When we’re in conflict with others, we tend to believe ourselves more than anyone else. We believe our own perspective is the truth; people who disagree can’t possibly be right (or have a legitimate perspective).
And we believe ourselves not only with our minds, but with our emotions. We feel our rightness in our bones.
This conviction in our own perspective is part of what makes it so difficult to resolve conflicts.
Conversely, coming to appreciate others’ perspectives can help resolve those conflicts.
A Client Example
One of Arbinger’s clients is a medical provider in rural areas of the western United States. In one clinic, conflict between certain nurse-physician teams and the rest of the staff was creating problems for all employees, generating reprimands from administrative headquarters, and dramatically slowing service provision to patients.
They recently resolved this conflict by helping employees really see one another’s perspectives. Here is their story.
Over time, the clinic’s staff had divided into two camps. On one side was a group of nurses who felt that nobody else pulled their own weight at work. As a result, these nurses did not pitch in to help the others when they could, even though protocol indicated they should. They also pointed out mistakes made by the front desk.
On the other side was the rest of the staff. With the mentality that, “if they won’t help me, I won’t help them,” nurses and physicians in this camp likewise refused to pitch in when their colleagues got behind. Front desk staff, for their part, interpreted the first-camp nurses’ comments as judgmental and accusing. They said, “All you [nurses] do is yell at us. You’re always mad at us; we can’t do anything right for you.”
A pivotal component of the conflict involved a “list.” Administrative headquarters had heard about the conflicts in the clinic and asked one of the nurses to take a few notes about what was going on. When the other staff got wind of this request, they jumped to the conclusion that the note-taking nurse was compiling a list of evidence against them. They thought they were going to be fired based on the list.
Communication, trust, and collaboration were at all-time lows. Patients were receiving inferior service as a result.
Seeing Different Perspectives
A turning point came when the organization’s learning and development leader brought together the entire staff to talk through the problems. Through that conversation, each person gradually came to understand how they were playing a part in the conflict. They saw how they had been judging one another, misinterpreting others’ intentions, and excusing or justifying their own behavior.
Once people let go of their conviction in their own rightness, they began opening up to others’ perspectives. They started saying things like, “Oh, I didn’t know you were just trying to help the patient that one time. You weren’t mad at me after all!”
And they talked about the list. Some staff said, “We thought it was our death bed. We were convinced you [the note-taking nurse] were making all these horrible charges against us.” The note-taking nurse replied, “No, nobody asked for that. They just asked for some general examples of the kinds of conflicts we were having, so they could understand our situation.” “Oh…That makes sense.”
Critically, the team was able to have this open conversation—to accept what others were saying—because they had first shifted their own mindsets about themselves and the conflict. They had first seen how they were playing a part in the conflict. This mindset change allowed them to be open to other perspectives.
A Transformed Team
The clinic staff is now working much more effectively together. With the understanding that the clinic is a safe space, they are comfortable talking about their differences, challenges, needs, and objectives to address problems while they’re still small.
As an example, interactions between the front desk and the nurses have changed dramatically. When the front desk recently made a paperwork mistake, a nurse pointed out the error. The front desk took down the info and filled out the papers correctly. The nurse thanked them.
On the surface, this exchange looked a lot like what had been happening during the conflict.
But both sides said it felt completely different—less personal; more positive. Why? Because they understood where the other was coming from.
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