We sat in a bunch at the end of a long table. They faced one another, but were looking anywhere except at each other. I was in the middle, between them.
As their organization’s coach, I knew both sides of the story along with the complicating factors. All they knew was that they were seeing red.
This is a classic. isn\'t it?
Sasha was the IT Director, and Allison the Fund Raising Director – both essential to organizational operations, but neither department was particularly well-understood. And they were under the stress of big growth goals. Like the couple that fights over how to squeeze the toothpaste, it’s not about the toothpaste at all. It’s about having a safe place to let out steam.
Sasha felt that nothing she did for Allison was ever enough, that she had gone above and beyond to no avail. She reported that Allison had been rude and aggressive with her and she was done working with her.
Allison deeply distrusted Sasha and had begun to suspect that Sasha was intentionally trying to sabotage her success. She suspected that Sasha missed deadlines repeatedly and was angry she didn’t take responsibility for this. She thought Sasha was incapable of doing her job.
Allison may have sounded paranoid, but she was fed up and needed a computer system that worked for her so she could meet her goals. Sasha may have sounded obstinate – perhaps insubordinate in her near refusal to work with Allison. But she was exasperated by Allison’s demands.
(Does any of this sound familiar?)
So there we were – fire shooting from their eyes and steam coming out their noses. The tension was palpable.
To Establish Emotional Safety
- Say three things about the other person that you appreciate.
- Take responsibility and state your part in the problem.
- Make your case (your need and request) without blaming the other person. Use “I” statements.
Three minutes per person – no talking while the other person speaks.
Allison began. With little beads of sweat on her face, she looked directly at Sasha and plunged in: She appreciated that Sasha had tried repeatedly to fix the problem, and had resolved one issue really well. She recognized that Sasha’s job must be hard and stressful.
Sasha’s face visibly softened.
Allison moved to Step Two, sharing what I already knew: She was under a lot of stress to get the software system running to meet her budget numbers. She lacked a sense of accomplishment and was frustrated and reactive. And she was spending weekends caring for a very sick family member.
There was a light of recognition in Sasha’s eyes.
Finally, she made her case regarding what she needed from Sasha, and this is where it got heated. The pain, the anger and the frustration came out. Read more about how to express feelings here.
3 Minutes Total Talking Time. No interruptions.
Then it was Sasha’s turn.
Sasha shared the three things she appreciated about Allison and her part in the problem – she was distracted, pulled in multiple directions and didn’t feel like she had time to do anything well.
Allison nodded in understanding, and let out a quiet, deep breath. So far they had spent six minutes together repairing trust.
They were now leaning in slightly toward one another. Hands-on the table. They began their dialogue toward resolution. Hot slices of anger punctuated the conversation at times – they didn’t see the situation in the same way.
But what they did see was that they weren’t enemies.
Empathy Breaks the Stalemate
In fact, in under 30 minutes, they had a blockbuster experience engaging empathy. They put themselves in the other person’s shoes regardless of whether they agreed with each other or not.
And it worked! While they didn’t walk out of the room best of friends, they had an appreciation for each other’s challenges and needs and were ready to partner together on solutions.
Actually, I’ve used this process countless times – with clients, and yes, in my personal life, too. (This technique is often used in marriage counseling.)
We don’t have to settle for stalemates. The opportunity to rebuild bridges, understand one another’s perspective, to strengthen relationships—to partner again – to create a team again— awaits every one of us.