The Right and Wrong Ways of Head-On Confrontations

One of the basic premises of project management is you’re going to butt heads with someone at some point. It’s just a fact of life when you’re trying to get something done on deadline and on budget.

That’s why it’s good to know the right way and the wrong way to butt heads. Dan Rockwell, author of the Leadership Freak blog has some excellent advice on how to tackle (not literally) opponents in your way – without them feeling run over.

He shares his points in an article entitled “12 Dos and Don’ts for Butting Heads Successfully.” While I’m not going to just print the list verbatim, I am going to highlight some of the more salient points. There are also some comments to the article you may want to read.

Here are five of his don’ts I want to focus on:

Don’t talk over things with affirming friends who take your side rather than exploring issues. – Basically, don’t build yourself up off the opinion of “yes men” (or women). Conflicts aren’t resolved successfully when the only view you entertain is your own.

Don’t forget the big picture. You may become so focused that you forget the impact of your suggestions on others. – It’s the age-old saying: don’t sweat the small stuff. Small thinkers have small careers. Big thinkers who can see the big picture are more successful.

Don’t use, “You,” aggressively. Ask, don’t tell people what they think. – It personalizes a disagreement too much when the focus is on a particular person. You may not think that’s the case but overusing the pronoun “you” conveys that point. Asking people for input sets up a cooperative environment.

Don’t sit at conference tables or in offices. Relaxed atmospheres lower barriers. – Grab a cup of coffee is the simple solution. Even heading outside to breathe in some fresh air can work wonders. Step outside your zone of confrontation and meet on neutral ground.

Don’t overreact. Choose the emotional middle. – As the parent of young children, what comes to mind is this: use your inside voice. Another point that works with children – and will work with adults – is the statement, “You’re not that kind of child.” It means, is this the way you want to be perceived? It actually works on quieting down my girls. Ask yourself that question mentally when you start to boil over.

Here are five of his dos worthing following up on:

Define issues, problems, and challenges. It’s a waste of time to talk around what’s important. – Basically you have to cut to the chase. It’s difficult to do this in corporate environments at times, you think, but it ultimately garners respect when done well.

State and restate the arguments of others. Make people feel understood, even if you disagree. – This is the drive-through approach to conflict resolution. Never heard of it? Well, if you have a toddler you might have because it’s a theory from “The Happiest Toddler on the Block” (a must read for parents). Basically, when you order fast food, the cashier repeats back to you what you ordered. It’s an affirming step that makes you know you are understood and resolves any questions you might have. The same is true in any discussion. Restate the argument and you’re halfway there to resolving it.

Believe things can be better, even if not perfect. – You don’t have to be a pie in the sky optimist but you also can’t be imbued with a rain cloud over your head. It’s a sign of weakness when you project negativity.

Take breaks. Marathon conversations wear people down. Tired people do and say dumb things. – This was touched on in an article I wrote recently on stand-up meetings. It said, in effect, no meeting should last more than 15 minutes. Granted, that’s not always possible, but a one-on-one confrontational conversation more than a half-hour long just isn’t going to be productive.

Prepare by exploring issues, not rehearsing sentences. – This is a trick good public speakers use. Have bullet points – not a canned speech. Understand the broad outlines. It will help you speak to specific points without seeming like you have rehearsed. It makes your language flow more freely and more openly. After all, openness is perceived positively even when butting heads.

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