Ask anyone who knows me and they will agree that I seek personal connection wherever I can. Not surprising, when I attended a seminar led by my client, CraftedLeadership, on conflict resolution, the subject resonated with me.
We discussed our tendency, as humans, to allow our emotions and perceptions to distort facts when experiencing conflict. This impacts our ability to resolve conflict in a way that allows for a deeper connection with those we are in conflict with.
When confronting our counterpart in conflict, the first step is to determine the difference between fact and story. There is an important distinction between what our mind tells us is happening versus what is actually happening.
From a psychological standpoint, this is called "real but not true." Our thoughts and feelings are always real because they happened, but that doesn't mean they are rooted in truth or fact.
When completing this exercise, we were asked to write out the facts of a particular situation where we experienced conflict with another person. Then a few brave souls stood in front of a room of 150+ strangers and shared their situation. Guess what? Distinguishing facts from story is not as easy as it seems.
Here are the definitions provided by Crafted Leadership:
Fact: measurable results or behaviors.
Easy way to gut check: what a video camera or audio recording would capture.
Story: opinions, beliefs, judgments, interpretations.
Easy way to gut check: what could be argued by others.
Give it a try: My colleague is angry with me.
Fact or Story? Story.
Fact: my colleague didn’t speak during our team meeting.
See the difference? The story you are telling yourself is your colleague is angry with you because they did not speak during the team meeting. You can try and interpret the reasons why your colleague did not speak (a.k.a. your story), but what a camera would have captured is that your colleague did not speak during the meeting.
We went on to discuss a collaborative approach to managing conflict and I went home and thought about it. I documented times when my emotions created a story that I mistook for fact and I started to notice it more. At home. At work. With friends.
Then, I evolved my connection with storytelling to positively impact relationships instead of sabotage them. I came up with a way to turn my story into steps for resolution.
So, let's ditch the stories we tell ourselves, and turn them into steps for conflict resolution:
S – State the Facts ("I noticed that...")
T – Tell the Impact ("The impact that is having...")
O – Own up to your Story/Part ("The story I'm telling myself...")
R – Request Change ("Would you be willing...")
Y – Yield to Sincerity (notice your words/tone/body language)
Go back to the colleague, we'll name them Sam, I mentioned earlier. You’ve been fretting over the fact that they didn’t speak during the status call and you’ve come up with all sorts of reasons ranging from not liking the work you recently delivered to being upset with you for interrupting them during a previous meeting to even the fact that you didn’t ask about their recent vacation before launching into work talk. You’ve spiraled into the storytelling deep end. If you approach Sam prior to going through the S.T.O.R.Y. steps, it's highly likely it will come from a place of emotional reactivity and be received with the same.
Let’s ditch the story and use the S.T.O.R.Y. steps to script how we will approach Sam. I'm not suggesting you bring your script to read to the other person, but preparing for a conversation that includes feedback and/or conflict allows us to stay grounded in fact vs story and focus our desire for resolution. Here's an example:
Hey Sam, (S) I noticed you didn’t speak during our status call today. (T) The impact this is having is others are following your lead and also not contributing. (O) The story I am telling myself is that you are upset with me though I have no basis for that assumption. (R) Would you be willing to share why you weren’t as collaborative as you normally are? (Y) If there’s anything I’ve done or an outside factor I’m not considering, I would love to better understand the situation.
This is not foolproof, nor easy. However, by being prepared for how you approach someone and open about your part in the perceived conflict as well as your desired outcome(s), you offer a safe place for open dialogue and reduce the risk of your counterpart becoming defensive or unwilling to resolve the situation.
One more note: let go of the desire to control their reaction and focus on who you want to be in the conversation (think: curious, compassionate, assertive, empathetic, clear, kind). The truth is, you can only control who you choose to be and trust that the other person will choose who they want to be.
Need another example?
I discovered one I think we can all relate to. You are sitting in traffic and someone cuts you off. They are a jerk, right? Perhaps, though we don’t know anything about the driver’s character. The camera only captured the fact that they cut you off. Instead of the story that they are being a jerk, perhaps they need to urgently get somewhere and they need to yield to their normal law-abiding ways to get to the situation that awaits them at their destination. Haven’t we all been the person who cut someone off before? I bet you wouldn’t classify yourself as a jerk, though cutting someone off is a jerk move. Sitting in traffic is a perfect time to practice your S.T.O.R.Y. steps. Certainly better than road rage!
While you won’t likely confront your traffic buddy, when you do desire to talk with someone you’re in conflict with, practice first by writing out your S.T.O.R.Y. steps to get comfortable with the structure. Then, use that to guide the discussion. Before you know it, your natural dialogue will steer you towards identifying facts and requesting a change in a way that encourages open communication and positive conflict resolution.
If you’re looking to dive deeper into conflict resolution or other common leadership topics, let's chat!
For reading materials on conflict resolution and feedback, I have 3 recommendations:
Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking when Stakes are High.
Never Split the Difference - Taking emotional intelligence and intuition to the next level gives you the competitive edge in any discussion.
Radical Candor - everything you need to level up your feedback skills at work!