If someone speaks out to challenge, criticize or flag up an issue, the response is to go on the counter attack. This is what people do when they feel under attack, unless they have the option to run away.
The result is a slagging match between two parties who undermine each other and become deeper entrenched in the positions they have adopted. People who voiced what were legitimate concerns (if not legitimately expressed) become branded as trouble-makers and find themselves side-lined, disregarded, punished for daring to challenge.
Most of us will recognise this as a common work condition. But at its heart is a fundamental factor of the human condition. We don’t like being wrong, but more than this: we don’t like being thought of as being wrong. To put it another way, we mostly want people to respect us: approve of what we do, value our judgement, applaud our character, and respect our authority, intellect and decisions. Depending on how important this is to us, we are more or less likely to interpret feedback or challenge as a personal sleight.
The truth is, of course, that we do get things wrong. We make the wrong call, we miss things, we forget, and we draw the wrong conclusions. Even if we accepted that, we don’t really like people rubbing our noses in it. The message can be particularly unpalatable if we realise it’s true, and especially if we have an internal drive to be perfect.
Our best option is to accept that we will never be the sole preservers of the truth. There will always we other points of view, and it will always we worth listening to different perspectives and suggestions. This is especially true when many people are impacted by the way we act upon our opinion. So we have to get better at listening to, accepting and embracing alternative views.
Consensus will never be achieved without consultation, and even if consensus is not the final goal, improvement will not occur without proper debate and analysis. No one individual is in receipt of all the available information, and decisions will be less robust if based on one person’s selectively chosen data.
Figure 1 shows how relationships disintegrate over time as a result of the behaviours described above.
Person A disagrees with something Person B has done. They express their disagreement forcefully and Person B leaps into a defensive position before mounting a counter attack. OR Person A attempts to express their views sensitively but Person B feels undermined, ‘found-out’ and exposed or hurt. So Person B mounts a defence or attacks to kill off the dissent.
As this occurs, each person becomes more and more fixed in their original positions. Even if they partially agree with the comments made, they feel so resentful that they dig in and defend.
Over time, the space between each person fills up with anger, resentment, frustration, and antagonism. The trenches deepen and the baggage gets bigger and bigger.
Eventually, it simply isn’t possible to see through the baggage.
Figure 2 offers us some clue as to how we can get out of this stalemate.
Whilst Person A and Person B are digging themselves deeper into their trenches, they cannot see eye to eye.
However, if both lift their eyes above the trenches they will find a point of intersection. This point in the sky is the common goal that has become lost in the warfare. It is a point which unites both people, even though they may not yet agree how to get there.
So the three key stages are:
Find the intersection and confirm it
Chisel away at the baggage and rubble to raise yourselves up to a point where you can see eye to eye
Embrace each other’s point of view without fear of ‘losing face’ and without feeling under attack
We probably already agree that we need to find a better way to engage. The freedom to constructively challenge and find workable solutions is an essential element for business growth. Once discussion is banned or becomes a battle for supremacy, businesses are in terminal decline.
Here are my top tips for switching on constructive dialogue:
Invite people to challenge you and put forward alternatives. Listen to them when they do so wit
hout defending your current position
Toughen up: accept that people might not be able to dress up their concerns in order to protect your sensibilities, but don’t let that obscure their core message
If you choose to do something different to what people have suggested or asked for, explain your reasons. Otherwise people won’t be forthcoming in the future
If you have a point of disagreement that you wish to air:
Don’t wait until you are so agitated to voice your concern
Don’t imply that the other person has failed or is a failure: focus on the event or behaviour, not the person
Be clear about your objective and seek to gain consensus about what you are both trying to achieve
Focus on your intention to find a joint solution
Don’t give up if you don’t get the reaction you want: find new ways to get your point across until you get a definitive and clear response
You might never end up seeing eye to eye, but but you’ve got to admit: it’s a better option than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick!