December 20, 2017

Getting Clear on Your Position in a Conflict

I recently taught my Influence at Work class. The content is built around a simple model: focus on and bring out your position, focus on and help bring out the other's position, and focus on strengthening the relationship.  In the class, we used real conflict situations, either ones the participants had faced in the past or ones they were currently facing.

With this particular group, they really struggled with knowing what they wanted in the negotiation and then strongly and congruently advocating for it.  They knew what they didn’t want and they knew they did not want to "give in" to the demands coming at them from the other side. But even to succinctly state what they wanted to happen and why that was important for various stakeholders was, for many, a real challenge.

These are, of course, not issues for everyone. Every group and every participant is different.  Though I don’t know him, I am guessing knowing what he wants and pressing for it would not be an issue for Donald Trump.

I earned my black belt in Aikido from Sensei William Gleason in Boston. He was an incredible teacher with a wide range of teaching aphorisms that left lasting impressions. One expression of his that I really liked was when he told us we had to “Cover the ground you stand on.”

As with a lot of his teachings, they often meant different things at different times depending on the point he wanted to make.  But I took away from this one the notion that you have to know your position and you have to be able to cover or defend that position.  While his teachings were always martial, they resonated in spheres beyond physical confrontation.

I shared Sensei Gleason's powerful idea in my Influence class and we talked about the fact that it had two parts...1) the ground itself and 2) standing on that ground and defending it.

The group worked in pairs until each person could clearly and succinctly say what they wanted and why. This often took many repetitions.  Everyone learned how difficult it was to be clear and parsimonious with "the ask."  But everyone also learned how powerful that clarity and precision can be.

That is Step 1.  That is the ground. That is your position.  At the risk of being axiomatic: It is impossible to defend a position until you have one.

Once “the ground” was clear, it was time to see if they could defend it. Here again, the participants found this wasn't easy.  They learned that their bodies often belied their position. It is very common for people to leak power in tense situations: fidgeting, looking away, voice inflections that rise at the end of sentences, rapid speech, poor posture, etc.  These leaks often completely undermine any conviction one has about their position.

So in small groups with lots of support and feedback, the participants practiced plugging their power leaks until their gazes were steady, their three points were clear, their voices unwavering and their body language underlined their position. Nothing complicated. Most of us are simply unaware of the leaks and when we are made aware of them and eliminate them, the strength of our conviction shines through. Honestly, the before and after makeovers were impressive.

Got a conflict or negotiation coming up?  Here is a simple step you can take to improve your chances of coming out of it with more of what you want. Ask a friend to watch and listen to you state your position and the logic behind it. When you have finished, ask them if 1) your position was clear, 2) the stakeholder logic was compelling, and 3) your tone and body language reflected how strongly you felt about the issue.

When you have these three things are aligned, you are hard to say no to.  For as another teacher of mine, Dr. Max Schupbach, founder of the Deep Democracy Institute, says: "Congruence takes every trick."

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