Blending direct, yet fair Assertive Speaking skills with empathic, Active Listening helps us in many work and personal conversations, especially when facing an impasse while forging agreements with others.
The “G.A.I.N.” Agenda for Gaining Commitments
Let’s pretend you’ve effectively tried to forge agreement from someone about a needed task. You’ve used a simple “G.A.I.N.-ing Commitment format along with Assertive Speaking to lay out the Goals you hope to achieve (results and behaviors you seek) and describe the Advantages that the person’s buy-in will achieve (for you, the other, and the organization). You’ve dutifully used Active Listening to surface any Impediments the person sees as blocking them from committing. You’ve made a good-faith effort to hear and address these obstacles, and you want to reach the Next Steps closing phase of the conversation. Bad news… you keep hitting a brick wall. No matter how reasonable and skilled you are, all you get is a broken record refusal.
When “Getting to Yes” Is Tough
This dilemma may mean there’s a conflict of incompatible genuine needs. A legitimate, valid reason is driving the resistance. If the person rejects your “ask,” then you lose, and they win. If they acquiesce and say “yes,” then they lose, and you win. These win/lose and lose/win scenarios are really lose/lose due to lingering resentment. Compromise is better as a last resort, but it’s a mini-lose/mini-lose outcome, because neither of you are fully satisfied. That’s what I call “living life in the gray zone.” By contrast, Mutual Benefit Conflict Resolution transforms impasses into win/win cooperative and elegant agreements.
Mutual Benefit Conflict Resolution Strategies
Adopt a Win/Win Mindset. When your GAIN-ing Commitment efforts devolve into an intransigent stalemate, you might be defining the problem in ways that make win/win impossible. We often approach conflicts in black-or-white terms of “my solution” versus “your solution.” This pits us as adversaries fighting for our respective rigid demands. We can’t even see one another much less empathize, because our mutually exclusive either-or, win/lose “solutions” block our line of sight. A win/win mindset transforms seeing each other as opponents into seeing the conflict as our common opponent. We now can direct win/win solutions at the problem, instead of lobbing win/lose solutions at one another.
Identify the Driving Needs. Keep paraphrasing, checking reactions so it’s a dialogue rather than a monologue (or duel-ogue!), stressing the Advantages, and sincerely expressing your desire for win/win agreement. Use Active Listening in the same empathic spirit as you do when you’re being a caring sounding board for someone who is hurting about a work or home problem, or wrestling with a tough decision. It’s harder now because you have strong underlying needs. Strive to redefine the conflict in terms of underlying “Driving Needs” rather than surface-level, myopic win/lose “solutions.” This refreshing, liberating way of reframing the conflict points to far more creative and numerous win/win solution options.
Example: Top Management Presentation Conflict. Let’s say that you and Grant give monthly product briefings together to top management. You do the formal stand-up presenting, and Grant answers technical questions from his seat. This formal to informal format works well. However, you must suddenly fly to a plant in China, so you ask Grant to present solo at this month’s briefing. He refuses over and over. You are surprised by his resistance, and you’re in a dead-lock.
- Your Win-Lose Solution: Grant must present alone at the briefing.
- Grant’s Win-Lose Solution: Grant refuses to present alone.
Defined this way, the conflict is at an unsolvable win/lose impasse. Grant can’t both
present and not present. But if you use Active Listening and search for the Driving Needs underlying each of these rigid win/lose “solutions,” you can reframe the conflict:
- Your Driving Need: To be in China without canceling the briefing.
- Grant’s Driving Need: To avoid panic in public that could hurt his career.
You don’t really need Grant to both present and field questions without you, do you? That’s just one solution for handling your absence. And Grant’s rigid “no way” stance camouflages his deeper need—avoiding a presentation anxiety meltdown. Because of your win-win mindset shift and empathic Active Listening Grant feels safe and reveals the real issue: “OK, this is incredibly confidential, but . . . the truth is, I have a serious presentation phobia. In my last job, I was presenting to the executive committee and had a full-blown anxiety attack. Sweating, heart palpitations, stammering, brain freeze— the whole nine yards. It trashed my reputation. I had to leave the company. Ever since, I’ve avoided taking that risk. That’s why I prefer sitting and facilitating more informally.”
Ah! Now it makes sense! No wonder. Good thing you listened instead of reacting. Once these deeper, true Driving Needs are surfaced, there are many ways to resolve the conflict (e.g., conduct a Zoom meeting as you present and Grant fields Q&A in person, reschedule, send a written or recorded presentation and elicit emailed questions, get Grant presentation skills coaching and anxiety management help, have Grant practice with you to calm his nerves, etc.).
Take the “Straight Talk Challenge”
It’s easier to use assertive, communication and conflict resolution when all is well in our lives, on good days under favorable conditions. But being part of the positive communication solution rather than part of the faulty communication problem means striving for positive communication no matter what. A healthy work atmosphere only happens when we all take responsibility for being interpersonally direct and respectful—firm and fair—regardless of excuses.
Written by Rick Brandon, Founder and President at Brandon Partners.
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