The Mentorist

Talk a Mile in My Shoes: Overcoming Conflict with Your Boss (or, Really, Anyone)

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I like to hire strong-headed people.  They’ve got minds of their own — and have no problem telling me when they think I’ve lost mine.  (Imagine teenagers, but with highly developed executive functions….)

Most of the time, this approach works wonders:  I feel challenged, they feel respected and the entire team produces results we couldn’t have otherwise.

But with strong wills come occasional strong impasses.  I’m thinking, in particular, of a time when one of my trusted ‘lieutenants’ handled a work travel situation in a way that — although quasi-legitimate — served his personal interest a bit too much, while making it harder for me, as team leader, to meet the budget numbers I had signed up for.

I was not amused.

When I invited Ferris (not his real name) into my office to discuss the situation, we started with his explaining the judgment calls he’d made in acting as he had.  I then explained why his actions had put me –- and our team –- in a ‘worse off’ position.  Again, he explained his judgment calls.  Again, I explained their bad impact.  And on and on….

We were getting nowhere — because neither of us felt understood.  When that happens, the human tendency is to ‘dig in.’

Although the conflict resolution technique of ‘mirroring’ — i.e., restating the other person’s point of view before responding to it (‘I hear you saying that …’) — often works to break these impasses, Ferris and I needed something ‘extra-strength.’

Then, the sort of creativity that only happens in moments of despair struck:  If Ferris wasn’t understanding me, I would have him become me. I asked him to physically switch chairs, assume my ‘headset’ (i.e., my concerns, beliefs and feelings) as best he could and speak as Jane.  None of this, ‘You, Jane, are saying that…’ stuff.  Rather, Ferris (now, as a Jane impersonator) was only allowed to speak in terms of ‘I, Jane.’  An example:

Ferris (impersonating Jane):  ‘You’ve put me in a tough position, Ferris, because you spent the team’s travel budget on [fill in the blank] without talking to me first and, now, I have to justify this to the CFO.’

This was tough for Ferris!  He’d been asked to play ‘the parent’ in a situation where he would have far preferred to continue justifying his somewhat sketchy ways.

But, after a few more run-throughs, Ferris actually got into the part.  (I knew I had him when he used one of my pet phrases that would never have crossed his lips as Ferris.)  Eventually, he came around to understanding my point of view — and to realizing that his actions had involved some bad judgment calls.  Impasse over.

[NOTE:  The ‘Ferris’ example I picked to show the power of role-playing in conflict Line Drawing-Angry Couple copyresolution happened to be one where I was ‘in the right.’  (Hey, wouldn’t you?)  Of course, the technique cuts both ways:  In other situations, role-playing has pointed out to me just how ‘off’ my positions can be.]

So, what if you work in an uptight place, where asking someone to ‘play you’ in an impromptu reenactment drama might cause others to question your sanity?  (You should consider leaving that place. But that is a subject for another day….)

You can still use the role-playing technique to help you understand where the person you’re in conflict with is coming from.  All it takes is this:

The next time you find yourself complaining to your coworker/friend/spouse about a situation where you felt misunderstood or unfairly treated by another person, even though you were ‘in the right,’ ask yourself this:  ‘If [name of your nemesis] were talking to her own coworker/friend/spouse right now about this same situation, what would she be saying?’

Then — taking into account what you know about the other person’s ‘headset’ (i.e., concerns, beliefs and feelings) and, then, actually speaking in her ‘voice’ (i.e., as ‘I, Nemesis’) — answer that question as honestly as you can.

 It’s called ‘empathy’….

Author: Jane E. Owens

Jane E. Owens, The Mentorist’s chief blogger, has spent her career immersed in the business and culture of corporations and law firms. A former general counsel and corporate lawyer, Jane is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the professional world – and, through her mentoring practice, hopes to increase the ranks of the former. To learn more about Jane or suggest topics you'd like The Mentorist to discuss, go to:

One thought on “Talk a Mile in My Shoes: Overcoming Conflict with Your Boss (or, Really, Anyone)

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