Fighting When Neither Party Is Wrong

Most people would rather have a root canal than attempt to resolve a conflict. In fact, instead of going through the tough work of routing out the real issue and figuring out how to confront the offending party, most people will say, “Oh, it’s just a personality conflict.”   It is never just a personality conflict. That’s an excuse.

Every person brings to each situation unique information gleaned from his or her experience, perceptions, values and goals. In any situation that involves more than one person, therefore, there are bound to be differences of opinion. Therefore, the potential for conflict exists. The conflict is not due to personality differences but because the people involved are at odds over one or more of the following items.  They :

●think differently,

●are relying on a different body of personal experience,

●are missing a vital piece of information;

●are using different sources of information,

●perceive things differently, and

●have different goals.

Let’s look in on a badly matched married couple. Sarah is a second generation American whose family practiced extreme frugality in order to provide the bare basics. Alex’s family has deep roots in the American culture, and, as a child, he never wanted for anything.  When Sarah shops, she purchases the cheapest cuts of meat; when Alex does the shopping, he buys the most expensive cuts. Sarah makes wonderful meals from leftovers. Alex hates leftovers, even when disguised as a creative casserole. When mechanical items break down, Alex throws out the broken item and replaces it with a new one. Sarah will take the broken item to be fixed. She tells him, “It’s important to save for a rainy day.  You never know what might happen”.  Alex tells Sarah, “Life is short. We only go this way once. We should enjoy all that our money can do for us right now.” Sarah thinks Alex is wasteful and reckless. Alex thinks Sarah is anal and compulsive.

Instead of acting as if the other is totally wrong, this couple should explore the reasons why each looks at the world from such a different perspective.  Based on their different perspectives, neither person is wrong;   both positions have merit. Both should seek input from a marriage counselor to find a middle ground.

Here is a work example. Suppose you are the Manager of the Design Department and your opponent is the Manager of the Accounting Department. Your goals are about designing the best, most efficient, edge-of-technology, gizmos in the market place. Your opponent’s goals are concerned with keeping the costs of manufacturing down so that the price of the gizmos is competitive in the marketplace.

You have designed a new, fantastic gizmo model. Retooling to accommodate your new design will be far more expensive than just continuing to produce last year’s standard model gizmo.  However, producing last year’s standard gizmo model renders your department unnecessary.  You might therefore conclude that the Accounting Manager dislikes you personally and is devising clever ways to get rid of you.  You might also assume that you are focusing on the future  in order to keep the company ahead of the technological curve while the Accounting  Manager is just an old fuddy duddy who wants to hang on to old ways of doing things.

Neither assessment is true. What you have here is a simple conflict over goals. It is not personal.  Moreover,  it requires that those at a higher level from both of you determine what the company should produce and bring to the marketplace in the coming year – a brand new model gizmo or more of the older model.

In this example, let’s suppose you are missing a critical piece of information. The CFO told the Accounting Manager that manufacturing expenses had to be trimmed 12 percent in the coming year. The estimated increase for retooling the manufacturing process to accommodate your new model gizmo is 16 percent. This would result in the Accounting Manager having to trim 38 percent from the manufacturing costs.  It would be impossible for him to do that. Therefore, in order to accomplish his goal of trimming 12 percent from manufacturing costs, the Accounting Manager feels forced to avoid incurring any additional manufacturing costs, including those for retooling.  Therefore, he feels forced to take a position against your new design.

Whatever the other person is doing may make no sense to you, but it does make sense to them. Therefore, you must ask yourself, “What piece of information am I missing which, if I had it, would help me understand what my opponent is attempting to accomplish?”  

Suppose, for example, a couple has a young child with a huge nose. Devaney, the mother, wants the child to undergo corrective surgery immediately. Shawn, the father, believes it would be better to wait until the child is older and can better tolerate the operation.  During her childhood, Devaney was severely teased because she was much taller than any of her classmates.  When she remembers her grade school years, the pain of the teasing comes back to her full force.  She doesn’t want her child to go through what she went through.  It could, she believes, scar him for life.  Shawn, on the other hand, was never taunted during his early school years.  Therefore, he is certain that his child will be able to successfully ignore any teasing.  Therefore, he does not want the surgery now.

This is not a matter of who is right and who is wrong. Both positions have merit. What needs to happen here is, instead of arguing, these parents need to share where their views of the situation come from.  Both need to acknowledge that each wants the best for their child.  Next, they need to consult the child’s doctor about the age and surgery-tolerance issue.  Finally, they need to examine their child’s reaction to being teased. The child’s history – not the parents’ history- should determine when and/or if such corrective surgery needs to take place now.

The key to managing conflict is to focus on the issues, not on the personalities or people involved. “What do you want as an outcome or result of the proposed action?” might be a good question to ask to clarity goals.  You want to reconcile different ideas, sources of information, experiences and perceptions so that mutually and in partnership you can move ahead.

Here are other another examples.  Barbara believes that her husband Ralph ought to spend some quality time with the children each night.  Ralph thinks that quality time refers to the weekend when he’s not so tired and out of sorts.  Barbara and Shawn decide to consult their Pastor and learn that using Sundays for family activities is just as powerful for building decent, moral, respectful and well-adjusted  kids as taking time with them in the evenings when everyone maybe tired and out of sorts.

Ralph wants to research replacement windows on the internet and in magazines such as Consumer Reports.  Barbara wants to accomplish this task more quickly.  She wants to go with the recommendation of the window expert at the Home Depot.  Once again, neither person is wrong; both positions have merit.  The couple resolved this issue by consulting a building contractor who, from his experience, was able to help them select the right replacement windows for their needs.

Your co-worker thinks your project should be accomplished one way and you believe some other way is better.  Your co-worker’s information came from a seasoned, experienced employee while yours came from the department manager who is relatively new to the organization.  Maybe your facts and information are identical but, being different individuals, you have interpreted the facts differently. Once again, we have a conflict where neither party is wrong; both positions have merit.  You both decide to approach the General Manager to gain some clarity on the situation.

In resolving a conflict with a neighbor, Barbara wants to get advice from a lawyer relative and perhaps sue the neighbor.  Ralph wants to speak with the local police department.  He thinks this is a one-time problem.  He believes that a little chat with the authorities might be all that is necessary to solve the problem.  Once again, neither person is wrong; both positions have merit.  The couple decides to approach the neighbor, share their concerns and see how he responds before deciding on other measures.

At work, a very familiar conflict may occur over values – about what is right and fair versus what is what is wrong and unacceptable. You may feel that in order to complete the project on time some margin for error is permissible. Your co-worker may believe that one should strive for a no-error, quality result and if that makes the project late, so be it.  If you try to resolve this difference on your own, there will very likely be terms flying around which will not forward the problem solving effort. These will be terms such as slipshod, compulsive, shoddy, obsessive, careless, task-oriented, expedient, over-zealous, irresponsible, inflexible, and incompetent. Once again, neither person is wrong; both positions have merit.  Only the boss can resolve the issue.  Go see the boss and find out what she wants: on-time with errors or perfection and lateness.

The resolution to these issues is relatively simple:

●first – recognize that both positions have merit.

●second – assert that neither of you is wrong.

●third – together select a person at a higher level of knowledge than either of you to help clarify the issue  (a boss or an expert on the topic).

To sum up, with these types of issues, it is not possible to find resolution at your level. You will waste time and energy trying. In addition, you will only create more hostility. The reason is, neither of you is wrong.  Both of you are working in a fog created by a lack of crucial, specific information.

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