Seek First to Understand

Some enduring conflicts in business are caused by structural or systemic issues.  Another large source of these enduring conflicts we encounter in our working lives are conflicts caused by a lack of shared context. In both cases, we can do better if we start the next debate by seeking to gain better context.

Understanding can be a Solution

Like everyone, I get frustrated when some arguments just won’t go away. That frustration is never constructive.  It can cloud my judgement, cause me to miss issues and never helps resolve the debate. No matter how polite I think are my efforts to explain or convince, that frustration will be in the background and the other party can always sense it. We are finely tuned detectors of the emotional states of others. Anyone who senses frustration in someone with whom they are arguing is highly likely to interpret it as a lack of genuine intent, trust or respect.

Often when one of these conversations has gone on a long while it hits me that I don’t really understand what the other person wants. When I shift my focus from convincing them that I am right to seeking to understand their position, a radical change comes over the discussion. Firstly, I often discover some point of context I am missing or that I have misunderstood their position, concerns or their goals. Secondly, we slowly begin to rebuild the trust and respect that has been damaged by the conflict. Both of these are highly useful in finding a joint path to a solution

Often seeking to understand leads to an even more surprising resolution. When conflicts are caused by a lack of a shared context, some times the other party just wants to be heard. They want you to understand the context that you are missing. There might be nothing to do to fix things other than to listen deeply, actively engage their views and acknowledge what you have learned.

Context can show you the System

Seeking to understand is an important first step in the tricky issue of structural or systemic conflicts. These issues arise when parties are trapped in a system that pushes them into conflict, often without either side realising the issue.  Think of your classic clash between organisational silos. Operations are trying to reduce the cost of the process. Sales are trying to increase revenue. Both parties are right in pushing to meet their KPIs. Both feel authorised to fight on,  but the answer is that the organisation needs a balance of the two perspectives. In this context, it is easy for minor issues to become enduring proxy fights of the larger structural issue. I’ve seen teams fight repeatedly over whether error rates were driving cycle times or vice versa when the real issue between them was a need to better align their two businesses.

Changing the conversation to explore a wider context, to explore each party’s goals, concerns and views will help show the wider system at play in these debates.  Opening up this broader conversation is how leaders can identify often hidden issues like culture clashes, misalignment of incentives or parts of the system working with unintended consequences.

It takes only a few minutes to ask a few questions to ensure you truly understand what the other party is seeking to achieve. The insights from that quest for understand will benefit both of you.


The Creative Conflict of the Eclectic

“Chief among our gains must be reckoned this possibility of choice, the recognition of many possible ways of life, where other civilizations give a satisfactory outlet to only one temperamental type, be he mystic or soldier, businessman or artist, a civilization in which there are many standards offers a possibility of satisfactory adjustment to individuals of many different temperamental types, of diverse gifts, and varying interests.” – Margaret Mead

The Creative Conflict of the Eclectic

As a singer, writer, actor and more Nick Cave is a prolific and creative artist. Part of his creative potential flows from his long list of influences, if this partial list is anything to go by. The creative power of an eclectic list of influences from a variety of fields, genres and schools of thought is that it offers us the contrast & conflicts that enable us to push our work beyond its normal range. The ability to span a wider range of influences and to embrace ongoing conflict of schools of thought is an important part of why culture moves forward when management often sits still.

A wide range of inspirations & inputs offers us views that shatter our hallucinations and draw in the perspectives of the wider communities around us. Ideas profit by the testing of conflicting view points and the demands of additional stakeholders.

As Margaret Mead suggests in the quote above, we need diverse roles and viewpoints to be able to realise the creative potential of all people. We need diverse sources of conflict to see the world as it isAverages & standards constrain us. We need to leverage the creative potential of all human capabilities. In our organisations and our approaches to personal knowledge mastery, we need to resist the temptation to associate with similar people and to be drawn to the bubble of our own reflected opinions. We need to engineer difference of views and the conflict that flows from it.

The leadership task is not alignment without conflict. The work of leadership is alignment before, during and after conflict. In a world of continuous change, the conflict is inevitable. We must choose to embrace it.

But Conflict Must Change Work

Conflict and debate can be captivating. Generating new ideas and thoughts is often an extraordinarily exhilarating process. Creativity is itself an occupation for many.

Most organisations need more than creativity. They need change that can create new value.  The delivery of better value in its widest sense is what matters. That takes new and better ways of working.

Let the conflicts and the inspiration catch you in the process of making a little change. At that moment, there is a far better chance of inspiring some new form of value.

Inspiration exists but it has to find us working – Pablo Picasso

Obstacles are the work

Is it really December?  Businesses and schools are winding down for the summer break. The cricket has started. Christmas is rapidly approaching.  With that comes a quick close to 2013.

2013 has been a year of adventures, obstacles and challenges. More than anything else it has been a year of new momentum. I could not be more excited by the incredible opportunities that have arisen this year:

Embrace the Chaos and all its Obstacles

I was reflecting on all that has happened this year when Dany DeGrave tweeted yesterday about the need to maintain momentum in the face of obstacles:

Obstacles are the work. They show you have chosen to have an impact. They help us see our purpose. They provide the challenge and interest.

Obstacles are proof that your work matters to others. These challenges remind us that change is human and social. They encourage us to share knowledge with our networks, to work aloud and to pay attention to the knowledge moving around us.

Obstacles help us reflect on what matters. Pushback make us ask new or obvious questions.  An orderly progression of success can be quite tedious and generate its own doubts.  If success is that easy, are we missing something?

