Eliminate Useless Conflicts (How to Start a Fight without Really Trying)

It takes under thirty steps to get from my car to my office building door - fifteen seconds from one place to the other. Even so, during this morning's "walk," I couldn't avoid being confronted with the kind of behavior that inadvertently screws up workplace cultures and renders managers and their groups ineffective.

No, I wasn't mugged or physically threatened. (Seriously, if that was your first thought about bad behavior at work, you may want to change jobs.) I was, however, presented with what should have been a mundane request for information - but one that was structured so badly it could have started a fight as easily as a conversation.

Does it sound like I'm overstating? Decide for yourself...

As I reached the building door, a pickup truck pulled up to the curb, and a good-sized gentleman jumped out of the passenger side and began running toward me yelling "sir! SIR!"

Ok, fine. He did call me "sir." And in retrospect, I now know he was being polite. Sort of.

At the time it was difficult to tell, because he used the intonation and volume for the word "sir" that one might use in a sentence like, "sir, put out your cigarette while you're pumping gas for my mother," or, "sir, put down your carry-on and evacuate the aircraft RIGHT NOW!" Did I mention he was simultaneously running toward me?

Add to that, he was visibly upset - upset enough to make me wonder for a split second if I'd stumbled into an unanticipated conflict. Had I driven over this man's toes in the parking lot? Somehow offended his honor? Probably not. I quickly estimated that his assertiveness looked more like annoyance than aggression - and that, whatever it was, it probably wasn't aimed at me. So I turned to face him, hoping I'd guessed correctly.

At this point, I don't think anyone would have faulted me for a response along the lines of "what's the freakin' problem?" or maybe even some stronger language. But why escalate? I opted for silent eye contact. Surely more information was forthcoming.

And it was. Sort of.

"Where's the passport office?" he boomed, reaching me and grinding to a halt.

I first considered the question at face value. I couldn't recall ever going to a US passport office in person, but I'd heard of them being located at various cities. I remembered talking with a colleague about the one in San Francisco, but decided that was unlikely to have been this man's destination since we were in a parking lot in Austin, Texas. So I pondered: Is there a passport office somewhere in Austin? Elsewhere in Texas? Could that really be what this guy is asking? Why me? Why here? I was at a loss.

Don't tell the people in my classes, but when you need more time to come up with an answer, you can buy it by repeating the question.

"The passport office?"

"Yeah, the passport office. Which building is it in?" The tone of our conversation had morphed. I don't think I'd use the word "gracious," but no longer did he offer any nonverbal cues that might hint at aggression. Rather, at this point, a passer-by might have concluded that I was an administrative employee of his - and an unsatisfactory one at that. Bad enough to merit a raised eyebrow, anyway, though maybe not so incompetent that my job was at risk.

What a relief. Sort of.

More importantly, though, I had new information: The correct answer would not only involve passports, but would also be located in my office complex.

Minimally informative though it was, my new insight proved helpful. In the last year, I've made a few international trips that required visas, using a third party to help secure them. This travel assistance firm happens to be located in my building. I suddenly realized that they could offer support for certain passport transactions as well.

Progress!

"There's a company that helps get visas here. They may work on passports too, I'm not sure."

"Great," came the reply; still with the unsatisfactory-employee vibe. "And does this building even have a main entrance?"

Setting aside my apparent responsibility for the shoddy design of the office complex, I now understood his problem. Our campus consists of multiple buildings; from certain points in the parking lot it's difficult to figure out which is which, and where to enter. This man had likely been driving in circles, unable to locate what he needed. Add in the pressure of running late for an appointment - or maybe the pressure of impending travel - and his frustration-masquerading-as-animosity started to make sense: He couldn't find the front door.

Still, blame triggers defensiveness, even when bizarrely misplaced. I must admit, at this point, the option of sarcasm crossed my mind: "No entrances. We climb in and out through windows. I really hate being on the top floor." But I thought better of it, and instead considered trying to talk him around to the front of the building. "Go that way, then turn, then turn again..." The outcome there didn't promise to be much better.

So I went with option C, and threw in a smile for good measure. "You can come in here." I motioned him in the back door just behind us, and pointed down the hall. "What you're looking for is that way."

Almost instantly, he disappeared around a corner, leaving an audible trail of "thank you, thanks so much."

See? I told you he was being polite. This person had no animosity toward me, no agenda for me, and needed only simple information that I could easily provide. He called me "sir" and thanked me profusely. I should have been pleased to help.

And I was. Sort of.

I also left the interaction with the blend of relief and leftover adrenaline usually reserved for a near miss with a tractor-trailer on the highway. Why did it feel like such a close call?

I mean, really. Think about this for a second. I was nobody to him, some guy in a parking lot on my way to work. But this was no quick, easy conversation - it takes the better part of 900 words just to describe it! I had to engage my critical thinking, problem solving, and interactive skills fully, just to coax and cajole our interaction to a useful conclusion - that is, a useful conclusion for him!

What if I'd been a little more tired, or he'd been a little more assertive? What if I'd had a real reason to feel defensive about the design of the complex, or he'd used even a single swear word? A bit more difficulty - just one more tiny bump in the road - and we would have ended up in a metaphorical wreck, crashed somewhere between "I don't know what you're talking about" and "don't make me call security."

This is the kind of near-miss interactive victory that should go along with mediating divorce proceedings or holding peace talks, not pointing someone to suite 106.

The thing is, I see this all too frequently in workplace situations. You probably do too. One person needs routine information from another, but the situation quickly and inappropriately escalates. Issues get confused. People get defensive. Professionals treat each other with disdain, as if they're owed whatever they're requesting. Then, egos get bruised. Too often, information exchange gets hung up by accidental conflict.

Not to get all academic, but organizations exist in large part to resolve legitimate conflicts between incompatible alternatives. Do we fund more development, or more marketing? Do we stretch a current product, or create a new one? Do we ramp up, or ramp down? Answering questions like these requires real conflict between ideas, agendas, goals, and plans. And in order to have those useful conflicts, we need to get rid of the useless ones born of defensiveness, annoyance, and egoism.

Luckily, you already know how to do this. I know you do, and I'll prove it. With no help from me, you can come up with a new script, a briefly stated question that my passport-seeking friend could have asked - should have asked - to get all of the information he needed with little risk of failure.

Try it! Think up your own before you read on.

Really. Do it now.

How about this one - it's just 30 words instead of 900: "Excuse me, I'm late for an appointment with TravelStuff Incorporated, a company that's helping me to renew my passport. I can't find their office. Do you know where it is?"

I'll bet yours was even better. In about ten seconds, you designed a conversation that would resolve itself faster, use fewer words, consume less energy, and produce more benefit.

That's my challenge to you: If you can do this for Mr. Passport in my parking lot, you can do it for yourself at work. Stop going into information-seeking interactions so lost in your own side of the situation that you all but forget the existence of the other person and the interaction that's about to happen. Instead, consider how to get your questions answered, and how to disagree without getting into an argument. Take the few seconds you need to design your interactions, so that they help you by helping the other person to help you.

You'll be glad you did. You'll get what you need faster, your workplace will function better, and - as an added bonus - people will be more willing to help you again next time.

Plus, best of all, if everyone starts doing this, my walk across the parking lot will be peaceful again, and my blog posts will get a whole lot shorter.

Sort of.