Conflict is everywhere. We cannot live our lives, communicate powerfully, share our diverse opinions, support our divergent agendas, or honor our own deepest values without some degree or form of conflict emerging. The question is: How can we address our conflict with others in ways that are mutually beneficial, supportive and positive, rather than damaging and bridge-burning, leaving body parts in our wake?
To answer that question, I caught up recently with Daniel Shapiro, Ph.D., author of the new book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts. A world-renowned expert on negotiation and conflict resolution, Dan is deeply experienced in working in the realm of negotiation, with clients ranging from hostage negotiators to world leaders. He founded and directs the Harvard International Negotiation Program, which has pioneered innovative strategies and teaching methodologies to address the human dimensions of conflict resolution. His book explores the unconscious forces that cause human conflict — from war-torn nations to divisive party politics to workplace disagreement — and how can we better resolve them.
Here’s what Daniel shared:
Kathy Caprino: Daniel, why are some conflicts seemingly unresolvable?
Daniel Shapiro: The moment you feel threatened in a conflict, a whole set of emotional forces turn your conflict into an adversarial battle: It becomes you vs. them. Suddenly the problem feels nonnegotiable, because you can’t imagine working things out with the other side.
Consider this example. Have you ever gotten into a fight with a family member over a straightforward issue – such as a financial decision—and all of a sudden it mushrooms into a big fight? The conflict should rationally take two minutes to resolve but takes two hours. This experience is what I call vertigo – when you get so emotionally consumed in a conflict that you can’t see beyond it. There are a bunch of these forces that I talk about in my book, and the more aware you are of these forces, the more you can retake control of your own relationships.
Caprino: What is our personal part in a conflict that’s reached a stalemate with a colleague or a boss? How is our identity involved?
Shapiro: We don’t like to feel rejected in the workplace – and this feeling of disaffiliation turns out to have a huge influence on productivity, morale, and retention. You might feel overlooked in meetings based upon your age, gender, or race—getting the sinking feeling that you are not part of the inner circle. The problem is doubly difficult to deal with, because it can feel taboo to even talk about these kinds of issues without facing some sort of potential social punishment for threatening the status quo. We end up whispering our grievances behind closed doors—but the organization never learns from our frustrations and productivity deteriorates.
Caprino: What is at the heart of human conflict and why do rational approaches so rarely work?
Shapiro: Rationality is critical to effective negotiation – but it’s just not enough. For example, when two spouses argue over finances, one accuses the other of spending too much. They need to figure out their budget rationally – but is their problem just about money? Of course not. It’s also about each one of them wanting to feel respected and free to make decisions. If they don’t deal with those emotional issues, their conflict persists.
Caprino: What do hostage negotiators in life-or-death situations know that leaders and managers can learn from?
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Shapiro: Imagine a father holes himself up in his own home, along with his 5-year-old daughter – and then calls his ex-wife and says he will kill the daughter unless he can have the daughter live with him for good. In this kind of situation, it’s tempting to bring in the SWAT team and the guns and just aim to de-capacitate the father and save the child. That’s Hollywood. In the real world, things are not so simple. The bullet might accidentally hit the child – and even if it wounds the father, think about the trauma it will impose on the little girl sitting there watching her father get shot and bleeding.
In the early 1970s, the New York Police Department realized the power of another approach: Hostage Negotiation, and they started up their inspiring unit. I’ve worked with some of their team, and they are utterly impressive. They’ve discovered that the most powerful weapon for rescuing hostages may not be the gun, but the ability to talk, listen, and persuade. It’s saved thousands of people’s lives in NYC alone.
Hostage negotiators are some of the best listeners I’ve ever seen. And they have to be. Life is on the line.
But it’s a skill that I think the manager can learn from. Every department has its share of political crisis and turf wars. At the least, everyone wants to feel heard, understood, and appreciated. As you listen, you gain the power of information and affiliation. The other side starts to trust you, and you start to understand what is motivating the other side to act. You are in a better place to influence.
But listening in a high-stakes conflict is not easy. I often role play hostage negotiation situations in my courses. When students have to figure out what to say to a hostage taker, these normally talkative students look at me blankly, unsure how to respond. Listening and asking good open-ended questions may seem like easy things to do – we do them all the time—but not nearly as well as we could.
