Conflict is often inevitable in the business and professional world. Instead of taking a debate-based approach, why not try a collaborative approach to conflict resolution? In this episode, Ben Baker discusses the collaborative approach to solving conflict with author and conflict management expert, Patrick Aylward. Patrick and Ben analyze the roots of conflict and discuss how a collaborative approach helps resolve present conflict and possibly prevent future conflict. Tune in and learn more on conflict resolution in this great episode.
Listen to the podcast here:
The Collaborative Approach To Business With Patrick Aylward
Welcome back to another episode of the show, my wonderful audience. You follow me. I appreciate it. You can find me on LinkedIn at Ben Baker or Podcast Host for Hire. There are lots of places to find me. We will have a great conversation and talk about the show. I love hearing what you have to say. I love your suggestions, your guest suggestions, what you like and what you don’t like so keep it coming. In this episode, we have Patrick Aylward on the show. He is the author of The Collaborative Path. We are going to talk about how do you become more collaborative in a hybrid world? Patrick, welcome to the show.
Ben, it’s my pleasure. I have been looking forward to this conversation with you.
You and I are as far away from each other as we could be. We are both in Canada. I love it. It’s literally a Coast-to-Coast thing. You are in PEI. I’m in Vancouver. It’s neat to be able to have the technology that we can have these conversations. The further the distance usually, the better the conversation. I’m looking forward to a great meeting.
It sounds wonderful. Yes, indeed. We are quite a distance apart. I love my little island paradise.
Let’s get into this. You wrote a book on collaboration. Tell me what brought you here. Let’s first get into this. What brought you into this space? Why are you passionate about it? What are the things that you have learned along the way?
I’m passionate about it because I first started out as a lawyer and thought that’s an effective way to address injustice more than anything of any quality. I then saw the potential for mediation so I ended up in that field. I thought I found the Holy Grail for addressing social issues and disputes. I realized that the whole field was talking to itself. We were talking about this positive side of the conflict, conflict being constructive and that kind of thing.
I realized that’s only true when it’s someone else’s conflict. When it’s our conflict, it’s nasty and negative. At that point, I realized that’s what’s holding the whole field back. Conflict is the biggest obstacle, the use of the word conflict to the development of the field of conflict resolution. That was my starting point. That was a huge revelation for me.
From there, the next step was that I started to look at the pattern. We were always taught as mediators that conflict is normal, inevitable and cannot be prevented. I watch what happened. In a typical situation, a situation arises. Let’s say it’s two shareholders. They have different views about the future of the company. As soon as they recognize their differences, they start to argue, set aside, debate, cajole, pressure, persuade, ultimately litigate throughout 2, 3 years. About the third-year mark, their lawyers say, “Why don’t we try mediation? Mediation is a collaborative process.”
At that point, they enter into a mediation process, address and resolve the situation. Here becomes the question. “If conflict is supposed to be positive because it leads you to that solution three years down the road, what did they do differently that they could not have done on day one?” The answer is that there isn’t anything that they could not have done on day one.
They simply made the choice to be adjudicated instead of collaborative. They chose to use our societal default of debates instead of collaboration. I realized, “If they had started from the point that they discovered that there was a difference in perspectives around the situation, if they had started from that point being collaborative or using a collaborative model, they could have saved themselves a hell of a lot of grief.” I then realized conflict can be prevented. It’s a matter of choosing to be collaborative. It’s a choice.Conflict can be prevented. It's a matter of choosing to be collaborative. It's a choice. Click To Tweet
You bring up the word conflict, to begin with. Conflict can be a positive thing or in a lot of cases, is a very negative thing. It depends on how you view it. There are lots of people out there that sit there and say, “We can discuss things. We can have conflict. We can take different sides of an argument but as long as we are collaborative in the way that we communicate, that conflict will resolve itself.” Is that the message that you are trying to get across?
