Conflict in the workplace is likely to last longer, be more intense, and be more difficult to resolve if the people in conflict barely know each other. In this column, Naomi Karten describes how to strengthen relationships and reduce conflict by helping people get to know each other better.
While immersed in the squabbles and stresses of the typical workday, we sometimes become so focused on our differences that it's hard to believe we have anything at all in common. There's an exercise I've used in dozens of seminars to demonstrate this point, and I invite you to try it with a group you're working with. It's effective whether the people in the group already know each other or have just met.
I call the exercise Things in Common. To run it, divide the group into teams of three to six people. It works best if there are at least three teams, but the team sizes don't have to match; if three teams have four people and a fourth team has five, that's fine.
Instruct the teams as follows: "You have seven minutes to brainstorm with your teammates and come up with three or more non-obvious things all members of your team have in common. Saying you're all in the same room or you all work for the same company is obvious. Aim to find things you have in common outside of work—and the more outrageous or zany, the better."
You'll find that people jump right in, tossing ideas around and searching for possibilities. In the process, they typically laugh a little—or a lot—as ideas surface. When the time is up, call a halt and invite the teams to report the things they found they have in common.
The results span the gamut: they all love pizza; played an instrument as a kid; hate winter; have fond memories of Fortran; have been divorced at least once; prefer not to jump out of a plane, with or without a parachute; have eyewear—glasses for three and contacts for the fourth, but, hey, that counts!
For many teams, the time constraint triggers creativity. In one group I worked with, one team discovered that they were all puzzled by colors with funny names, like mauve. Another team reported that none of them had ever been to the moon.
In less than ten minutes, this exercise helps people find things they have in common that they might never have learned about otherwise, even if they'd been working side-by-side. Whether the things they identify are silly or serious, the exercise helps them to better see each other not as roles and titles, but as human beings.
In addition, in batting ideas around, they learn things about each other that they don't have in common, but that they find interesting or even surprising. As they interact during the exercise, I often hear them saying things like, "Really? I didn't know you did that" and "I'd love to learn more. Let's talk afterwards."
Learning about each other helps people not only strengthen relationships but also transform negative relationships into positive ones. That was what happened when an IT director asked me to work with four technical support groups that had to interact extensively, but whose relationships with each other were plagued by blaming, finger-pointing, and a heavy dose of not getting along.In the final exercise of the day and with trepidation aforethought, I assigned two people who were fierce adversaries to the same team. I feared that they might lash out at each other. I needn't have worried. Moments into the exercise, I heard one of them say to the other, "You went to college there? So did I."
I don't know how the subject came up, but suddenly—and perhaps for the first time—these two individuals saw each other not as adversaries but as human beings—people who had lives separate from work, lives not altogether different from their own. In no time, these two individuals found themselves reminiscing, laughing about their shared past, and playing "Did you know...?" They suddenly realized that, for all their differences, they also had things in common.
The discovery of things in common didn't dissolve all the problems among these four groups, but it was a stepping stone. By the end of the session, the four groups had learned a lot about each other and had identified some of their biggest obstacles in working together. And, at their own request, they had developed a list of steps they wanted to take to learn more about each other's work and to help each other.
This type of relationship strengthening is not at all unusual when you're getting to know each other better.