The Art Of Conflict - phase 2: Alignment
If my Centering phase has succeeded, I should now be able to show genuine curiosity and seek alignment. The tricky part is learning to lose one’s ego without losing one’s balance.
The bottom line of the alignment phases is to openly look for a balanced, win-win partnership in the dialog, and continuous improvement for both: it usually pays off thousand times the investment!
The first level of Alignment consists in clarifying facts, and agreeing on a mutual purpose. Is this an argument on goals, or the means to achieve those goals?
“Please, could we stop arguing and think for a minute? Can we clearly state the aim of this discussion? Are we speaking about the same thing? Do we share the same goal?”Even when this stage brings no fresh data to any party, it at least diverts the focus from a dumb opposition to a constructive thinking, which is a considerable gain.
I haven’t directly read any essays from Virginia Satir, a famous family therapist, but have learned about her work through Weinberg’s books and friends of mine. She’s described for instance a precise, and widely accepted model for a communication between two persons, in which the several transformations an idea goes through often alter the accuracy of the message, and sometimes distort its meaning. The visible part of the communication represents only a fraction of the whole message journey from the source brain to the destination brain! (I unfortunately couldn't find a diagram on the Internet, but will post it as a comment to this post as soon as I can get such a link)
Instead of making assumptions about how to interpret what the other said, keep asking questions: “Did I well understood your point? Do we put the same meaning behind this word?...” Remember this: to be a learner, you’ve got to be willing to be a fool.
To reduce the risk of a misunderstanding when I feel there could be one, I also try to repeat my point with different words.
Once certain the wording is clear and the goals are the same, we can gradually move to the sensitive subject of the conflict, starting with the facts, and exploring all possible means to attain the goal as objectively as possible.
“Let’s gather all the raw information we have got so far on this subject... maybe either you or I is missing some critical data to agree on a decision...”
Make clear that you are willing to listen to and understand the other’s perspective (of course be honest about it!).
The second level of Alignment is emotional: make it safe for your interlocutor to talk freely.
A conversation would be too simple if we only had to deal with facts, logic and interpretation problems. Under the smooth surface of rationality, each sentence often echoes as emotions on the human interlocutor, that sometimes attain her/his self-esteem.
Forgetting to take this irrational dimension into account invariably jeopardizes the success of the alignment phase.
Dialog with empathy: learn to recognize safety problems in the other’s attitude (look and listen for silence/violence, frown, signs of annoyance...).
Whenever you notice a safety problem, underline the importance of his opinion, and the sincerity of your intentions. There is a high chance that your own past behavior has been fueling the problem.
We can follow some tools from “Crucial Conversations” book to restore mutual respect. Here are the ones I particularly liked:
- Apologize when appropriate (when your words may have been inappropriately hurtful)
- Contrast to fix misunderstanding: “I didn’t mean that..., but rather...”
Whatever what happens next, I have to remember the conclusions from the centering phase, and stick to a respectful attitude of curiosity and patience. The contact has been made, and I am looking toward the same direction as him.
As soon as the partner feels respected and listened to, he should be ready to consider my opinion. This defines the last and final step for restoring an healthy dialog: Redirection.