It’s even more basic than that. Gordon Sloan out in your area in Salt Springs, the well-known mediator, provided me this definition of conflict. Conflict equals problem cause tension. If you take that conflict, the opportunity for conflict arises every time there’s a problem. It’s thought that conflict arises from differences. It doesn’t. The opportunity arises from differences. Conflict arises from engaging in a debate about the differences instead of in a collaborative approach to the differences.
Collaboration is the simultaneous and pursuit of dual outcomes, stronger relationships among participants and better solutions to situations. People in business do this all the time. “I can be effective or I can be nice. I can deliver results or I can develop relationships.” We have a dichotomous view of the world. Things that aren’t mutually exclusive at all become so when we use that approach as our default thinking.
If we can resolve the tension, we can work collaboratively. It’s taking it from the situation where we sit there going, “It’s not us versus them.” It’s that draw your line in your stand and saying, “Either I win or you lose.” It’s coming from a point where you say, “There’s a problem.” You believe things are one way and I believe things are the other way. How can we see it from each other’s point of view and come up with a solution that’s going to work for both of us?
As logical as that sounds and as easy as that sounds to say, it’s inherently difficult based on human nature. How do we effectively retrain human beings to get out of this divisive zero-sum game mentality and look at a more collaborative approach? Quite honestly, it’s more cost-effective, resolved things a lot quicker and it’s also far more palatable for most people but most people don’t go down that path. How do we get humans out of that zero-sum game and into the collaborative nature that’s going to allow them to be able to move forward more effectively?
Every growth journey starts from ignorance and moves to awareness, then to experimentation, to integration and then onward to mastery. We are at the stage of ignorance. We are ignorant as a society that the debate model is what we use as our default. It started in the days of Ancient Greece as to how you make decisions and problem solve. You identify the situation, you figure out the two sides, and you debate the pros and cons. That process will bring you to the best solution. That has become so integrated into the fabric of our society that’s invisible.
No one thinks about it to even realize that that is the model that we are using. The purpose of the collaborative path is first, to create awareness that we are using a debate model, which I have labeled as adjudicated because it starts with a judgmental spirit. The book starts us on that journey from ignorance to awareness. When we become aware that that’s the model we are using, then we can have a conversation about, whether or not it’s effective anymore.
This comes back to that hybrid world that you have mentioned. How many situations have only two sides to them? Almost none. A debate presumes that you can create a dichotomous view of a situation before you can start to solve it. It’s no longer applicable. It no longer works in the complex, multifaceted, diverse world at all.
When you have two human beings, you are going to have two diverse opinions. Each person comes to the world with their own set of wants, needs, desires, hopes, dreams, fears and goals. With that, there’s an inherent misunderstanding. When you are dealing with a team of people, a department, an organization with multiple divisions and multiple locations, that dichotomy and that divisiveness is amplified. There isn’t a central communication process that says, “This is what we are trying to achieve. Let’s talk about this and figure out how this is going to work best for everybody.” Realizing that no one approach’s going to be perfect that’s going to help everybody move forward.
Let’s get this into a business-type situation. When you are dealing with hybrid economies, with remote workers, with diversified workforces, with people that are not in the same state, the same country or even the same hemisphere, how do we develop a collaborative approach to make sure that people are listened to, understood, heard and valued?
We sure as hell can’t do that by continuing to use the debate model. That’s the first point. The second point is that it isn’t that difficult. The collaborative model that I introduced in my book has six steps. There’s only one ball to keep your eye on at each step. It’s intended to be and it is something that people can use without the help of experts. It is a do-it-yourself model that people can incorporate. If we can learn how to debate, we can learn how to collaborate. I make the point at one point in the book that children in the playground learn peer mediation. If children at ten years old can learn how to collaborate when problems arise, can’t adults?It's thought that conflict arises from differences. It doesn't. Opportunity arises from differences. Click To Tweet
The challenges as we get older and present company included, we get more entrenched in our own viewpoint. We all sit there and say, “Over the last 50 odd years, I have had this number of experiences that have brought me to this value proposition, this set of ideals, this set of what’s right and what’s wrong.” A lot of people have the challenge of not being able to listen to other people, to empathize, to be able to sit there and say, “Just because you believe this, doesn’t mean the world believes this.” That’s a big challenge. My question is, how do leaders help teams overcome that entrenched viewpoints that take us away from the collaborative approach and bring us back to the zero-sum game model?
