Project Management Institute

When talking makes things worse!

by Tamar Robinson

IF YOU'RE LIKE MANY project managers, you have the responsibility to get a job done—yet little authority with which to do it. You must negotiate for staff, time, resources, and recognition. often you find yourself caught between the conflicting agendas of other managers. How can you resolve these conflicts?

Conventional wisdom says the solution is better communication. You explain your goal, the other person does the same, and you realize how compatible your interests are. But a new book suggests that this approach is wishful thinking and fundamentally flawed. The title, appropriately is When Talking Makes Things WORSE! Resolving Problems When Communication Fails (Whitehall & Norton, 1997). The author, Dr. David Stiebel of the university of California at Berkeley, is a former project manager and now a negotiation adviser to Fortune 500 corporate and government officials.

The Myth of Hidden Harmony. Stiebel says that the approach of improving understanding has been fueled by a belief that he calls “The Great Myth of Hidden Harmony”: Deep down, we all agree; people just need to understand each other better. The assumption is: There is no conflict, only poor understanding. He says, “This view of human nature is appealing because it is so optimistic: a stubborn person is merely unenlightened, so there is hope! You get the other person to see the light, and it will be possible to work things out.”

Many of us take this approach in project management disputes, from the plant floor to the boardroom. We try to make the other person understand us. “This approach can solve the problem if everyone's engaged in a joint search for truth, rationally and dispassionately, with no egos or interests at stake,” Stiebel observes. If you're dealing with people this selfless, you probably aren't reading this article. And you probably live on a different planet. As a rule, when people feel attacked, they react emotionally. They defend themselves and attack the other side.

“When people aren't talking, we assume they must not understand each other … But often, people stop talking because they do understand. They know they disagree.”

This was the case when the production manager stormed out of a meeting with a total quality management (TQM) project manager. The TQM manager was asking him to slow down production to ensure quality. The production boss knew a slower schedule would require him to pay more overtime. He understood the project manager's request; he wanted to protest it. As Stiebel points out, poor communication was not the cause of this problem. It was the result.

In a true disagreement, he says, there's often plenty of understanding. More understanding could not resolve the production dispute. In fact, Stiebel remarks, “When people are going ‘round and ’round explaining themselves, trying harder only makes things worse.”

Illustration: David Horsey

Illustration: David Horsey

Strategic Communication. Some negotiation scholars have spent years looking for a universal strategy for resolving disputes. But Stiebel contends that no single formula—such as improving understanding—can resolve all project management issues, just as no single pill can cure all diseases.

Steibel's book introduces a method for developing a strategy that suits your specific situation. That method is strategic communication.

In any situation, says Stiebel, you must attend to four fundamental strategic elements: the problem, the goal, the method, and the result.

1. The problem: Decide whether you have a misunderstanding or a true disagreement.

2. The goal: Create the other person's next move.

3. The method: Use their own perceptions to convince them.

4. The result: Predict the other person's response.

Let's look at each of these steps in turn, applied to practical project management conflicts.

Do You Have a Misunderstanding or a True Disagreement? A misunderstanding is a failure to understand each other accurately; true disagreement is a failure to agree that would persist despite the most accurate understanding. To identify the type of problem, ask yourself, “Would the problem disappear if we understood each other better?”

Often a misunderstanding overlies a true disagreement and masks it. For example, neighbors were outraged at a chemical company's plans to build an incinerator behind their homes to burn toxic waste. The neighbors said, “We want you to listen and understand us.” So that was what the project manager thought he literally needed to do.

The project manager held a community meeting so the neighbors would have the satisfaction of being heard—and also to clear up their misconception. The neighbors thought that “incinerator” meant “poison gas.” He would demonstrate that his incinerator would meet stringent health standards. The project manager was sure that listening and explaining would solve the problem. He did not recognize the underlying true disagreement about whether the incinerator should be in that neighborhood at all. Stiebel explains in When Talking Makes Things WORSE!:

One angry neighbor after another was parading up to the podium, and Mr. Feemley was telling each speaker, “We hear you, we hear you.” Finally, someone stood up and shouted: “You say you've heard us? Stop construction!”

Mr. Feemley was speechless, unprepared to handle this true disagreement.

“I can't stop construction” he finally admitted.

“What?!” the neighbor shouted, “You liar! You said you'd listen to us! Why did you even hold this meeting?”

“Well,” Mr. Feemley said, looking at the floor, “We wanted to give you a chance to vent.”

I thought the crowd was going to lynch the man.

Before holding the meeting, this project manager would have benefited by thinking, “Would this problem disappear if we understood each other better?” Stiebel suggests that you consider these questions: If you explained yourself, would the other person's position change? If you only listened and understood the other person, would the person stop opposing you? If they explained themselves more to you, would you change your position?

If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then you have a misunderstanding, and greater understanding could help. If your answer is no, you have a true disagreement. You may also have a misunderstanding, but the key is that in a true disagreement, better understanding won't resolve the whole problem. Listening and explaining could clear up the superficial misunderstanding—about whether the incinerator met safety standards; but the underlying true disagreement remained—about whether the facility should be built.

Create the Other Person's Next Move. The textbook approach to negotiation is to focus on the other person's bottom line—the most that the other person would ultimately be willing and able to do to satisfy you. According to Stiebel, this focus on the bottom line leads to a common mistake—automatically pressing for everything you want all at once. Stiebel warns, “If you ask for too much now, the other person may balk and refuse to budge at all.”

