Some of the best conflict resolution advice I ever received came from a contractor friend. He told me, “Spend three times the effort understanding the other person’s position as you do your own, and you will always find the solution.” I have put this advice to the test many times and have always found it to be accurate.
We make all sorts of assumptions throughout the day. Some are trivial, while others are potentially devastating. Nearly all of them are faulty because it is human nature to base our understanding of other people on our own reality and personal experiences.
I am writing this tip while at a contractor roundtable business meeting in Cabo, Mexico. On the first night of our trip, my wife Rachelle and I were relaxing with another couple over drinks when a woman approached me and yelled, “Don’t you ever look at my son again.” Confused, I replied, “Pardon me, but I don’t understand what you are talking about.”
She was visibly angry, shaking, and crying. “Don’t you ever look at my son again,” she repeated. Then a large, muscular man who we suspected was her husband joined her. He escalated the situation, demanding her to point me out in the crowd. When she identified me, he responded, “Great, now I know which one I need to get.”
I was stunned as I have never experienced anything like this in my life. My brain sprang into action, calculating exit strategies and defensive moves should the mountain-sized man attack. Security guards intervened, and we watched as this couple accuse me of making scary faces at their child. Then security came and talked to me. I proclaimed my innocence and told them I suspected the couple must have been under the influence of some powerful drugs because they were seeing things that did not actually happen. Needless to say, I did not sleep very well that evening, and I spent the rest of the week watching my back.
If this family had the benefit of my friend’s wise advice, they would have paused before accusing me and considered the ramifications of their baseless charges. They would have discovered that their son either had the wrong person or was just seeking attention. Regardless, I still cannot figure out why they did not simply look over and see if I was, in fact, making scary faces at their son before they decided to ambush me.
This is an extreme example of a misunderstanding between two parties. Yet, how many times in your life have you been certain of the details of the incident, only to discover later that you were wrong? How many times has your lack of trust within you made you judge someone unfairly with your biased ideas, often far from the truth? The moral of the story is that things are not always as they appear.
When making assumptions becomes habit, we are less grounded in reality and more prone to creating problems for ourselves and others. Jumping to conclusions is a dangerous game that can be detrimental to maintaining personal or professional relationships.
You can avoid most conflicts by doing the following:
Think strategically and develop a plan. Before you start, determine what you need to establish and to whom you need to speak. A pre-established game plan will make the task of uncovering the facts progress more smoothly.
Developing fact-finding skills is critical to ensure success. It requires the ability to separate fact from fiction, and formulate options and recommendations based on evidence. Doing your own fact-checking before deciding that you know something will help you avoid the trap of false assumptions. That will prevent a lot of unnecessary difficulties for yourself and others.
Do not assume. The old saying is as true as ever. When you assume, you make an ass out of “u” and me. An assumption is something that is taken as a fact when there is no proof of supporting evidence. We make assumptions, and because they are often based on our experiences, they can harm our relationship with others.
Get the facts: Frequently, the assumptions we are tempted to make seem perfectly reasonable and even logical. But they are often wrong. That is why it is so important to get the facts. Confirm, confirm, confirm. Make sure all your information is accurate. This will help you build credibility and support evidence-based decision-making.
Understand that you will need to hone your fact-finding skills. And do not forget to fact-check yourself before you classify your own evidence as truth:
- Go to the source, whether it is a person or a record. If it is not readily accessible, strive to obtain the best information available.
- Ask probing questions because this person’s opinion is usually rooted in a much larger story.
- Stay objective. Do not be swayed by the people involved or outside opinions. Instead, maintain your focus solely on the facts.
The more we understand the bigger picture, or the context, the more we can determine the best way to solve a problem or accomplish the goal. While this may feel like it slows things down, it actually speeds things up by avoiding the mistakes that happen from acting on wrong or incomplete information.
These steps to avoiding conflict are not only relevant when dealing with customer issues, but in our interactions with a subordinate, co-worker, or even a family member.
Situations are rarely as simple and one-dimensional as they first seem. When you make it a practice to “Spend three times the effort understanding the other person’s position as you do your own, you will always find the solution.” This will open the lines of communication and secure a clear understanding of the situation based on collected concrete evidence. It will give you a better understanding of the other person’s position, so you can make sound decisions, and resolve and even avoid conflicts effectively.