Conflict in the workplace can be debilitating, destabilising and far from enjoyable. However, there is a useful technique from Theory of Constraints that can make resolving conflicts far easier and, if practiced, even an enjoyable non-threatening activity.
Theory of Constraints (TOC) is a change methodology based on the principle of progressively identifying the biggest constraint in a system, working to first improve the system to better serve that constraint and then to eliminate it entirely, then moving onto the next constraint.
TOC includes a technique called Evaporating Cloud that is ideal for resolving conflicts. In this article we’ll explore how it works.
Most conflicts arise because people passionately disagree on how to reach a shared goal. They have different solution preferences and perceive different immediate needs due to their different circumstances. The world looks very different from the bottom of the valley to the top of the hill.
As Fisher and Ury explored in Getting To Yes, positional negotiation (setting out a position and arguing for it) and its subsequent bargaining is self-limiting; leading only to lose-lose or win-lose outcomes. Compromise is by definition giving no-one the outcome they were seeking. Instead, Fisher and Ury propose principled negotiation that is based around underlying principles and therefore permits many ways to satisfy those principles: increasing the chances of win-win.
Similarly, as Marshall Rosenberg sets out in Nonviolent Communication, people in relationship conflicts are fighting their battles using specific wants or preferences, not the unspoken needs behind those wants (of which they may not even be aware). They especially do not reveal the (usually faulty) assumptions they are making that leads them from the underlying need to their specific want being the only solution they can see.
Neurolinguistic Programming (and a range of other therapeutic techniques) also includes the technique of Parts Integration which works in a similar way to resolve internal mental conflicts – we look at the shared intentions behind the two parts and bring them together.
With all of these models, principles, intentions, needs are essentially equivalent. The models work by uncovering them and shining a light on the faulty assumptions that take individuals from principle/need/intention to the position/preference/want that drives the conflict.
So far so good, but how do either of these apply in a business environment? After all, both Ury and Rosenberg work in the challenging field of conflict resolution, but most of us don’t, and not everyone is an NLP guru.
With an Evaporating Cloud we bring the two parties together with a facilitator, then draw the conflict visually, explore it and resolve it (i.e. evaporate the differences). It is a four-step process.
1. First we draw the two opposing positions or wants: A and B and label the conflict between them using a cross.
Then we work right-to-left, identifying the immediate needs behind those positions for both A and B and draw them onto the cloud.
After this we look for a common shared goal between those needs and add that to the picture to complete our basic cloud.
Just going this far is already useful because it shows everyone involved that there is a common shared higher goal that both A and B are trying to achieve – they differ only on their approach. We’ll explore why they differ next.
2. Step two is to identify the explicit assumptions that A and B are making which take them from the shared goal to the immediate need to the specific preference.
We now work left-to-right and add each assumption to the picture, completing our cloud.
This process also reveals to both A and B why the other is arguing their case in a non-threatening way. It inherently builds a shared understanding which brings the parties together.
3. The third step is to challenge each assumption and test its validity. This is done both by looking for evidence/counter-evidence for each and other alternatives. Almost always this will highlight faulty assumptions on both sides.
This process also loosens the strength of each party’s position and opens them up to thinking more creatively of alternative possibilities, bringing them to a needs-based, principled negotiating position.
4. Finally, we choose better assumptions and use them to generate new options that both parties can now agree on, using their improved shared understanding of their common goal and individual needs and circumstances.
In most cases at step 4, the conflict resolves itself (it evaporates), with both A and B abandoning their previous positions and now advocating a new common solution.
This process does require facilitation and this can be daunting with strong personalities.
However, inaction can be hugely risky and expensive. If you have an intractable conflict that is standing in the way of change, you have little to lose by trying Evaporating Clouds.
There are more subtleties that are possible with Evaporating Clouds (including different sequence building orders for different situations and communication scenarios), but this should be enough to get you started. What matters most is that you explore the conflict properly, not the precise sequence.
Why don’t you try using this model to map out some conflicts in your workplace and see how it helps you understand them? Perhaps you’ll be able to see a better solution that no-one has thought of.
In Part II we’ll use a specific example to bring it to life and explore how this works in more detail.
Until then, good luck with resolving conflicts in your workplace.
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