Just recently I had a bizarre experience with a friend that I hadn’t seen for over 2 years. I rang him up to organise for a well-overdue catch up. I indicated that I would pick him up and we could go to the restaurant we regularly went to in years gone by. I knew that he had moved since last time we had spoken so asked for directions on how to get there from my place.

My friend launched into his typical highly detailed explanation on how to get to his place. I furiously wrote down as much as I could to ensure that I didn’t get lost. I hung up the phone and jumped into my car, directions tightly grasped in my hand. After an hour of driving I had no idea where I was. How could I have possibly gone wrong — the details were so detailed? As is typical with the male species, I didn’t want to ring my mate for further directions. An hour and a half after leaving home for what should have been a 30-minute drive, I gave in and rang him for further directions. After calling me an idiot and a few other well-chosen words we came to an interesting conclusion.

He had given me directions from my old home forgetting that I had moved. So no matter how good the directions he gave me, I still would have got lost because our starting points were different.

This is also an important point when we are dealing with conflict. If people that are involved in the conflict are coming from different starting points then no matter how good you are at conflict resolution you will never succeed. These different starting points can occur when a person approaches you upset with something at your workplace and you assume that the reason is one thing when it is actually something else. An example could be that a person is unhappy with an increase in entrance fees. Hearing this you think it is purely about the dollar value or they are tight with money and they don’t want to pay the slight increase. In fact, they are a family that has a very tight budget and the increase will not allow them to bring their 4 kids for a swim any more. You can see that if the two parties involved in the conflict don’t realise they are coming from different places then the conflict will rarely be resolved.

So what steps can we take to ensure that all involved parties’ start at the same point? Simply ask a question. That question would look something like this: “What specifically seems to be the issue?”

It is as simple as that. I know it may appear too simple although traditionally people tend to ask, “What is the problem?” The adding of “specifically” and “seems” do two things: “Specifically” encourages people to provide you with more details and “seems” actually suggests unconsciously that it only appears to be a problem rather than being an actual problem. You will be surprised by how well this works.

Once they have answered this question, respectfully ask, “Anything else?” This usually identifies more details and therefore a better understanding of the issue they are presenting to you. You will find that if you ask it one more time a person will often say, “No nothing else”. This then puts a boundary on the problem and will make it seem less emotional (and big) than when you first started, thus making it easier to deal with. Going through this process gives you a better understanding of the issue and therefore a better chance of resolution if you get the second response from the client rather than the first.
Simple isn’t it?

Before we finish this article I would like to highlight one more point that I think is regularly forgotten in training courses and often not supported in the workplace. Too many times we see conflict on television, in magazines and training courses as something that is always fixable. That if you use all the wonderful techniques that people like me tell you to use then it is going to be easy next time that you come in contact with conflict. Experience and training courses can certainly make dealing with conflict much easier but let’s not kid ourselves that each time we are involved with conflict that it will be resolved simply. Sometimes we have to just walk away from conflict.