In this article we will explain how to focus on understanding the interests of the people with whom you work with, with whom you potentially will have disagreements with, and learning how to address them, avoid them or feel comfortable with.
Why did I choose this tool?
In the previous article we talked about when disagreeing with someone, it is important to separate the people from the problem. Here we will go to the second step which is – focus on understanding the interests that determent the conflicts – your own, of your colleagues, participants or anyone that you might get in a disagreement with. For this article, I am going to use the framework from “Getting to yes” (Ury, Fisher and Patton are members of the Harvard Negotiation Project) which is one of the most recognized books for me in the last 35 years on negotiations, conflict management and resolution. I will customize it with my own personal experience of working as a trainer for more than 15 years in different kinds of companies, governmental organizations, NGOs and universities.
Interests are described as a blend of needs, wants and motivations. They can be often hidden, unspoken or sometimes we can be unaware of them. Some of them might change on a daily basis, because of a sudden realization or an experience. Some might be there for a lifetime. That makes the interests intangible, inconsistent, unclear or unexpressed.
Sometimes it is difficult to express the interests out loud because of many reasons – they might be intimate, they might be misunderstood or judged upon, the other people might disagree with them, or they are based on a variety of values. All of this makes people have “positions”.
For example: I had a quite intense disagreement with my colleague about the development of the program for the next training course. My position was that we should develop the new training course in the next two weeks, his position was that we should take two months to do it. I was arguing that we should do it as soon as possible as that is of primary importance for us since later other projects are coming too, his position was that we should take the time, don’t rush it and make sure that it is of sufficient quality, because it’s of such a big importance.
The interests were much more intimate, hidden, unspoken. My interest (which is actually fear) was – I want to focus on this project now, because when other projects come, my colleague would be busy and I might end up working on the project alone. His interest (which is also a fear) was – let’s give more time because he doesn’t feel so confident with the work and he might need more time to do it in a quality way. And there are many more interests such as – my partner is saying we are not spending enough time together which is not going well with designing the training intensely and quick, his was the desire to finish the project sooner, to get paid sooner, since he is facing financial difficulties. And this is only scratching the surface, as interests get even more inconsistent and confusing. That’s why people might sometimes appear acting irrationally.
There are many ways how to recognize those interests, how to find out what the other side really wants, how to come to the win-win situation. I use several approaches that I find highly beneficial in my work of coordinating more than 30 trainers, facilitators, organizers and youth workers.
Get to know your team/colleagues – to know their beliefs, values, desires will help you understand much deeper their behavior, actions and reactions and it will help you to establish trust in each other. By understanding your colleagues more, you’ll understand the consistency behind their actions, their value-driven reactions and their behavior – which in time will become predictable and expected. Some people argue that you are professionals and that everyone should act professionally without getting to know each other, however, in conflict management and resolution, everything is based on the mutual trust and understanding of the people.
Observe and listen. A lot of the signs of the hidden interests and disagreement are out there, but either we are not seeing them at all, we might see them but we don’t give them any relevance, or we discard them. A colleague that is unusually quiet, or might seem upset, or protective of other people – might be a sign of unspoken interest that might fuel your disagreement.
Listening carefully and asking the right question, might be crucial for the other person to open up and reveal his/her interests, and to become easier to come to mutually acceptable solutions.
Be clear about your interests (if possible). In highly tensed disagreements, the pressure is high and this makes people feel out of their comfort zone, the positional bargaining might decrease the level of trust. Degrading trust is not easy to address and there is time pressure, so I proactively and transparently reveal some of my “intimate” interests, as a token of goodwill. This shows to the other side that I am open to compromise and not afraid to make the first step. It might not change the negotiation position, but it will definitely clarify the intentions for both of the sides.
The interests define the disagreement. Many times, people don’t realize that they actually disagree over positions – one wants to have the window open, the other one wants to have it closed. They start to convince each other and argue their position to the other more fiercely, providing more convincing arguments why the window should remain open/closed and the disagreement escalates. Other things might get thrown in the discussion – more intense emotions, past experiences with each other, lack of skills to clearly express themselves – which might even more mask the underlying interest and make the position harder to understand. The interest many times is hidden once a solution is not in sight, one wants to have fresh air, the other one is afraid not to get sick because of the cold. Or it might be the ego playing a role. Each time that I personally don’t understand the positions or things don’t make sense to me, I ask more narrow or open questions to try to identify the interests of the other side. That helps me understand the other person and then think of a win-win situation.
