Learn how to become an expert negotiator and collaborator.
The average eight-year-old has had a staggering 89,000 conflicts. By the time we reach adulthood, we’ve had tens of thousands more. But in spite of being such experienced fighters, most of us are hopeless when it comes to resolving conflicts. In fact, over 90 percent of fights end in a standoff.
That’s because both parties in a conflict usually believe that they’re right, and the other person is wrong. This dynamic can be found in disputes between global leaders over coal tariffs and in playground squabbles between children. As long as we’re incapable of seeing the other side, we’ll always take disagreement as an attack and be unable to find resolution.
Unresolved conflict is destructive in our personal relationships, in our workplaces, and in global politics. We urgently need to learn to listen to each other. In these blinks, you’ll learn ten strategies that will help you develop skills in dealing with disagreement constructively.
why pride can be a constructive emotion;
how to convince multiple people to agree to a crazy plan; and
why the key to successful workplaces is hiring more women leaders.
Start learning conflict resolution skills while you’re young.
We’re all seasoned fighters, especially if we grow up with brothers or sisters. According to psychologist Laurie Kramer, siblings between the ages of three and seven have a whopping 49 disagreements every day, spending over two hours in conflict.
That means by the time you’re a teenager, you’ll have spent many thousands of hours arguing, surpassing Malcolm Gladwell’s famous benchmark of 10,000 hours to master a new skill.
The problem is that while children are practiced in fighting, they’re much less seasoned in resolving arguments. Research has shown that only 12 percent of arguments between siblings reach a resolution. The rest are left to fester until they flare up again.
And argumentative children become argumentative adults. That fight in the boardroom over stock options isn’t so different from the fight in the playroom over who is going to play with the train set.
The good news is that this cycle can be broken. You can learn how to resolve conflicts. Especially if you start young.
Parents commonly allow children to sort out fights by themselves, or get into disciplinarian mode and punish them for misbehaving. But expert research has shown that it’s much more productive when parents do intervene, and actively work with their children to teach them how to sort out their conflicts. The best tactic is to wait until tempers have cooled down, and then call everyone to the table for some collaborative problem-solving, listening to everyone’s point of view and brainstorming how to come to a compromise.
Of course, this will all be fruitless if the parents aren’t themselves modeling how to resolve conflicts between themselves. Children are like sponges, they mirror everything you do. Showing that you can talk about conflicts and come to a compromise teaches them much more than a lecture ever could and gives them vital skills for navigating the world.
Identify your core values, and those of your team members.
Evolutionary biologist Charles Darwin wrote extensively about the finches that live in the Galápagos Islands. What’s so interesting about these birds is how the species has evolved over time. The finches have undergone a remarkable number of adaptations that allow them to survive in the resource-scarce islands. For example, some finches live off insects and leaves, while some of them live off prickly cacti! These adaptations mean that the finches can coexist – they aren’t competing for the same scarce food sources.
Humans also adapt their behavior to ensure survival. But, unfortunately, this often leads to competition rather than collaboration. For example, younger siblings will fight for more of their parents’ attention. This spirit of competition is taught in school, too, where learners strive for the best grades so they can get into good universities. And in the workplace, employees often fight for promotions or bonuses. In short, we’ve evolved to see each other as competitors rather than collaborators. Unsurprisingly, that has a negative effect on teamwork. If you’re busy thinking about how to get ahead, you’re also more focused on yourself than on the success of the project.
Imagine how much more harmonious and successful your teams could be if everybody behaved like the finches. Instead of fighting for the same scraps, they thought about how their skills could complement those of their colleagues and contribute to the success of the company overall.
The best way to create teams of finches in your company is to get a clear idea of what everybody brings to the table – which unique skills and qualities everyone has to offer. And the most powerful way to get there is by doing a values outing exercise. That means, simply, that everyone lists the qualities that they find most important in themselves and how they work. And that they identify how they embody those qualities in their work.
Values can be thought of as a blueprint for how you want to be in the world. Understanding your employees’ values will allow you to make teams of people who both challenge and complement each other – teams of finches who adapt together to get the job done.
