Stalemates, Powder Kegs & Threats: 4 Questions to Reignite Collaboration

November 27th, 2012

Diana stands up from behind the table where she and 8 others are meeting. Taking a deep breath to compose herself, she smoothes her skirt. She’s had just about enough.

There’s several million dollars at stake on this decision, not to mention the long-term effects on the business. Around the table are team members from her department who are handling the logistics of bringing a certain product into the marketplace. Others are from Jim’s department who handle product development and creation. Additionally, the lead from the Taipei office working with both departments sits by listening to the discussion, taking notes and waiting for a decision on an issue that is now at critical mass based on his timetable.

Jim smirks, and inside he thinks “I’ve got her on the ropes.”
Diane looks sternly at Jim as she moves away from the table. They’ve been arguing for more than an hour in a stuffy conference room about the placement of the current production. This powder keg has been building for months. There have been veiled threats. Information withheld. And Diane is wondering how this all got so out of hand. Jim just wants to “win”. These types of discussions and power plays are sport for him. In his heart he knows that it’s not about the best options, it’s about who wins the battle.

Diane strides across the room to pick up a bottle of water. “How do I get a resolution?”
The light goes on in her mind and she decides to take a different tack. “Four questions” she thinks. “Just four questions and removing my personal emotion brings people back to the core of the issues.”

1 – Find Common Ground and Establish Focus – Ask a Probing Question to find out what the common issue may be. “What problem does not getting this vendor on board create for you?” This question is asked of each of the teams.

2 – Humanize the Exchange – Share something personal about yourself, but keep it associated to the topic at hand. “Yes, this vendor is remarkable. In the past sometimes I’ve found that remarkable may not always mean reliable. This has presented some disruptions in the past on other projects I’ve managed as well.” Or “I had a similar experience with X vendor last year. It was challenging to say the least”. You are signaling to all parties that you have empathy and a sense of connection to the issues.

3 – Bridge the Issues – Create a summation of both parties’ needs/desires in the process. “Is there a way for you to secure a vendor that will provide not only the quality but the continuity required so both of our departments are covered?” This ensures that everyone has been seen, heard and recognized in the discovery process.

4 – Dropping A Defensive Position, Inviting Ideas – “Let’s brainstorm a solution where both/all of our needs are met and the solution is balanced.” My personal favorite is to address the underlying, often subconscious subtext in a gentle manner by saying, “Let’s consider the entire situation so both parties get their needs met and everyone wins.”

These four questions give everyone a chance to say what they need, mean what they say, and stay focused on the bottom line outcome. It minimizes the emotional and ego driven discussions, and fosters a collaborative process to find a solution.

One can take a more aggressive, dominant attitude towards this process. However, most times it results in deadlock. Aggression begets aggression sooner or later. Or even if it does move forward, it’s usually a short-term gain. Why? People who “threaten” one another either literally or figuratively are seen as untrustworthy and imbalanced. Therefore, they damage any long term working relationships they could have with colleagues, vendors and or others in the marketplace. Moreover, when decisions are made from one’s ego and need to win or be right, it is often a decision made for that moment. Indeed, the long term may not have legs underneath it.

Woman are natural born collaborators; willing to bring people together to create a solution. They are able to balance facts and are more willing to create a personal connection to the situation, which evokes empathy. They are more concerned about the group and community winning than themselves. When personal emotion is removed from the conversation, it’s a winning formula.

Next time you’re in a deadlock, try these four questions to bring everyone back to the center and stay focused on the task at hand. There are times when this may not work. But it takes practice and experience to learn when it’s time to simply walk away from the discussion.

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