A key point in teaching conflict resolution skills is that you must separate the people issues from the problem. That doesn’t mean you can ignore the people issues or the emotional content; on the contrary, it means that these are so important you must deal with them first, or you won’t be successful in solving the problem.
I’ve been thinking about how truly difficult that is. Sometimes, once you separate out the people issues there’s nothing left. The whole problem was based on people issues. Have you ever listened to two people arguing about something and thought, they seem to be arguing for the same thing, and just using different language to describe it? It’s because there is such a lack of trust and empathy between them that they can’t see beyond it. Strip away the people issues and there’s really nothing to disagree about anymore. They think they’re in disagreement because the relationship feels bad.
The solution would seem to be fairly simple. Work on the relationship, right? Explain your emotional perspective and inquire into the other person’s emotional perspective. Work to restore trust by establishing a common purpose, a shared goal.
The difficulty is that one person must take that first step, and that requires putting ego aside and making yourself potentially vulnerable to the other. We tend to assume, in cases of a bad relationship, that the other person’s intentions are bad. It’s not that the person is doing what she thinks she needs to do, given the situation she sees herself in; on the contrary, she’s deliberately trying to set me up, make me look bad, call my competence into question. If I open myself up to her, she’ll make me look even worse.
Put in plain language like that, it’s easy to see how silly we are sometimes. Do we really believe that our colleagues get up in the morning and say, “I think I’ll go to work and try to cause as many problems as I can”? Do we really believe that our co-workers are trying to hurt us on purpose? In many cases, we do believe it. We need to start asking questions like, “Why is so-and-so really doing that? How does he see his situation? Why might he think he’s being forced to act that way?” In other words, give each other the benefit of the doubt. Only then can someone become willing to take that first step, that plunge into vulnerability. Only then can you fix the relationship, and see if there’s really a problem to deal with underneath.