Make collaboration a daily practice instead of just a buzzword.
Anyone working in the corporate world will have become very tired of hearing about collaboration. The term gets tossed around by CEOs and managers all the time. In fact, a study by IBM found that three-quarters of the CEOs that it surveyed talked about collaboration being central to success.
But the problem with collaboration is that it’s very hard to do. Maybe that’s why people talk about it so much. In a 2015 study of over a hundred companies, researchers tried to find out why. They came up with two main reasons. First, managers are bad at judging which collaborative projects will be successful, and which are a waste of time and resources. That means that projects often fail, leading to a low sense of morale.
The second reason is that people are territorial: they keep looking for individual glory and assigning blame to others rather than really thinking of themselves as a team. In addition, personal agendas can clash with the goals of the larger project.
So, what can you do to ensure that your own collaborations are successful?
The most important thing is to become honest about your own flaws. In short, to know yourself. Make a list, and then identify the top two character traits or behaviors that get in the way of your collaborations. For example, the author reflected on his work style and realized that his stubborn belief that he’s right as well as his need for the spotlight were obstacles to working together with other people effectively.
Armed with that knowledge, he created a ritual that he enacts before he goes into a meeting. He closes his eyes and envisions himself taking off a cloak of self-righteousness and then taking off his flashy attention-grabbing tuxedo.
Identifying his weak points and creating a ritual to help him remember them have greatly aided his collaborations. By doing the same thing, you can make sure that collaboration becomes a practice rather than just some more corporate jargon.
Become authentically proud of your workplace contributions.
Being proud isn’t considered to be a positive thing. In fact, pride is listed as one of the deadly sins.
But in terms of collaboration, pride can be very useful. You see, it’s one of four self-conscious emotions that makes us aware of how we’re being perceived by other people. Pride allows us to weigh up our actions in advance, and imagine how they might be perceived by the larger group. It also makes us more likely to make positive contributions because we want to gain respect and prestige in the group’s eyes.
But, of course, all pride isn’t created equal. In order to gain respect, some leaders and authority figures resort to dominating behavior. Steve Jobs, for all his brilliance, was one such leader. He was notorious for erupting in rages and publicly telling his employees that their ideas were “crap.” Such behavior can get results, but it also results in a toxic workplace where people are scared to voice their opinions.
There’s an alternative, though, which is to use your sense of pride to drive you to offer value to the group. This is a form of leadership where you gain respect based on what you can offer to the rest of the organization. You’re esteemed for your skills and know-how. This is authentic pride, and it can be a boon for your working relationships.
So, next time you feel like your pride has been wounded, think about where that feeling comes from and notice whether your instinct is to respond with dominant behavior. Then channel your authentic pride, and think about how you can regain the respect of your colleagues through your contributions to the organization.
Tackle gender inequality in the workplace.
Look at the senior staff of most corporations and you’ll most probably find a crowd of men, and a small handful of women. Despite progress in gender equality, women are still discriminated against when it comes to getting senior positions in companies.
This isn’t only destructive to women in the workplace. It harms the success of the company overall. A study at Cambridge University called the Psychology of Entrepreneurship found that female CEOs generate more profit than male CEOs. The reason? Female leaders are more likely to reinvest equity back into the company and look after the interests of their employees. Another study, by Zenger Folkman, found that women are better at initiating tasks, and completing them, even in difficult circumstances.
There’s even a biological explanation for this: women are more resilient in stressful circumstances. Researchers have discovered that men have a gene – called SRY – that makes them respond aggressively when they’re stressed, or to want to flee the scene. That’s the so-called fight or flight response. Women, on the other hand, have a “tend and befriend” response to stress. They tend to initiate collaborations and build community as a survival skill. Not coincidentally, those are exactly the qualities that make for successful workplace leaders.
So, a key to building a successful company is to make sure that you have an equal representation of men and women in your company, especially at the highest levels. In order to do that, your company will have to tackle entrenched unconscious bias at all levels of the organization – from hiring practices to who gets a turn to speak in meetings. The best way to do that is to engage in a yearly equality audit that assesses whether your organization measures up to its equality aims, and makes concrete commitments to become a fairer workplace.
