tom, who was upset with his classmate.
Every day, Tom would come in and find his school desk cluttered with his classmate’s stuff. His classmate would say in slightly broken English, “Ah, Tom. You here. Okay” and start frantically clearing the desk of the belongings. His classmate would then say, “Ready for class, yeah?” And give Tom a high five.
Tom was super annoyed that every day he walked into class to find this other guy’s stuff all over his desk. Until one day Tom was late to class. Another student who was also late tried to steal Tom’s desk since it was closest to the door. But Tom’s classmate said, “I’m sorry. My good friend Thomas sits here.”
Tom realized the guy wasn’t trying to be annoying. He was saving Tom’s seat every morning.
A whole lot of conflict is based on misunderstandings. We get people wrong. And it happens all the time.
In psychology there is a phenomenon known as The Illusion of Asymmetric Insight – The illusion we know others better than they know us. We overestimate the accuracy of our understanding of other people’s behavior.
We make assumptions about people, their behavior, their intent and their values that are NOT true.
Another big reason we get people wrong is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their existing beliefs. In other words, our brains literally do not want to allow in information that conflicts with our current beliefs. This clouds our judgement and our perceptions.
So, not only do we make mistaken judgements about other people, we are convinced those judgments are correct.
Even if you both agree on the facts that are causing the conflict, you often assign a motivation to the other person that he/she may or may not have. We tell ourselves stories about each other that aren’t true.
How can we get people right?
There are two simple steps you can take to get clarity on the situation and the other person.
#1 – Ask yourself, “Is it true?” Have you assigned a motivation or intent to the other person? Is it true that your boss only cares about climbing the ladder? Or are there ways she does try to help you? Is it true that your co-worker is lazy? Or does he have different work priorities? Is a client purposefully being difficult? Or could there be something that is worrying that person?
Bottom line, challenge your assumptions and ask yourself if there could be another explanation for the person’s behavior?
Which brings us to step #2.
#2 – Gather information
In a conflict, often the other person has information, an expectation, or an experience you do not have. Gather missing information. Take off your boxing gloves and put on your detective hat. Learn something about the other person.
“I noticed you put your things on my desk every morning. What’s up with that?”
“What’s most important to you about your work here?”
“I want to make sure there aren’t any misunderstandings. Is there any information I’m missing? What’s important for me to know?”
“I want to make sure we’re on the same page. When you say (X) I hear (Y). Is that accurate?”
“Can you walk me through your thinking on this? I want to make sure we’re both crystal clear.”
Of course, tone is everything. You are coming from a place of curiosity and desire for clarity. You are NOT trying to blame or judge the other person.
Your only goal is to walk away with more information and to test to be sure the information you have is correct. The more clarity you have, the greater your ability to influence a positive outcome.
And you can avoid a lot of unnecessary suffering over a belief that may not be true.