One of the best professors I ever had was Joe Bentley at the University of Utah School of Business.
Joe was a legend at the University. He was an expert at organizational behaviour, and would really come into his own while discussing conflict management and dealing with what he called “hairy problems”. He was not averse to using unusual means to get his point across – onetime he conducted almost an entire class standing on top of a bench. It was an incredibly unusual sight, and we had a number of curious onlookers peeping into the class to see what was going on!
One lesson from Joe has stuck with me always, and it has helped me immensely over the last 15 years. This lesson was part of our conflict management session, and Joe was telling us how to talk while resolving a conflict.
Emotions often run high during a conflict, and it is customary for the parties to talk about the problems they see in the behavior of the other party. Some of the following sentences are typical of the language used:
- You are always disrupting our meetings by arriving late.
- You are so disorganized, that you never seem to be able to find anything on time.
- You are so defensive about everything that it is impossible to have a real discussion with you.
Such statements only fuel the conflict, and send it into a downward spiral. Joe taught us the power of “I”. He suggested that we use the “I language” instead of the “you language” while speaking during a conflict.
- I am very upset about the fact that you arrived late for the meeting.
- I feel angry and upset because I can’t often find the TV remote when I need it.
- I am really frustrated that I can’t find a way to have a meaningful discussion with you
There are two differences in the two sets of statements. The first one is that the second set uses the “I language” rather than the “you language”. The other subtle difference is that in the first set the speakers act on their feelings by throwing out an accusation. In the second set the speakers speak about their feelings while providing a reason for why they feel that way. Such language invites the other person to share their story, which is likely to help resolve matters. The first set is likely to make them defensive, leading to a cycle of accusations and counter-accusations.
Try this in your work and personal life – you will be amazed at how much it will help you resolve conflicts more effectively.