By Esther Bleuel
We live in a world where conflict is inevitable and unavoidable. It can’t be escaped, and ignoring it can cause great harm and distress.
One of the biggest challenges is that most people fear having difficult conversations or “tough talks.” Why? The consequences of a conflict gone wrong may damage or actually end an important relationship. Another, more subtle, challenge is identifying and acknowledging the “real” problem in a disagreement.
Several months ago, I began working with a client who wanted help to resolve a business dispute with his father. They had worked together for 11 years and, although they had never been close, their business grew to more than $14 million annually. Each person brought different skills and talents to the partnership.
At first glance, resolution of the business issues should not have been complicated. As the situation unfolded, however, discussions repeatedly broke down, tempers flared and various conflict issues surfaced.
Engaged in a power struggle, their perceptions of facts differed, their values were at odds, and each had a different level of risk tolerance. Even more significantly, each had been hurt by the other and trust had been broken repeatedly. Getting to the root of the problem was key.
In this sad and difficult situation between the father and son, unresolved emotional issues created resistance and multiple resolution options were met with an impasse. Because things didn’t “add up,” I knew that something deeper was going on and we were probably not dealing with the “real” issue.
Conflict situations come in all shapes and sizes and vary in terms of complexity and intensity. Since each requires a different type of solution, identifying the “real” issue, although not always obvious, is essential. Not to do so can waste a great deal of time, energy and money.
The discrepancies in this business dispute provided glaring proof that resolution was not truly the father’s goal. His objective was to win. Although he was not malicious and did not want to harm or destroy his son, his true agenda was self-preservation.
The gaps between the father’s words, non-verbal communication and actions provided evidence of his priority. The son finally decided to separate from the business with his father. After notifying him of his decision, the son provided a timeline and a plan to address relevant issues.
Needless to say, this was a painful and difficult time for both parties. And, because the process of searching for resolution options had been exhaustive, the son had the opportunity to understand the reality of the situation. He was free to make a business decision that was in his best interest and did not harm his father. They have also learned how to maintain a familial relationship.
Although some conflicts are more entrenched than others, difficult conversations and challenging people and situations are a part of our daily lives. Learning how to handle conflicts successfully — whether they are planned or unexpected — can relieve us of needless worry.
Having to terminate an employee or evaluate poor performance is never easy. Needing to tell aging parents that it is no longer safe for them to live at home does require a “tough talk.” But these kinds of talks must be had because the relationships are important.
It takes courage to deal with conflict and to have difficult conversations. Fortunately, learning essential skills builds confidence. Avoiding or denying a problem will not make it evaporate. It can linger and fester becoming much more difficult to resolve later. The unaddressed “real” issue may contaminate the relationship, erode trust, or cause resentment and distance. It may unexpectedly surface later in the midst of difficult circumstances. In business especially, unresolved conflict may exacerbate other problems or cause loss of productivity, time and money.
You have an opportunity to resolve the “real” problem in a conflict when you identify and understand the discrepancy between words and actions. When a gap exists, actions matter more.
• Esther Bleuel is the founder and president of Tough Talk Coach, a Westlake Village-based conflict resolution consulting firm. Contact her at [email protected]