Ask anyone who knows me and they will agree that I seek personal connection wherever I can. Not surprising, when I recently attended a seminar led by my client, CraftedLeadership, on conflict resolution, the subject really resonated with me. We talked about and worked through our tendency, as humans, to allow our emotions and perceptions to distort facts when dealing with conflict. This negatively impacts our ability to successfully resolve conflict in a way that allows for deeper connection with those you are in conflict with.

As we discussed confronting our counterpart in a particular conflict, we first had to determine the difference between fact and story when analyzing the situation. There is an important distinction between what our mind tells us is happening versus what is actually happening.

When completing this exercise, we were asked to write out the facts of a particular situation where we experienced conflict with another person. Then a few brave souls stood in front of a room of 150+ strangers and shared their situation. Guess what? Distinguishing fact and story is not as easy as it seems. Here are the definitions provided by CraftedLeadership:

  • Fact: measurable results or behaviors. Easy way to gut check: what a video camera would capture.
  • Story: opinions, beliefs, judgements, interpretationsEasy way to gut check: what could be argued by others.

Give it a try: My colleague is angry with me.

Fact or Story? Story. Fact: my colleague didn’t speak during our status call.

See the difference? You assume your colleague is angry with you because they did not speak during your status call. You can try to interpret the reasons why your colleague did not speak (a.k.a. your story), but what a camera would have captured is that your colleague did not speak during the meeting.

We went on to discuss a collaborative approach to managing conflict and I went home and thought about it. Then, I thought about it some more. Then I documented times where my emotions created a story that I mistook for fact and I started to learn from it. At home. At work. With friends. Then, I started to look at how I evolved my connection with storytelling to positively impact relationships. I came up with a way to turn my story into steps for resolution. So, let’s ditch the stories we tell ourselves, and turn them into steps for conflict resolution:

S – State the Facts

T – Tell your Feelings

O – Own up to your Story

R – Request Change

Y – Yield to Sincerity

Let’s go back to the colleague I mentioned earlier. You’ve been fretting over the fact that they didn’t speak during the status call and you’ve come up with all sorts of reasons ranging from not liking the work you recently delivered to being upset with you for interrupting them during a previous meeting to even the fact that you didn’t ask about their recent vacation before launching into work talk. You’ve spiraled into the storytelling deep end.  Let’s ditch the story and work through our story steps when confronting our colleague:

Hey Sam, (S) I noticed you didn’t speak during our status call today. (T) I am feeling as if you might be upset with me though (O) I recognize I don’t have a clear reason why I feel this way. (R) Would you share why you weren’t as collaborative as you normally are? (Y) If there’s anything I’ve done or an outside factor I’m not considering, I would love to better understand the situation.

While this is not fool proof, nor easy, being sincere with how you approach someone and open about your part in the perceived conflict as well as your desired outcome(s), you offer a safe place for open dialogue and reduce the risk of your counterpart becoming defensive or unwilling to resolve the situation.

Need another example? I discovered one I think we can all relate to: you’re sitting in traffic and someone cuts you off. They are a jerk, right? Perhaps, though we don’t know anything about the driver’s character. The camera only captured the fact that they cut you off. Instead of being a jerk, perhaps they need to urgently get somewhere and they need to yield to their normal law-abiding ways to get to the situation that awaits them at their destination. Haven’t we all been the person who cut someone off before? I bet you wouldn’t classify yourself as a jerk, though cutting someone off is a jerk move. Sitting in traffic is a perfect time to practice your STORY steps. Certainly better than road rage!

While you won’t likely confront your traffic buddy, when you do desire to talk with someone you’re in conflict with, practice first by writing out your STORY steps to get comfortable with the structure. Then, use that to guide the discussion. Before you know it, your natural dialogue will steer you towards identifying facts and requesting change in a way that encourages open communication and positive conflict resolution.

If you’re looking to dive in deeper to conflict resolution or other common leadership topics, let’s chat!

For reading materials on conflict resolution, I encourage you to take a look at Crucial Conversations – Tools for Talking when Stakes are High.