Caprino: What specific tactics can we apply to our leadership in business from what you’ve learned working with world leaders and international negotiations?
Shapiro: The most remarkable leaders I have worked with all share a critical quality: They are open to learning. When I first started advising world leaders, I remember anxiously wondering if they would listen at all to my ideas. But I have found a surprising level of receptivity. These leaders all look strong on TV and in the public eye, but behind closed doors they demonstrate an openness to learning new perspectives on the tough issues they are facing. These leaders are often so socially protected – they exist in a small bubble of advisors and news channels – that they are enthusiastic to learn from others outside that bubble. And I also think they realize their own fallibility: The more information they have, the less likely they will fall.
This openness to learning is critical in international negotiation as well. Usually in a conflict, each side stakes out their position and closes their ears to the other side’s perspective. In other words, there is no learning. But this approach to negotiation inevitably provokes a battle between sides – and to the loss of the potential value of working together. Learning is essential to collaboration, and therefore a critical skill for the effective leader. For all of us.
Caprino: How have the strategies you’ve used for peace agreements and global relations informed your work with leaders and managers?
Shapiro: There is nothing more powerful than human connection. In the international realm, I’ve seen one-time sworn enemies now working side-by-side on peace agreements. And this same human power is critical in the organizational context. Every day, take 10 minutes to put aside your emails and paperwork to connect with others in your department. Encourage your employees to take a few minutes each day to connect. This may seem superficial or “soft,” but it is these relations that will carry your organization forward when conflict hits.
Caprino: Are there any personalities (extreme narcissists, for instance) who truly can’t be reasoned or negotiated with?
Shapiro: It can be extremely difficult to negotiate with people who have rigid views or grandiose self-assessments – but you can negotiate with nearly anyone. The challenge is to understand what is motivating the other, and then to seek to address those motivations.
In my book, I discuss three types of motivation – rational, emotional, and spiritual. The narcissist is desperate for appreciation, and to the extent you can give such respect where merited, you may be able to open the door to influence. Others who appear unreasonable may be yearning for rational understanding or spiritual connection. I’ve worked with a lot of hostage negotiators, and they are able to negotiate a successful outcome in high-stakes situations when the perpetrator at first appears unreasonable.
The danger is to assume from the outset that the other side is impossible to negotiate with. If you believe that, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s much better to start with the assumption that negotiation may be possible to resolve – and it may just be.
Caprino: Finally, Daniel, what are the top five strategies you can recommend, to help us resolve unresolvable conflict?
Shapiro: Here’s what I recommend:
Use metaphor to understand the nature of your relationship.
This is a simple, powerful way to unearth the emotional depths of your conflict. Think about how you might best visually depict your relationship with the other side. Does it feel like you are boxers duking it out? Or do you feel as though the other is a shark and you are innocent prey? By depicting your relationship through metaphor, you come to better understand why the conflict feels so insurmountable.
Turn the other from an adversary into a colleague.
Work out your problems as two partners cooperatively tackling differences. Rather than defending your own position in the conflict, ask for the other side’s advice.
Listen to learn.
When the other side attacks your perspective, it is very tempting to defend your views and attack back. But that merely pulls you further into impasse. Instead, take a deep breath and try to listen to the other side’s perspective. What is it that they are hoping you hear? What do they see as their legitimate points?
Plot out your typical pattern of conflict.
If you consistently get into conflict with your colleague or boss, become aware of how the conflict typically starts and how it escalates. Does your colleague frustrate you every time he or she assumes control of meetings? What do you do in response – avoid the situation? Snap back with a sarcastic statement?
Change one conflict behavior.
Once you have plotted out your typical pattern of behavior, choose one behavior to change. If you and a colleague typically bicker back and forth over the details of a work assignment, try listening to their perspective or asking them questions to learn more. While such a change in behavior may at first feel unnatural, it is a crucial step to negotiating the nonnegotiable.
Caprino: Any last words about conflict?
Shapiro: Remember: Conflicts often seem nonnegotiable, but that tends to be a mental illusion. So relentlessly seek to create cooperative relations. With a fair amount of effort and a good dose of patience, you will be well-positioned to negotiate the nonnegotiable.
For more information, visit Daniel Shapiro and his book Negotiating the Nonnegotiable: How to Resolve Your Most Emotionally Charged Conflicts.
Read the original article on Forbes.