Become aware of your body language, and how other people interpret it.
How do you greet new colleagues or acquaintances? If you’re like many people, you may plaster a big smile onto your face, and hold eye contact.
That might sound very friendly, but sometimes a smile can actually be interpreted as threatening. That was pointed out to the author by Dr. Brett Grellier, who works with him in a London soup kitchen. Grellier recommended that the author stopped smiling when he greeted homeless people because the smile could trigger traumatic childhood memories of being abused by seemingly friendly caregivers. In fact, Grellier said, the best approach is to maintain a neutral facial expression when first meeting someone. The smile can come later, when a relationship of trust has been established.
This is just one example of how body language can be interpreted differently by people in different cultural contexts. Researchers used to argue that there are universal emotions and ways of expressing them. That everyone the world over associates a crying face with sadness and a smiling face with happiness. In recent times, that research has been challenged. In reality, there’s no universal body language. It’s much more complicated than that.
In the boardroom, you need to be mindful of your body language – and how others could interpret it within their own cultural context and experience. The best way to go about it is to use what Grellier calls “The Goldilocks Approach.” Before demonstrating a strong emotion, first, take stock of how other people are behaving. Are they also smiling? What is the atmosphere in the room? Then adapt your behavior, so that it’s neither too warm, nor too cold, but just right for the situation.
Discover how much of your worldview is culturally learned and become sensitive to differences.
Cultural differences don’t stop at body language. More fundamentally, they can shape our core values and how we imagine our communities. Seventy percent of the people in the world come from collectivist cultures. That means that they live in societies that put the needs of the group ahead of the individual, and value familial relationships and connectedness above all.
The remaining 30 percent come from individualist cultures, which is most customary in the West. Individualist cultures see individuals as being autonomous from society and envision personal rights as sacred. Western societies are so steeped in this individualist culture that it seems almost unthinkable that another way of looking at society is possible. And, yet, most of the world does.
In today’s globalized world, our societies are becoming more diverse, due to, amongst other things, mass migration. Virtually, we’re all connected on social media in ways we never were before. This diversity can be a boon to your organization if you learn to communicate effectively with people from different cultural backgrounds. If not, your working relationships could be fraught with misinterpretations and disagreements.
For example, someone from America has usually grown up in a culture that equates success with accomplishments. In the boardroom, this means that they’re fixated on closing the deal. However, someone who has grown up in Japan will have absorbed the cultural message that a person’s success comes from the strength of their relationships. That means that the interpersonal dynamics will be of paramount importance to them when doing business. Closing the deal is only as important as the strength of the collaboration.
If the American executive loses interest in the relationship as soon as the deal is done, this may be very offensive to their Japanese counterpart, leading to a conflict or a breakdown of the whole working relationship. Learning to understand different cultural perspectives is essential to improving your communication skills in the boardroom.
Bridge the animosity gap by acknowledging your opponent’s point of view.
Some disagreements are so acrimonious that they seem impossible to resolve. Think of the furious fighting between Democrats and Republicans in the US. Or a couple slinging insults at each other in a very nasty divorce.
This is what the author calls the animosity gap. This violent disagreement usually starts small when two people have a difference of opinion. But if they don’t resolve it, things can escalate. Each party becomes more and more attached to its own position and starts to view the opposing party as the enemy. They both start to suffer from confirmation bias: their brains constantly look for new evidence to prove they’re right while ignoring all the signs that the other person may have a point. At that stage, animosity completely clouds their judgment and rational abilities.
Animosity can cause you to completely discredit the opinions of the other person. Often, this happens very early in the interaction as the result of unconscious bias. Extensive research has shown that we like people who are similar to us, and instinctively dislike those who are different. That plays out especially when it comes to race, class, and gender. So, while we may think we’re open to everyone’s point of view, it’s likely that we make up our minds about what they think before they even open their mouths.
The animosity gap is very destructive. How can you collaborate or negotiate effectively if you can’t even hear what the other person is saying?
