Here’s the big problem with fights at work. We tend to get into them because we’re at work and we’re wanting to seem business-like and super smart. So we start focusing on facts and rebutting and debating and knocking down other people’s facts. Like masons, we’re building up our wall of facts, and mine is higher than yours.

But you know what? Facts don’t solve fights. So if you’re in a conflict at work, stop going after people’s facts. You heard me right – just stop.

Put Down The Bricks

Studies show that fact-based arguing at work doesn’t work. It just makes people feel more defensive. They’re going to go looking for more bricks that they can add to their own brick wall. They’re building a brick wall of facts to try and shut you out. And the reason they’re trying to shut you out is because they’re actually fighting for something much more deep-seated and important to them. They’ve got treasure buried inside that brick castle, and the wall is simply there to protect it.

So your task is to listen extremely carefully to help you figure out what treasure they’re protecting. That’s how you’re going to figure out what the fight is actually about and how to solve it.

Cross The Moat

So here’s what you should do. Don’t listen to the facts and information, or at least only give a third of your brainpower to those. What you really want to do is listen for feelings and emotions.

These can come out in pitch and tone and volume. These can also come out in facial expression and body language. They especially come out in the choice of words; if someone starts dialing up the the Absolutes – ‘you always’, ‘I never’ – those are signs that they’re getting emotional. If they start slapping adjectives all over the place, ‘this is horrifically rushed’ or ‘that’s totally rude,’ you know there are strong emotions surrounding this issue. That means there’s buried treasure nearby!

But don’t mistake the emotion for the treasure. It’s not the same thing. Emotions are simply the clues and the breadcrumb trail to go looking for the treasures. The treasures come at the third level that you’re listening for.

Listen For The Values

What you’re really listening for are their values. What are their beliefs? What are they protecting? How are they motivated? When you find their values, suddenly you know why they’re so upset about feeling rushed – they’re actually worried about not delivering or being seen as incompetent. That’s not some petty argument, that’s something profound and real.

So what you need to do is not to fight over the date of the deadline or how many tasks are included in the project. Instead, go right to asking them what it would take for them to feel confident that we’re on the right path and can deliver on our promises. Are there other resources you can provide that would help them feel more confident?

The fight was actually about the value and the belief and how whatever was being discussed was interrupting that value and making that precious thing feel vulnerable to attack. This is where the goodness will happen. This is where you’re going to understand what the fight is actually about and how you can resolve the issue together.

Find The Treasure

Listening effectively and to different opinions is an absolute requirement of getting better at productive conflict. Sure, there are facts and information – they matter. Take in what you need to, but be watching for those breadcrumb trails of emotion whenever things start getting heated. They tell you that there’s a treasure here which feels threatened. Listen for that.

What are they telling you? You’re probably going to have to ask a few questions and probe around and give them a big blank canvas. Ask them to draw you the picture. Ask questions like:

  • How are they imagining this?
  • How do they think this is going to play out?
  • What do they see as the biggest risk in the situation?
  • What are the criteria they would use to make this call?

Big questions like that are going to help you understand where the treasure is.

Stop listening to facts and information. All you’re doing there is staring at a brick wall. Instead, start following the trail to the treasure. This is a key piece of the productive conflict puzzle. I want you to remember when we’re talking about conflict, when we’re getting into these heated moments, that conflict is necessary and can be a very healthy thing for teams. This will help you differentiate between what’s healthy conflict, and what’s unhealthy conflict.

More on this

What To Say to Say to a Passive-Aggressive Coworker

How to Avoid an Argument

What to Do If You Witness Colleagues Fighting

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