If there weren’t obstacles, our talents would not be required, we would not learn and not grow in the work. If there weren’t obstacles, we would not get the rewards of overcoming them.  If there weren’t obstacles, we would not have the joys of collaborating with others to move forward around over, under or through.

Your Obstacles. Your Momentum. Your Year.

So next time you are considering a year of obstacles, remember the hard work proves that you are on the right track. Obstacles are proof of your momentum.

I bought this poster at the midpoint of this year. It has been a reminder ever since that every year is my year.


Every year is your year too. Move past challenges. Reflect on the successes.

Maintain momentum in doing whatever you need to do to make it your year. Your impact is up to you.

If you would like your own or other great posters, the source is The Poster List. 

Conflict – Don’t Panic. Engage.


Many organisations are fine with collaboration and change as long as there is no conflict.  Once the conflict arises, everyone panics. Panic creates the worst reactions because it often leads to these strategies:

  • Freeze: pretending there is no conflict and hoping it fades away
  • Fight: Wading in to the conflict to impose the ‘right’ answer
  • Flight: Shutting down the conversation or even the whole change or collaboration

A panicked response is particularly likely if the conflict arises around one of the long threatening fault lines in the organisation e.g. between sales and marketing, between business and IT, between frontline employees and management, etc. Every organisation has its undiscussables and they are where leadership, change and collaboration begins to fail.

Don’t panic.  Celebrate and engage to shape the conflict into its most constructive form – deep engagement.

Conflict is the first sign of real engagement.  Until conflict occurs, everyone is assuming the collaboration or change is not worth the effort of a fight.

Conflict is also how you learn.  Well managed conflict helps share context between groups.  It will surface feedback and learnings. It helps you find the people to whom the activity really matters. Conflict is where you get to the real questions to be answered.  There is a good chance the real issue lies somewhere in that organisational fault line that everybody knows and nobody wants to discuss.

Any scriptwriter will tell you that every screenplay is driven by conflict.  Humans crave conflict.  Our stories are full of conflict.  We devote a huge amount of our attention to it. All the gossip in your office will relate to stories of conflict and their meaning for the behaviour of others or the culture of the organisation.  Successful change and collaboration needs this energy for human engagement.

So next time conflict breaks out around a change or a collaboration, recognise it as a good sign.  Engage to make it a constructive conversation:

  • Show genuine & deep interest in people’s views as to how to learn and improve
  • Tease out people’s purposes, concerns and context
  • Shift the discussion from opinions toward facts
  • Look for common ground and agreed actions. 
  • Accept that you can’t make every one happy.
  • Demonstrate change in your approach based on what you learn

Opposition is engagement


Many years ago I pitched an initiative to a senior executive group. The presentation went without a hitch. There were no hard questions and no push back. I walked out of the meeting pleased until a wise mentor of mine asked a devastating question:

What level of engagement was there in the room?

My mentor went on to point out that without pushback it is unlikely anyone in the room actually turned much of their mind to my initiative. The lack of pushback was bad news because it meant that support would fade quickly and little follow through would occur. Sadly, he proved right.

That day I learned a lesson to bring on questions, debate and conflict to generate engagement. No matter how compelling your case for change, you need debate to get people to consider the options, risks and issues. Without debate, people don’t agree. They just acquiesce.

Debate, questions and conflict are an essential part of how knowledge gets attention, currency and is shared in organisations. You can’t advance a meaningful agenda without them.

If it feels like you lack opposition, then there’s a good chance you are inadvertently playing to the safe ground. Platitudes might win unthinking support. That might work for a while, but there’s a risk you will lose your support when real challenges arise.

If others aren’t bringing debate, then start the debate yourself. Raise the hard questions and doubts. Provoke your likely opponents. A real discussion upfront is always better. Knowing where you stand as a change agent is critical.  It will give you valuable information on what to do next to move forward.

Too United We Fall

Uniting the like-minded agents of change is a common first step in creating change. Too much unity of the like-minded is also a path to failure.

Undoubtedly change agents benefit from connection, collaboration and collective force. The life of a change agent can be a lonely one. Having others to share the load matters.

Building an overly united collective of people equally oriented to change has its dangers for the success of any change:

Shared Context: People embrace ideas when they share sufficient context to understand them. Uniting a group of change agents can rapidly accelerate the sharing of knowledge within the group. Soon that group will have lost some shared context with those that need to embrace change.
Us & Them: Silos are inevitable in any attempt to draw a ring around a group united in purpose. Without great care, unity will also come at a cost of factionalism as people seek out those who hold views of those closer to their own. All of this connection is in the opposite direction to the external engagement that drives change.
Grand Plans: United we dream. We plan lots of steps without engaging those who must join us in the changes. United we dream. Dreams inspire, but don’t deliver.
Power of Conflict: Interaction, debate and conflict helps keeps ideas evolving and relevant. Flaws appear when ideas are challenged and when ideas are tested by diverse views. Unity will reduce conflict. No change prospers by talking only to the converted.
Compromise: Surrounded by those equally convinced, compromise can feel weak. Standing ground against the system looks like an option and is commonly raised. This gesture of pulling rank on the system may come with a giddy sense of opportunity but is actually a failure, alienating others and preventing further progress to change. Opting back-in later is always challenging.

So how do you get the benefits of greater connection without the risks?

Share your story: Work out loud. Keep putting ideas out and discussing them widely
Keep the doors open: Constantly engage with new people, both like-minded, neutral and opponents. Any time your ideas are not being disturbed once a day you are in an echo chamber.
Favour unity of purpose & action over dogma: People only need to be agreed enough on the direction to work together. The change agents don’t need to agree each last point of implementation yet. Details will come in time.