01/29/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Tear Down The Walls -- How to Use Demands as Clues

"Behind every argument is someone's ignorance." -- Louis D. Brandeis

Rather than reacting to the other person's demands, use those statements as clues to underlying needs.

A co-worker demands you finish your work in a week. You respond that you will finish your work in two weeks as you originally stated. You immediately sensed the co-worker's anger and take personal offense to the demand. The demand pushed your buttons. An opposite position is taken, and voila, the fight is on. You did not sense the underlying distress and anxiety your co-worker feels because his boss yelled at him and his family is struggling financially. Caving in to a threat will not necessarily satisfy underlying needs. Going ballistic in response to a threat may bring you to a standstill.

Your own demands present a similar opportunity. When you are surprised by your own flash of anger, you may not be fully conscious of your own desires. You may be missing the underlying needs that your own anger is revealing to you. If you do not heed your own clues, you will leave out something that truly matters to you. Ask questions that explore what is motivating that demand: their concerns, desires and goals.

In either of these situations, literally and figuratively taking a deep breath keeps you from being sucked in to the dangerous cycle of anger. If you instead perceive them merely as hints to a deeper diagnosis, you can preempt unnecessary hostility. This mindset leads you to ask helpful questions to others like "What has changed about the work project?" You can ask yourself questions like "Why am I getting so mad here?" This approach expands the possibility of a conversation rather than narrowing to simplistic arguments.

Look at the words and emotions as unique clues, rather than obvious conclusions. Demands reveal the invisible: unmet desires, mixed emotions, and tipping points. Behind the demand is a wealth of thoughts, emotions that ultimately show the path to constructive conversation. Play the detective and probe what is said and unsaid to unearth the insight that points a path forward.

In my next post, I will focus on looking for heroism in conflict, both in you and the other person.

To learn more about the importance of communication skills particularly in negotiation and conflict resolution, read about the solutions, results and publications Grande Lum has created at Accordence, Inc.

For further discussion, contact Grande at