One of the most valuable and current books for a mediator is Bernie Mayer’s Staying with Conflict. One of the chapters covers the topic of conflict avoidance – the ways that people shy away from the conversations that would be beneficial for them.
I am sure you can relate to avoiding someone you have differences with, or trying to resolve a conflict quickly without a full understanding. These forms of conflict avoidance are commonly understood. But how about someone who raises his or her voice and launches into a personal criticism as an avoidance strategy? Since reading Bernie’s book and observing my clients with his lens, I have come to view escalation as a profoundly common way of avoiding a difficult topic.
First, a typical North American teenager’s response: “I know what you’re gonna say, I can’t have the car on Friday night. You’re so unfair!” Consciously or unconsciously there is an attempt by the teenager to grab advantage by attacking the parent’s character. This avoids a discussion about the merits of various scenarios for the use of the car on Friday night.
Shift to a team meeting in an organization. Fred says, “Stephanie, not now! I don’t want to talk about reviewing the product concept when the engineers have begun the design phase. Your input did not improve the previous product, and changing the concept now will be expensive.”
Should the team allow Stephanie’s concerns to pass unheard? Hopefully not. Hopefully Stephanie will assert herself: “Although I might not have been particularly helpful with the last product, I have a concern that I would like everyone to hear.” If she doesn’t speak up, another team member could step in: “Fred, you may not have found Stephanie’s input helpful with the previous product, but I would like to hear her out and for everyone to consider what she has to say.”
It can be expensive to abandon a product development regime once initiated, but much less expensive than taking it all the way to market and having it fail there. The team is probably going to be better off knowing Stephanie’s perspective. (An important aside: As I have explained in another blog, it is critically important for team members to be able to openly disagree with each other and work through conflicts.)
Fred’s criticism of Stephanie can be viewed as conflict avoidance. Fred does not want the product concept questioned yet Stephanie has a concern about it. Rather than listen to her and engage in the conflict that he has with her over product concepts, he instead attacks the credibility of anything she has to say about the product. Whether the criticism of Stephanie has validity or not, the team will miss out on potentially valuable input if she does not have opportunity to speak.
One of the common ways people avoid focused conversations over differences is to go on the attack. Listen with this lens and you will begin to notice. You may also be able to save your team from missing out on important input by stepping in to ensure that a criticized member has a voice on an important issue.
Next week I will write further about this team scenario, exploring how to include Fred’s criticism of Stephanie. I would enjoy hearing about times when you have seen criticism or another form of escalation used as a strategy to avoid a conflict. You can leave a comment at the top of the post on the right side. Have a great day!