Have you ever been in an argument and wondered, how the heck did this fight get started?
If you could rewind the tape, I bet you’d find it all started innocently with someone trying to resolve an issue. But they were really invested in the issue and probably delivered their point of view a little too definitively.
And if the camera had panned over to your face as the person was speaking, it would have caught a nanosecond of you being shocked and confused, an instant of you taking exception and preparing your rebuttal, and then an onslaught of you refuting and rebutting their argument.
That’s the trajectory of an argument; and it happens in a heartbeat. You can change that trajectory.
In The Good Fight, I tell the story of a conflict that erupted on the executive team of a prominent arts organization. It’s an example of how to use a conflict resolution technique I call, “The Two Truths” to change the trajectory of an argument.
The team is in an offsite session, struggling to make difficult trade-offs to resolve a $2 million shortfall in next year’s budget. They are agonizing over cutting programming that everyone is so excited about. The head of fundraising, Mary Beth, makes a suggestion that seems to come out of the blue: “l think we should release the budget to the Board of Directors showing the $2 million deficit.”
Well, this doesn’t go over so well with Howard, the head of finance. His face contorts and he blurts out, “We can’t do that! We have a fiduciary responsibility to balance the budget!!!” (This was the first time I learned that if a finance person pulls out the “f-word,” you know you’ve hit them where it hurts. Invoking their fiduciary responsibility is a true sign that they will stand and fight to uphold their sacred duty to protect the organization.)
As you’d expect from someone upholding their sacred duty, Howard is harsh and condescending. Mary Beth is visibly taken aback.
I know immediately the critical mistake Mary Beth had made. She started the conversation by proposing a solution; and not only did she jump straight to a solution, but a solution that impinged on Howard’s territory.
It’s a bad idea to start a contentious discussion with a solution when you aren’t aligned on the problem.
That’s a whole ‘nother post. For the moment, let’s stick with this predicament. One person has proposed a solution, the other person has let it be known in no uncertain terms that he thinks it stinks.
Let’s make you the person on the receiving end — the one who just heard a terrible proposal. You know that contradicting, disagreeing, or criticizing is going to start a fight. What’s the alternative?
If someone proposes a solution that you think is off-base, the most efficient and effective way to get to a constructive conversation is this:
- Stifle your response. Don’t “…but, but, but….” Don’t “I think it would be better if we… .” And definitely don’t, “That’s the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard!”
- Repeat what they said. “You think we should release the budget to the Board showing a deficit.”
- Ask a question to understand what they’re solving for. “What would be the goal of showing the Board the deficit?” If necessary, ask another, and another, until you’re clear what problem the person was trying to solve for with their suggestion.
- Speak or write the other person’s truth. If possible, go to a white board or even a notepad and write down, “Truth: we need to do x.”
Let’s go back to the story for a moment.
It takes a little coaxing, but I convince Howard to attempt a do-over. He asks Mary Beth, “What are you trying to achieve by showing the Board the deficit?”
Mary Beth sits up a little straighter. She is absolutely clear what she is trying to achieve, “I just don’t think the Board has enough urgency around fundraising. If they knew all the amazing ideas that we’re giving up, I think they’d write a bigger check or make a few more calls.”
It’s fascinating what happens next. When Mary Beth had originally shared her remedy (releasing the deficit to the Board) the rest of the team had been silent. Now, the artistic director, Katerina, lights up. “I couldn’t agree more! I think they just accept what we tell them we’re doing and don’t push hard enough to allow us to do more. I’ve always felt the Board needs a greater sense of urgency.”
Wow! Talk about an argument changing trajectory. Howard’s question of Mary Beth had revealed a truth — a problem that needed to be solved. Now he understands enough to speak her truth, “We need to increase the sense of urgency among the Board.”
Ok, where from here? Once the other person’s truth has come out of your mouth, then you’re free to add your truth.
This single best way to avoid an argument is to make sure the other person’s truth comes out of your mouth before your truth.
- Share the problem you’re solving for. Once you understand the other’s person’s truth, it’s probably clear that you were focused on something else. Let everyone know what that is, “I love this organization and don’t want to see us get into financial trouble like so many other arts organizations.”
- Write your truth. Beside Truth #1, write down Truth #2 — your truth. “Truth #1: we need greater urgency. Truth #2: we need to show a balanced budget.”
- Engage the person in solving for both truths. “What are our options for moving forward given that both of these are true?”
The solution the arts organization comes up with is brilliantly simple. They produce a one-page overview of the budget showing all the proposed programming. About two-thirds of the way down the page, there is a dotted line below which are all the items that aren’t funded and the $2 million dollar gap. By prioritizing the spending and showing the cut-off, they live up to their fiduciary responsibility and make it clear how they will balance the budget. By showing all the exciting programming they would have to forego, they increase the sense of urgency for the Board.
By taking the time to listen and understand your colleague’s perspective, you earn their trust and confidence. You also earn the right to have them listen to and understand your perspective. From that point, you’re simply problem solving — looking for a solution that addresses both of the issues. Solving for two truths.
I have to admit that I sometimes get frustrated by the number of arguments that are not really arguments at all, they are just examples where people aren’t communicating well. The Two Truths technique is a great antidote to this problem. Give it a try the next time you hear a colleague suggest something that makes you want to say the f-word — fiduciary, that is!