If there was only one thing that they could do differently that would start their teams along with that approach, it would be to use step one of the models. Step one is to set the parameters for the conversation. In a group, it would be putting this question before they get into meetings or at the start of the meeting. How are we going to talk about what we are going to talk about? In the process of having that conversation, things will come up like listening to each other, listening to learn not to rebut or to respond, being open to other perspectives. The funny thing happens, people think that they are open but everybody else isn’t.
When you have that conversation at the outset, it creates an opportunity to establish a level of safety in the room and a level of tolerance, acceptance and openness to other people’s points of view. That starts things off on a very good solid footing. The research behind that is from Dr. John Gottman in The Gottman Institute down in New York. His research shows that more than 95% of conversations that start on a good foot end on a good foot regardless of the subject matter. That’s the first step.
The second step would be to invite those present in the meeting to share your perspective. I would highly encourage using those words. Share your perspective on this situation. In using the word perspective, that creates a separation in our mind from the idea that my perspective is the absolute truth as much as you think yours is the absolute truth. It brings us back to, “We have differences in perspectives on this.”
When people are sharing perspectives, they are also not rebutting what the person ahead of them said. They are simply saying, “I see it differently. Here’s how I see it.” By the time you have a round of that, you have a good picture of the situation. If they then were to use the third step in the model, they would describe the issue neutrally and broadly.
Often what happens and I have seen this in board meetings myself, which it’s a pretty common one, people will throw out a statement of the issue and it will often be so slanted to 1 of 2 options in the debate that it’s a foregone conclusion where the chair thinks the right decision is. When you openly describe the issue, the problem or the situation, it allows all of the perspectives to sit underneath it and to have an influence on where you go from there.
The fourth step in the model and it’s something that can be easily done in an ordinary meeting is to start to figure out what is it that we want and what is it that we want to avoid? When you know what you want and you know what you want to avoid, then you can talk about in step five, what is it that we could do now, next or differently that would help us to get what we want and help us to avoid what we want? It’s only at step five of the collaborative model that you are generating options.
Remember in the debate, you fix the two options to start the debate. Even though you didn’t know what you wanted or what you wanted to avoid, you went to your two instinctive options. In a collaborative model, you figure out what you want, what you want to avoid and then you generate options that could help you to get there.
In the last step, selecting solutions, what you are doing is you are trying to figure out as a group of the options that we generated in step five. Which of those get us most of what we want and help us to avoid what we wanted to avoid as identified in step four? That’s the logic of the process. It’s dramatically different than a debate-style conversation around two options nailed early on as instinctive reactions to a situation, usually defensive reaction than that.
The interesting thing is those two diametrically opposed solutions that are at the beginning of the mediation or the debate process may both be wrong for those situations. Somebody suggested why those were the two dominant personalities within the team or the organization. Therefore, assumed that they are going to rally behind those two solutions and neither one of them may be correct. What we need to do in terms of organizations is, first of all, figure out what the problem is and then start looking at solutions that are going to help us create the goals and achieve the objectives that we are looking for. Is that what the model is trying to tell us?
That’s a great way to put it. One of the things that you have to have faith in the debate model is that one of those two options is the optimal outcome. Pretty low chance when you think about it. Two pretty astute business people are looking at a business issue and reach two different viewpoints on which ways the company should go. Bring in ten other business people equally astute, how many more viewpoints do you get or how many other solutions do you think get generated? It’s probably not ten. I bet it’s an extra five though.
You have to sit there as a leader and go, “How many solutions are too many solutions?” We get to the point where we sit there and go, “We’ve got 32 options. We are not going to do any of them.” There’s that challenge as well that leaders need a consideration. It’s important to be collaborative, to bring in opinions and have diverse opinions but when you bring in every opinion under the sun and say, “Everybody gets their opinion. Tell me what you think and we will go from there,” you are going to lead to a situation where you may get to a point where it’s analysis paralysis.