Instead of worrying about their bottom line, he counsels, focus on their immediate limit—the most that they are willing and able to do for you right now. This difference in focus, he says, can make the difference between success and failure when you're trying to win cooperation on a project:

In one company Marketing and Engineering were engaged in a corporate version of the Cold War. To make peace, the Marketing director called the Engineering director and suggested that the two departments get together for a workshop on teamwork. The Engineering director snapped, “You're the ones who have trouble working with us. We don't need lessons on teamwork!”

The Marketing director called me: “Can you get through to him?”

Here was my strategy:

I called the Engineering director and said, “I've been hired to teach the Marketing staff better ways to resolve conflicts. So I would like to learn what mistakes Marketing routinely makes in dealing with Engineering”

The Engineering director agreed to meet, because he wanted to keep criticizing Marketing to somebody who might actually get them to change.

Stiebel explains that if he had suggested a face-to-face meeting initially, the Engineering director would have refused. “Why should he spend time with a stranger from Marketing? He'd think I‘d been sent to harass him.” That's why Stiebel immediately announced that his goal was to help Marketing improve. After several meetings, the Engineering director was critiquing the training outline. Then Stiebel asked him to attend the training workshop. The Engineering director began to see the training as a way to help Marketing change. Not only did the Engineering director come, he invited his whole department. Now that the two departments were willing to cooperate, the feud became easy to resolve.

Stiebel says this strategy succeeded because he broke the problem apart: “We kept asking ourselves: ‘What can we get the Engineering director to do now?' The first move was his telling me his problems with Marketing. The second move was his agreeing to meet. The third move was his working on the training outline with me. one step at a time, each move within his immediate limit.”

When you're creating the other person's next move, Stiebel says you should consider What's the most I can get them to do right now?

Use Their Own Perceptions to Convince Them. Whenever there's a gap between the other person's position and ours, our tendency is to think, “How can we get them to be more open-minded? Less emotional? More reasonable? More willing to compromise?”

Which will help you more?

Conventional wisdom: Strategic communication:
Listen and explain, and any problem can be solved. Decide whether you have a misunderstanding or a true disagreement.
Decide what you should do to get what you want. Create the other person's next move.
Explain why they're wrong and refute their beliefs. Use their own perceptions to convince them.
Once you figure out what to do, just do it! Predict the other person's response.

From the book When Talking Makes Things WORSE! ©1997 Dr. David Stiebel.

Stiebel observes, “These are all ways of saying we want them to leave their position and come over to ours. We want them to bridge the gap. We want them to change.”

But how likely is that to happen? If the other person has a belief that conflicts with yours, do you really think they'll set aside their own belief to accept yours? Unlikely says Stiebel, because people find their own perceptions the most convincing.

Recall the feud between Marketing and Engineering. At first, the Marketing boss suggested to the Engineering manager that the staffs of both departments get together for a seminar on teamwork. She was proceeding on the assumption that both staffs needed to improve.

“But that was her assumption, not his” Stiebel points out. “He assumed her staff was the problem, so he said no. I went back and built on this perception of his. I said, ‘I‘d like to learn what mistakes Marketing routinely makes in dealing with you.’ Then he cooperated.”

Says Steibel, “Your approach to persuade someone should be based on their perceptions, not your own. The other person's beliefs should dictate your strategy.”

But isn't the whole point of persuasion to change the other person's mind? Stiebel replies, “I could not have persuaded the Engineering manager by articulating my belief that he should cooperate. He thought he shouldn't, so he would have said no. To get him to cooperate, I had to start with his perspective that Marketing was wrong.”

So consider, “What are they thinking— and how can I build on it?”

Predict the Other Person's Response. When you develop a plan, and you're excited about the prospect of success, there is a tendency to focus on how you want the other person to respond, and to ignore what they're likely to do. This is a common pitfall in predicting behavior. And one of Stiebel's clients, the president of an American computer company, fell right into it. His company operated by the motto, “Ship it now; if it breaks, we'll fix it later.” Obsessed with meeting shipping deadlines, they didn't adequately test the computers before the products left the factory

It wasn't long before the computers began breaking down at customer sites around the world. The company's largest customer, a Japanese firm, offered to send their own technicians to America to learn how to fix the computers on their own. Stiebel advised his client: “This is not a bright idea. They will learn how to manufacture the computers.”

But the executive insisted that the Japanese firm didn't want to get into the manufacturing business. He assumed that the goals of the two companies were in sync. Six months later, this corporate president had to lay off a third of his employees. The Japanese had gone into business making the computers themselves. He'd been blind to this possibility because he wanted to believe there would be no problem.

The opposite tendency is also common: You're so upset at the other person that you assume they'll do the worst.

To steer clear of both pitfalls, Steibel provides four simple questions you can ask yourself to help you differentiate what you want, what you fear, and what you're likely to get. By prompting you to consider each factor separately, the four questions can help you predict someone's response more accurately:

  • From your perspective, what is the best response the other person could make?
  • What's the worst response that person might make?
  • What response do you expect from the other person, based on his or her perspective?
  • Is the potential gain of your approach worth the risk?

If your answer to the last question is no, then you have the opportunity to change your approach to avert a problem. With an estimate of how the other person will respond, Stiebel says you can either prepare for their response or change your approach to avoid it.

STIEBEL'S BOOK ACKNOWLEDGES that learning any new skill takes practice. But the author suggests using strategic communication on easy project management issues first—and getting comfortable one step at a time. At first, he says, go into the interaction asking yourself, “Would the problem disappear if we understood each other better?” Then add the second step, and so on.

The goal is to train yourself to apply the four strategic steps spontaneously—thus avoiding conversations over projects where talking more only makes things worse. ∎

Tamar Robinson's work has appeared on National Public Radio, CNN, and United Press International.

This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI.

PM Network • March 1997

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