Irreconcilable Differences

By the time that you read this, my wife and I may not be speaking to each other. You see, my wife is a Montreal born Canadian; hockey is in her blood. We will probably not sit next to each other during the Canada-US Gold Medal game today, and keep all sharp objects out of the living room as well. It could be that the supporter of the winning side will have to take the loser out for a smoked meat sandwich, but since you can’t find one in Chicago, a Labatt Blue may have to do.

On the other hand, confrontation in the work place may not be as easy to reconcile, in particular when the issue is vital to the business. All of us have had confrontations at various times during our careers, and have probably had all different types of outcomes as well. Simply looking at an issue or a disagreement in the work place as a win-lose situation would be the start of the problem, for no other reason than nobody likes to lose! While searching for a win-win outcome in a disagreement is optimal, that is an optimistic but unrealistic outcome most times as well. The real key is to strive not to couch disagreements in terms of win-lose to start with.

Early in my business career, I worked for a man that I called “Mr. Business”. He was a smart man with a newly minted MBA, and part of the problem was that he truly believed in his own intelligence. Therefore, whenever there was a disagreement, he was always right. He often had to prove that he was right in front of witnesses, even clients of the company. Needless to say, he was not a popular manager, and turnover at the company was high. And since he was not actually right all of the time, the company was harmed by more than fast turnover in employees.

What I took away from my brief stint at this company was more than a few embarrassing memories; I also learned something about the importance of a bit of humility on the job and the need to listen to all sides when there were problems. Being a bulldog has its own drawbacks, not the least of which is a tendency to want your own way. However, memories of Mr. Business keep me listening to the other side and concentrating on discovering what the real problem is, even when it is me!

As I mentioned above, the real key to problem solving in a situation of confrontation is to try to look at the problem as objectively as possible. Often I will use a white board or flip chart to try to list as many of the characteristics of the problem as possible in order to see all sides of the issue. In particular, I try to focus on what the disagreement is, not who is involved. Now that I have achieved gray hair status, I am often the mediator between others when there is a disagreement; not allowing others to point fingers but refocusing on the problem at hand often helps.

A few years back, I had a very wise mentor, who used to say that he became very successful by “eating crow”. He explained to me that he discovered whenever he was involved in a disagreement, in particular one that was causing bad feelings, he always apologized for the upset and took complete responsibility for the other person’s upset. He was sincere, because it was never his intent to cause upset, only to get things right. By taking responsibility for the upset, he was able to create calm, and also get to the root of the problem to work things out. This technique has helped me enormously over the years. Try it out the next time you are in a disagreement that seems irreconcilable. You may be surprised at how well it works!

4 thoughts on “Irreconcilable Differences

  1. “Eating crow” is a great concept, thanks for sharing. I grew up overseas where the American community was always relatively small. In that environment it was impossible to function if you chose to take offense and try to cut someone out. Interaction was unavoidable. It was wonderful in many respects. As Bob Sutton points out (author of The No Asshole Rule) unfortunately, even when we try not to be one, there are occasions where we discover that the asshole in the room is me. It is nice to receive forgiveness.

  2. Great article Kevin! Very insightful – with practical advice I can certainly use. Thanks.

  3. Kevin,

    Great insight and great to get a chance to interact with you again. In my role, I’m balancing egos and intentions on a global basis (negotiating multi-party global contracts). I am amazed how many people don’t know the simple technique of “eating crow” or are just unwilling to do it. Every time I do that, it always helps get everyone refocused and back on track, totally diffuses the situation.

    PS – hope you didn’t have to spend too much on the Labatt’s!!

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