Dispute resolution: It’s not just for lawyers. Anyone can benefit from the communication techniques which are fundamental to the practice of dispute Dispute resolution: It’s not just for lawyers. Anyone can benefit from the communication techniques which are fundamental to the practice of dispute resolution.
Leaders, managers, board members, co-workers, teachers, parents, and just about everyone who lives and breathes and interacts with anyone on a daily basis will run into a situation where there is conflict or a problem which needs to be solved. Since the purpose of alternative dispute resolution is to resolve conflict, the techniques utilized by dispute resolution practitioners can be applied in a variety of situations from the C-suite to a parent navigating teenage drama.
The fundamental principle of dispute resolution is to facilitate conversation by using proactive communication techniques which will spur options for resolving the problem. While there are countless techniques that dispute resolution practitioners employ to ultimately reach resolutions in high stakes negotiations, here are four skills anyone can use the next time you run into a particularly difficult conflict.
Don’t just listen to reply, but listen to understand what is being said. Proactive listening is not a passive exercise. If done correctly, it is active and complex. What is the person saying and how does it fit into the larger context of the issue to be resolved? Is there subtext underneath the statement that is the real heart of the problem? Are there themes that are emerging that if woven together, speak to something larger that is not actually being said? What follow-up questions can you ask to get more information on what you are hearing that will help you figure out how to resolve the problem?
Our society has become so accustomed to firing off quick replies, retorts, and one-line responses as a result of the use of email and social media, is it not surprising that those reactions are now filtering into the way people communicate face to face. What would it be like to listen to a problem someone presents, not reply immediately, but ask several follow-up questions to fully understand the problem and then think? Holding back an immediate judgment or response and slowing down to formulate a strategy or plan can be uncomfortable because the person in conflict wants an immediate answer. But being a leader also means setting expectations to problem-solve at a pace that will yield the best results.
By reacting immediately to what you think you are hearing, rather than engaging in active listening may result in a quick-fix, but it likely will not resolve the fundamental root problem.
If you have ever been in a situation where someone is complaining about an issue and they get themselves so worked up that they can hardly breathe by the time they are done talking, you can see that by the time they are finished they are confused and flustered about the entire problem.
You need to re-frame the issue and clarify it factually. Summarizing back to them what you heard not only gives them a chance to hear you say what you heard from them, but also sets the stage for further discussion.
For example, if someone complains about their boss micro-managing them to the point where they can’t do their job, and their manager asserts that if he or she does not micro-manage nothing will be completed, summarizing the statements in a non-confrontational way would go like this: “So, it sounds like we need to discuss management style and project oversight.” You have taken the emotion out of the conflict and boiled it down to a factual statement which has common ground for both parties.
When people have a problem, they love to hear themselves talk about it. (I know this from practicing family law for 20 years.) They also love talking about what they think that the solution is, and in fact, they usually already have a solution in mind.
Once you have been able to factually distill down the dispute that needs resolving, brainstorming possible solutions is a way to get the discussion going on how the problem can be fixed. The most effective brainstorming sessions allow those collaborating to set out any solution, even if it is a bad one. Setting out obviously bad decisions is not a waste of time (although many type-A achieving professionals don’t understand this). By stating an obviously bad option, you create a framework in which to craft a not-so-obvious solution.
When I start a brainstorming session, I will say, “Okay, let’s talk about all available solutions on the table – even bad ones.”
You might find that one person’s obvious solution is someone else’s (or your) worst case scenario. That doesn’t mean that a solution won’t be reached. But it does give framework and context for further conversations.
The possible solutions that are raised in the brainstorming session should be tested in the “real world.” There is not a formulaic approach to this technique as the leader or person facilitating the discussion will now have a significant amount of information to know where the discussion is headed.
Questions like, “Is it realistic for X to happen?” or “How does Y look like 6, 9, 12 months out?” are good reality testing questions for a larger systematic problem. If you are dealing with an interpersonal problem you can ask questions such as, “How would you feel if X was asking this of you?” or “Does it seem reasonable to ask Y to do that?” Questions should be specific and tailored to specific issue at hand with goal of narrowing down the possible solutions even farther.
Professionals that engage in dispute resolution on a daily basis use a kaleidoscope of techniques in order to keep the conversation moving in the right direction. You can also employ more than one technique at a time. For example, you always need to be engaged in active listening while brainstorming and reality testing.