When The Only Solution Seems To Be My Way Or The Hi-Way

Posted in : HR Updates ROI on 19 August 2015
Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation
Issues covered:

When the only solution seems to be My Way or the Hi-Way

Maria sighed.

As Head of English at a third level college, one of her big headaches at the end of the year is dealing with students who are unwilling to accept their exam results.

What’s she finds hardest to deal with is the persistent arguing back and forth. ‘Why can’t they just accept reality…and get on with it rather than fighting back’. The interactions are unpleasant, take up lots of time and seem to just go around in circles.

No one likes to be the bearer of bad news. None of us like forcing people to do something or accept something against their will. Yet, we can’t always give people what they want either.

But what if you could find a way to make the discussion more collaborative? Wouldn’t it be easier if the discussion involved both of you working together to find a way forward rather than what feels like trying to push water up a hill?

‘Invent Options for Mutual Gain’

Almost forty years ago, Roger Fisher and William Ury’s seminal textbook ‘Getting to Yes’ (1981) outlined a four-point approach to ‘negotiating an agreement without giving in’. The third of these invites us to ‘Invent options for mutual gain’. Rather than it descending into a choice between your way or my way, they advocate taking time to identify or generate a variety of possibilities that might address each person’s needs (not positions!).

This idea of putting out a number of options on the table and spending time thinking these through gets us past the narrow, win/lose thinking that conflict conversations can bring up. Our natural tendency is to want to get straight to the point and hopefully get them to accept our solution or point of view. This approach doesn’t mean abandoning this, it’s more about being flexible on the route to get there.

Let’s play this out for Maria:

Putting it into practice

Maria’s response to students normally was to say something like ‘Look sorry about this, but that’s your result… the resit is in 8 weeks time, and you are entitled to 2 hours of tuition to bring you up to speed for the exam’ .

Sounds like a fairly reasonable response doesn’t it – a little empathy, reiterate the facts and offer some support. And it works fine for most situations. But for a small minority, further argument ensues and the additional offer of help seemed to fall on deaf ears.

How could Maria frame her response, differently, drawing on the idea of ‘inventing options’ above? It might look like this:

Maria: I can see you are obviously upset and annoyed about the exam…

[Brief sentence empathising with student]

Student: Yes… it’s not fair…

[further venting about how unfair it is, how hard he has worked]

Maria: I appreciate that you feel you had worked extremely hard… and that this result seem completely unfair to you…

[Empathises somewhat more and reflects back student’s own words]

Student: depending on how angry he/she is, perhaps another short round of venting from them

Maria: And I’m hearing that passing this examination is extremely important to you because you have very little finances and this is a route for you to a better career…[said in a friendly, supportive, calm, unhurried tone… ]

[Captures the students key need/interest around passing the exam and reflects back to him]

Maria: Look I really want to help here… let’s take a look at all your options now from this point

[Communicates both verbally and non-verbally – open body language, eye contact and friendly tone – that she wants to help. Demonstrating you really want to help is a surefire way of de-escalating upset or anger. Subtly shifts focus from venting to practical future-focused action by suggesting they look at all the options]

At this point, depending on the situation, Maria might either invite them now to consider or else present herself a number of options as to where things might go from here. In this situation, where the student ultimately will have to accept a pass/fail decision, it probably makes more sense for Maria to present the options.

Maria: In this situation, you have a number of options’… would it be helpful to talk through these and see what would work best for you’

  • First of all you can appeal this result and ask for it to be marked again…
  • Secondly, you can accept this result and opt to do a resit…
  • Thirdly, one of the supports that the college offers is 2 hours extra tuition…
  • Fourthly, our lecturers always say that they are very happy to talk you through the areas you went down in and where you could have improved on in actual paper.

Let’s look at each one of these now and see what the pros and cons of each one are

Instead of a conversation where Maria has to make the student accept the fail and get on with it, the student has been drawn into having to think through for himself how best he might proceed.  They are longer at opposite sides of the table pushing the problem over and back. Rather it has progressed to a more collaborative type of conversation where they are working jointly on finding a solution to the student’s problem.

Nevertheless, Maria hasn’t retracted the ‘fail’ result, hasn’t undermined the exam system. She has just tried frame the situation for the student in the most helpful way possible.

Why this approach works better 

  • All of us like to have a choice rather than feel we are being forced to do something. Research in the field of neuroscience on brain-rewarding experiences emphasises our need for status recognition, autonomy of choice as well as what feels like fair play. Offering people choices and options reinforces this.
  • Making space to map out and consider options turns a one way conversation into a two way collaboration. People will be much more likely to carry through on plans and proposals that they themselves have participated in designing and shaping.
  • Engaging them in finding workable options to resolve the issues is also a way of helping them ‘save face’ by inviting them to come up with ideas to move out of the difficulties that have arisen for them.
  • Most significantly, taking this approach means that you will have to spend some time teasing out and getting clear on both your own and the other person’s key needs and interests and not just building a wall of argument to try and persuade them you are right.

So next time you hit a brick wall in a difficult conversation or negotiation, this simple approach is a foolproof way to reduce tension and smooth the road to resolution for everyone involved.

This article is correct at 13/10/2015

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Mary Rafferty
Consensus Mediation

The main content of this article was provided by Mary Rafferty. Contact telephone number is +00 (353) 71 9651966 or +00 (353) 86 8252423 or email mary@consensusmediation.ie

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