Effective conflict management is one of the most important skills we can acquire. Several years ago I was the managing director of a talent management firm in Ottawa. We conducted internal research on over 300 managers and executives and found that conflict management was the highest-rated area for self-development. This was confirmed in a 2013 Stanford University/The Miles Group survey of over 200 CEOs, board directors and other senior executives noting “conflict management skills” as the highest area of concern. Even when we are at the very top of the organizational food chain, this issue still plagues us. So, how do we handle conflict better? One important ingredient of effective conflict management is how we respond to feedback.
Consultant and Harvard Law School Lecturer Douglas Stone has dedicated his career to becoming the preeminent expert in the topic of difficult conversations. His latest book, Thanks for the Feedback, written with his colleague Sheila Heen, shares insights into how feedback conversations that are handled unskillfully spark conflict.
Stone shares an example of how the following feedback exchange between a husband and wife results in conflict and frustration. The wife starts by telling her husband that when he is with her family, he seems distant and cold. He responds to this feedback by stating that he was the one who organized the latest family gathering and drives his wife’s sister to her dialysis appointments, mows the lawn for her parents, etc.
“What is really going on in this conversation is that the two people are simultaneously giving each other feedback, but neither one of them is receiving the feedback the other is providing. There are two feedback givers and no feedback receivers,” states Stone.
This dynamic exists because of an unfortunately common human tendency to respond to critical feedback by providing critical feedback of our own. “If you tell me I am constantly late for meetings, I retort, ‘You’ve been scheduling way too many meetings lately!’ I respond to your feedback by giving you feedback,” writes Stone.
There are a couple of major problems created when you do this. Most importantly it fails to address the issue at hand and will likely be perceived as a form of defensiveness on the part of the initiator. This often raises the ire of the person providing the feedback. The second challenge is that it is impossible to manage two feedback conversations simultaneously. These issues get woefully intertwined, and it is very difficult to address or resolve either one. Stone suggests that if you are ever in a situation where you are hearing undesirable or unwanted feedback (such as that you are being distant with family) and want to respond with providing feedback to the other person, resist the temptation.
“The best thing to do is to talk about the first topic and ask for examples of how you are not being warm. In order to better understand that feedback, you will need to talk about it more. After you have talked about your perceived lack of warmth, you can say you have feedback you would like to give to the other person as well.
“In this case, the husband may feel like he does a lot for his wife’s family and does not feel appreciated for his efforts. That is another and equally important conversation to have. The mistake that we make is trying to have both conversations at once. When we do it that way, both people are angry and frustrated because they feel the other person is not listening to them. We call this a ‘switch track’ conversation because the conversation is starting off on one track, about one topic, and the other person switches it to a different track and different topic,” says Stone.
Conflict is a constant and challenging part of our personal and professional lives. Many people unknowingly compromise their ability to engage in difficult conversations because of their own lack of awareness. Mastering feedback is enlightening and will help you create a solid foundation to better manage conflict.
The next time you receive feedback, make sure you are not switching tracks. Doing so can compromise your ability to learn and grow while also damaging an important relationship. Staying on track is the key to our personal and professional success.