Learn to Empathize When Dealing with Conflict: An Interview with Tricia Broderick


JV: What goes on in this framework that you talk about? 

TB: Individuals in the technology fields tend to be problem solvers. We all have this left-brain logical problem-solving curiosity, which is part of the reason why we got into this industry. I actually leverage this framework that has a way of stepping a person through using powerful questions, using a thought process that turns it into a problem. What do they do and how did that make you feel? Why do you think they did it?

Then having them explore alternative-wise, not just the negative ones that emotionally come to us first, but also positive ones. Through that process, start asking them, "Which reason do you really think this person did it?" Most likely, most times, people are not snakes. We are not doing it to be malicious to other people.

It gives the individual an opportunity to really step back and say, "Ok. I know that I'm really angry, but let's give the person the benefit of the doubt. Now I want to go and have a conversation that: a) figure out if I was right that this is really the reason they did it and b) give them feedback as to how that really did impact me." They come at it much more open, because they are in that problem-solving curiosity state, not in the defensive-upset reactive state.

JV: It's sort of like instilling empathy in them; learning to empathize with the other people on your team.

TB: Yeah. Put yourself in the other person's shoes. The hard part is a lot of leaders will say that. It's an easier thing to say than to do, because you do have a reaction to the incident. You do have feelings and responses to the conflict. You first have to process those to get to the next stage, to be able to then put yourself in the other person's shoes.

JV: Do you ever have instances where somebody will just go with an emotion and be like, "Yeah, right. I understand what this person says."  What part of the framework deals with people like that who just say it but aren't necessarily believing what they say? 

TB: That's one of the stages and the highlighter for me that they still need to process what happens. They still need to internalize it. They're still reacting. There might even be some deeper problems that are occurring. It's not just the conflict itself. Maybe there's a deeper conflict that's been going on. Maybe there are deeper fears that are going on; that it's not the conflict, but it's the fear of what people do think of that individual. I inherently believe that most people are good-hearted and good-natured. If there's something deeper going on, then I have to dig into that. Most people will give someone the benefit of the doubt once they have time to process it and explore the possibilities.

JV: Can you explain the misalignment between perceptions and intentions? 

TB: I don't even know how many years ago I took this online course. It was meant to be a requirement to get my project management, PMI, PMP certification. The whole course was about how much perceptions tend to not align with intentions. What I perceive your intention is and why you did something tends to be completely different than what your true intention really was.

The difficulty with this is that people they know what their intentions are. They can't guess what people are perceiving. In a lot of cases when I see conflict arising, it is lack of alignment between those. The trick for me as a leader is trying to figure out a way to prime people to be open to the fact that their judgment, their perception, might not be truly why that other person did it and the intentions behind the other person.

It's opening up that world, but people tend to think I'm magical because I can resolve those conflicts. In reality, it's just my first route. Most likely they didn't do that because they were mean, or they were trying to make you look dumb, or any of those things. They were doing it maybe to uphold the working agreement. There are lots of reasons that play into that.

JV: It just goes back to empathizing; getting out of your head.

TB: Right. Coming from different perspectives. At the end of the day, that is what teams are about.

JV: Let's talk about the developer in this situation. How does a developer take ownership of this conflict without stepping on people's toes too much? 

TB: The first thing is the leader has to not take ownership. If you want other people to take ownership, you can't take ownership. This was hard for me. This was really hard for me to not want to just say, "Ok. I can see both of your perspectives, so let me get you together. I'll moderate a discussion so you can hear it."  There are definitely times that that needs to happen. It, unfortunately, was my first go-to. My first step in getting somebody else to own it is not taking ownership. You can do those kinds of things by asking questions, like, "So what are you to do next?"  It's not about me. It's going to be what are you going to do next? Are you going to follow up with me after you do the next stage and see how it worked out. That's probably number one with it.

Number two, and for me with this specific technique, is leveraging that problem solving, that curiosity that I was talking about. I find that technical people in general, once they have a problem, they want to know the answer.  Once it's been framed like this, "Okay. Here's what happened. Here's what you thought. Here are some potentials. What is the right intention?"

I'm easy until they really find out what the true cause or the true reason was. That's not to say that they might have to leverage other techniques in order to resolve that conflict and have that healthy conversation, but leading up to it and the ownership, forming things are no problem. There’s a surprising amount of ownership from technical people.

JV: I can imagine. Have you ever had sessions where there's conflict between two people and you got them to open up and empathize and it led to a breakthrough? "Oh wow. I never saw it that way." 

TB: Almost always. People don't realize how they're perceived at times, because it's different for everybody. I might react to a behavior very differently than you, because of my history, my experience, a former failure on my part, a former incident, a former conflict. It is amazing how one behavior can have ten different perceptions. That behavior still only had one intention from that person, but there could be ten different perceptions. At the end of the day, it's really hard to guess or to know what other people are thinking or how they're reacting to something, and why it's really critical that we start communicating and talking about it in teams.

JV: Got you.

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