My question is as a leader who has a diverse team with different wants, different needs that may be in the office, may not be in the office, how do you level up to be able to pick who are the people that were going to listen to in this particular situation? You may not listen to the same people in different situations. How do you facilitate the collaborative process? How do you communicate the process in such a way that everybody feels they have at least been listened to, understood and valued even if their opinion is not the one that gets elevated to the debate process?
It’s often a concern that too many cooks spoil the broth. How that gets distilled down in the collaborative model is the perspective around the room are chosen by you don’t have everybody from the CEO to the janitorial staff involved in visioning strategies, decisions and so on. You have a certain group that is most likely to be able to bring wisdom to bear or information intel to bear upon the situation. How you get from the diversity of the perspectives to not having 32 options rather having say ten is you distill from the perspectives what are the things that people want and want to avoid that are reflected and embedded within or underneath the various perspectives. That takes a little bit of guesswork.
What the person who’s facilitating it would say often would be, “From what you are saying, it sounds like this is what you want to see in a solution.” What that X or that want is, is more like 1 or 2 words, not a ten-word statement or solution in and of itself. It’s more a characteristic of what they want to see in a good solution. When you distill down the wants and wants to avoid, there gets to be a commonality more. Even though people come from diverse backgrounds and so on, we have such common humanity that underpins all of that and usually gets lost sight of.
The things that people want and want to avoid tend to be compatible. Not exact and universal yet still compatible. In an organization, those things will surface in that conversation. When you go to generate options, you don’t end up with 32 even if you have 30 perspectives. You might end up with fifteen options that reflect the common set of wants and wants to avoid.
It’s a better good leader to be able to sit there and say, “Why do you believe what you believe? Why is what’s important, important to you?” It’s not, what’s important to you. It’s why is it important to you. If we can move people beyond the what, the how and into the why within the situation, we can distill the challenges, the concerns, the needs, the wants, the goals into something that there’s more commonality and be able to have something that more people can agree upon right off the bat then divisive words that may come out of the how and what. “I want this because it affects my department.”
What we are looking for is how do we do something that’s going to affect the company? Why does it jive with our brand, with our goals, mission, vision and our values? If we as leaders can steer the conversation that way, we can get ourselves far more collaborative. Is that a good approach or is there’s something that I’m missing?
It is more about why it’s important will come out in the perspective often. What is important to that individual is a little more hidden usually. That’s the part that is more difficult to discern and it is asking that question though. “Tell me what’s important to you about that?” “This is going to affect my branch in such a way or my division, my sales. People are going to be hamstrung if we go this route.” “What’s important to you about that?” “We have already made some prior commitments to our customers.” “Retaining customer relationships are important to you.” “Yes, they are.” “The solution that we come up with has to take into account maintaining, honoring obligations, the integrity of our brand, those kinds of things.” That goes up in the wants, wants to avoid.
There are challenges when you are not in a room altogether. I have led lots of strategy sessions where you have gone off, sat there and say, “What’s important to you? Why is it important? How is it going to help us meet our mission, vision, values and goals?” When we are dealing with a place where not everybody is comfortable to come back to the office, you will return to the premises and you have people that are valuable members and have valuable points that are diversified across different locations. How do we make sure that the opinions, wants, needs and desires of those people that are on the Zoom call are heard with the same amount of weight as the people that are in the room? Proximity tends to get people paid attention to more. Let’s face it. If you are at head office, you tend to get far more attention paid to you than if you are in a remote office or a branch office.
In my sequel book that is in progress, The Collaboration Toolbox, one of the tools that I’m including in there is the Interview Matrix. It is a way to give each person equal time, equal input onto an issue despite there being remote. There are techniques for doing it. It requires some creativity and some openness to doing things differently. We are going to live in a hybrid new normal that’s not going to look like the old. There is going to be a need to have conversations around how that’s going to look.
