When we experience conflict about something we’re working on, that conflict isn’t really about the work. It’s about trust between the people in the room.
I learnt this from a participant at a workshop I was facilitating, who I’ll call Adam. We were role-playing difficult conversations from work. Adam was a product manager, and his scenario was a regular meeting where his team of developers prioritised features for the next sprint. One particular developer always seemed to raise the same issue: a feature he thought was important, even though Adam had explained that it wasn’t a priority for the business. As the role-play started, I suggested that Adam use a listening technique we were working on to find out more about what was going on for this developer who always seemed to speak up.
Adam: [interrupting role play] “But I would never do that!”
Adam: “Because this meeting’s about the next sprint, not about this guy’s feelings, or mine!”
Until this point, Adam had considered his role as strictly about the work the business expected him to do: understanding user needs, prioritising and shipping features. Adam interpreted the developer’s objections as comments about the work, and didn’t understand why he continued to make the same comments after Adam had explained the business priorities. Was this developer questioning Adam’s competence as a product manager? Why would’t he listen?
Show me a disagreement about the work and I’ll show you a relationship between people who would like to see more trust.
I realised that Adam had a point: the listening techniques we were practising wouldn’t work in a big meeting in front of everyone. So I reset the role-play to a coffee meeting between Adam and the developer, and he breezed through the listening exercise, getting to the bottom of the problem in a few minutes. Adam already had the “people skills” he needed, he just hadn’t given himself permission—as he described it—to make building trust part of his work.
(If you’re interested in learning facilitation, coaching, and listening skills, consider my people skills workshop in January.)