Professor of management and organizations at UCLA Corinne Bendersky has one concrete solution, which she calls status affirmation. What that means is that you explicitly acknowledge the status of the person you’re in a dispute with before launching into your counter-argument.
For example, you could say “I hear what you’re saying, and respect how clearly you’ve formulated your opinions.” Or, “I know you’re an expert in this area and you’ve given me a lot to think about.” Simply acknowledging the other person’s legitimacy lays the foundation for a more constructive discussion – and makes it much more likely that they will listen to you, too.
Develop active listening skills to defuse conflict situations.
Sometimes, the best communication skills can be learned by the people who have the most to lose in a conflict. Hostage negotiators are a prime example.
The New York Police Department created the world’s first Hostage Negotiation Team in 1973 after there had been several incidents where hostages had died in the course of being rescued. The department had been using force to try and secure the hostages’ release. But it realized it had to change its tactics.
Instead of using force, hostage negotiators need to establish rapport with the criminals and leverage that relationship to convince them to release the hostages. These remarkable negotiators have finely honed communication skills. They know how to build trust quickly, even in very hostile situations. So, how do they do it? And what lessons can we take into the boardroom?
The main skill negotiators use is active listening. That means that they pay careful attention to what someone is saying, and reflect it back to them to let them know that they hear them. Active listeners mirror the body language of the person who’s talking and paraphrase what they’re saying. They summarize the main points and label them. For example, they might respond by saying “It sounds like you’re very frustrated.”
Active listening is key because it shows empathy and allows a rapport to develop between the negotiator and hostage-taker. Once that rapport has developed, the negotiator is able to start subtly influencing the situation by starting to reason with them, and asking them to help solve the problem collaboratively.
Aside from active listening, another keyword for any negotiator is patience. It’s natural to want to take action and rush in to try and resolve the situation. But the more time the negotiator has, the more opportunity they have to build trust.
Develop a strategy for getting multiple stakeholders onboard.
As you’ve learned from the high-stakes world of hostage negotiation, resolving conflict is about being able to understand the other person’s position. Nowhere is this skill more useful than when you’re trying to get agreement from multiple stakeholders.
Take an example from the author’s own work. He and his team conjured up a publicity stunt to promote Pixar’s new movie Up. They proposed to fly a hot air balloon along the Thames and through London’s Tower Bridge.
This was a bit of a crazy idea that would depend on the permission from a host of people: the Civil Aviation Authority, Tower Bridge, the local council, and the list continued. The author couldn’t just march in and demand to fly a balloon down the Thames. He needed to come up with a careful strategy to get everyone on board.
First of all, he made a list of all the people who might have an objection to the plan. Then, he placed himself in their shoes and thought about why they might have objections. Doing that experiment allowed him to imagine some potential concerns, like, what happens if the balloon flies off course? And, how will it affect other traffic on the Thames? By thinking through these objections, he was able to proactively look for solutions before the negotiations even began.
Thirdly, he sought out an influential ally. Humans are famously risk-averse. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman has proved that people are more scared of losing 100 dollars than they are motivated to gain 150 dollars. Basically, they’ll almost always take the more conservative position, especially if presented with a crazy plan. But if someone else influential is on board, then those same people might become scared of missing out on a good thing. So you can leverage the psychology of risk-aversion to work in your favor.
Lastly, the author approached all the stakeholders for a face-to-face meeting. But he didn’t just barge in and flood them with all the details. Like the hostage negotiators, he first took the time to build rapport by asking lots of questions and presenting it as a collaborative problem-solving idea. If the stakeholder’s first reaction was no, then he made sure to get a specific reason. That way, he could turn the no into a provisional yes by offering a concrete solution. For example, the Tower Bridge authorities were concerned that the balloon might run into a bridge. In response, the author suggested tethering the balloon to a barge, which would provide security that that wouldn’t happen.
It was a hard sell, but on one beautiful dawn morning, the author and his team stood on the stern of a tugboat, witnessing the enormous hot air balloon sailing along the Thames; an image that made its way into newspapers all around the world. By understanding how to resolve conflicts, he’d managed to turn all those nos into a yes.