I agree with you about the airtime. I have been in that situation where I have been remote and where I have been in the head office and I have had colleagues who are working remotely. I totally get your point that you get more airtime, FaceTime when you are right there. Presence is a factor in that. There are still going to be a lot of issues where that’s still going to be a fact of life. On the decision-making pieces where there is an opportunity to influence, “My perspective in head office is no more valuable than Fred’s out in Vancouver,” those situations can be accommodated by the use of various tools.We can choose to be curious and engage in a simple six-step collaborative model to prevent conflict before it even begins. Click To Tweet
Can you give me one tool? Give us one practical example.
The Interview Matrix is a cool one. It’s like speed dating. We identify four questions and we assign each person a number who’s in the group. Fred might have question number three. He is with a table of people, even though they might be virtual who are numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4. What they do is they cross interview each other and everybody gets 2 minutes, 5 minutes to give their input on that question. All of the various ones go to another breakout room. They collate all of their data and remove all the duplicates. The two’s do the same thing. In that way, everybody has had an equal amount of input time and everybody’s perspective has been heard.
It’s just a matter of being more creative. It’s a matter of sitting there going, “How do we use technology and humanity together to be able to make sure that we are listening to people, whether they are in front of us or a remote situation?” Would you suggest that everybody would be on remote for those particular things that you wouldn’t have certain people in a boardroom where other people would be in a remote situation to be able to have the psychological viewpoint that everybody is entering the conversation from the same perspective?
That would be ideal. I don’t think that’s likely to happen. Business and the world have become so comfortable with the technologies that end with virtual existence, virtual offices and virtual teams that I don’t think that will happen. The safeguard on that as best as it can be is the idea that everybody gets the same amount of time in that Interview Matrix to answer and give their input on the question and each of the core questions.
It’s a time-based thing. Everybody gets an equal amount of time to be able to make sure that they have been listened to, understood and valued. Patrick, we can talk about this for hours. The best way to get in touch with you is on LinkedIn?
It probably is. That’s the platform I use most of the time.
It’s Patrick Aylward. You can connect to him. He is phenomenal. I follow you all the time on LinkedIn. The stuff that you put out is great. The last question I’m going to ask you is the same question I asked everybody. That question is when you leave a meeting, you get in your car and you drive away, what’s the one thing you want people to think about you when you are not in the room?
Lawyers should realize to get their best questions on the way home after the trial so my best answer will be later. What I want people to remember is that conflict doesn’t arise from differences, opportunity does. Conflict arises because we use the debate-style adjudicative approach to how we address differences. Instead, we could choose to be curious and engage in a simple six-step collaborative model and to prevent conflict before it ever begins.
I’m with you 100%. If we can enable people to live without conflict, get them to understand each other, value each other, communicate more effectively, we are going to live in a better world. Patrick, thank you for all your wisdom, for being part of the show and for adding such value to my audience.
It’s my pleasure, Ben. I really enjoyed our conversation. I enjoy following you on LinkedIn and the dialogues that we get involved in on there. It’s a wonderful thought leadership platform.
- Ben Baker – LinkedIn
- The Collaborative Path
- Patrick Aylward – LinkedIn
- The Collaborative Path – Facebook
- Patrick Aylward – Twitter
- Patrick Aylward – Instagram
- The Collaborative Path – YouTube
- The Collaborative Path
About Patrick Alyward
Patrick used to be a courtroom lawyer, then spent many years as a mediator, and now is an author on a mission to change the world by creating a global culture of collaboration. His book The Collaborative Path introduces a collaborative model to replace the debate format used for generating decisions and solutions, and even for having conversations. To have both better solutions to situations and stronger relationships among participants, Patrick provides an easy-to-learn, easy-to-use 6-step process to change the leadership conversation. Using the collaborative model, we can prevent conflict before it ever begins.
Patrick lives in Prince Edward Island, Canada’s smallest province where he is working on a follow-up book The Collaborator’s Toolbox that will contain tools for everyday use so that people can strengthen their collaborative skills for use at home, at work and in the community.
Love the show? Subscribe, rate, review, and share!