Behind disagreements and conflicts, might be common but also conflicting interests.
A lot of people are seeking consistency in the disagreement, which is not seen in big disagreements. I work for an environmental NGO, sharing the values of sustainable development with my team. We do a lot of activities. The latest one is to limit our organizational and individual carbon footprint. This means to take trains as much as possible, to travel less by car, to fly only if the destination is far and unreachable by train. And that was fine, but I travel a lot where I educate a lot of young people, I go to conferences where I am speaking of or I work on innovation. If I take transportation that limits the footprint, I could miss some of the connections so I would be late and I’ll arrive at the conference totally exhausted, needing several days to recover, which will significantly impact my ability to work. What is more important, today’s carbon footprint or the social change of tomorrow?
My colleague who is a passionate environmentalist accused me of being a hypocrite. She said that I should try harder, that I am only giving excuses and that I am not walking the talk. When I gave my reasoning, she started crying wondering how we will save the planet if everyone is giving such excuses. This brought the conflict on a higher level. I started feeling guilty, reflecting on my values and priorities.
Conflicts are never simple. We agree on some things, we disagree on other, although sometimes seems that we are all on the same side.
Each side has multiple interests.
As it can be seen from the previous conflict, although we have the same main interest – which is protecting the environment, each of us has additional interests.
One of the key things of knowing/finding out is which interests are they willing to compromise on and which ones they are not. Compassion, understanding and accepting are the basic instruments of building trust.
Describe what you want.
When talking about disagreements, each side has to be specific and objective. To describe as clearly as possible where the issue lies, with concrete numbers and the impact it has, without sugarcoating it or over-exaggerating.
Sugarcoating can result with the problem not being addressed, exaggeration could anger the other side and it might cause them to raise the defenses or to avoid having a constructive approach in the resolution of the conflict.
Focus on the future, not the past.
The blame game can be a never-ending story. People can easily assign blame, try to quantify, gather evidence and measure who contributed how much to the disagreement. The past can be observed from many different perspectives and points of view, which make it a very unproductive waste of time, energy, will, money and other resources.
Sometimes people feel, that in order to proceed to the future, someone needs to take responsibility. And I agree with that to a certain extend, that if possible, someone, desirably all involved sides should take a part of the responsibility in the disagreement. It will help to reconcile, turn a new page and focus on the future.
However, if that is not possible, it is better to focus on the future rather than being stuck in the moment by deciding who is right or wrong.
Address the problem, be empathetic to the people.
Some people find it difficult to balance between addressing the problem and being nice with the person. What happens many times is: we focus on addressing the problem and lashing out at the person, or because we want to be nice with the person we try to address the problem as much as it is possible (so therefore not much).
This is a common mistake. If we are nice to the person, the problem continues to exist. If we address the problem and confront the person, we break the relationship.
The answer is not in the middle. We should address the problem, but be empathic with the person. Spend as much as time as needed to strengthen the relationship, to re-establish the trust, to ensure them that the problem doesn’t lie in them.
How does this relate to being a trainer?
When working as a trainer you constantly work in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) environment. Also, during training, conflict is ever-present in groups and it can literally occur in a minute. It is an essential skill to prefer for the occurrence, to understand the nature of conflicts, and to guide people through it in a professional way.
We interact with a variety of stakeholders – young people, learners, colleagues, donors. Often we have disagreements and we don’t understand the other side, but we don’t bother more. As a tool, this competence will help you to avoid and address conflicts more effectively, preserve or improve the quality of the relationships with the people you work with.
Write down on a piece of paper, which principles you want to use, in order to understand the other side more.
Talk with your team about those principles, and ask them to share theirs.
Observe if you are using those principles in situations of conflict.
Practice articulating your interests first.
Note the more intimate interests of your colleagues. Ask them (about their interests) if you are not able to notice them.
Have you noticed your colleagues or participants having irrational behavior, not being themselves? Do you wonder or asked them why they act a certain way or you simply accept it?
Do you ask more questions in order to understand the other side better, when you have disagreements?
What can you do to be more observing and to listen more attentively?
How can this ability to improve your relationships with other people?