In an EOS® Annual Planning session last week, one of our clients put “Fear of Conflict” and “Failure to Hold Each Other Accountable” on their Issues List. Those issues are obviously connected. Yet when it came time to solve issues, the team chose to work on just about anything but those two. They were, it turned out, afraid of the conflict they might experience if they tried to figure out why they were afraid of conflict.
This was clearly the elephant in the room, so we finally called it out and asked them to deal with it.
When we asked the members of the team to state clearly what they were afraid of, a consistent answer emerged. It turned out that they were afraid to confront one another without having enough information to be sure that the other person was wrong. Doing that might provoke unnecessary conflict. Worse, if you turn out to be the person who’s wrong, it might make you look a little foolish. So they’ve been holding back, which has been slowing them down.
This is incredibly common because as leaders, we’re taught to be confident in our facts, ideas and decisions. So we tend to approach disagreements with the assumption that we’re right, which means the other person must be wrong. Disagreements instantly turn into arguments in which the goal is to “win.” Or else, like our client team, we hold back because we decide that the gain isn’t worth the pain.
Either way, it’s enormously unproductive. It’s also remarkably easy to fix.
Instead of assuming the other person is wrong, try assuming that they’re probably right and that if you only knew what they were really thinking, you might agree with them. Your job is not to “win” the argument, but to get help make the best decision for the company, which you’re more likely to do if you eliminate your own assumptions, and instead find out what’s really going on in the other person’s head.
The best way we know of to do this is simply to ask questions. Our friend Dan Kreutzer of Samurai Business Group says that the two most powerful words in the English language are “I’m confused.” So try this: “Harry, I’m confused. I know you’ve really thought this through, but I’m just not seeing it. Can you help me understand?”
Feel free to remain confused and to keep asking questions until you’re sure you’ve heard what’s really on the other person’s mind. In the end, you may or may not be persuaded. But the other person will have been heard. You’ll get down to real issues and root causes. You’ll make better decisions, you’ll make them faster, and you’ll get a lot more done.
All you have to do is ask.