In our action-oriented culture, there's a bias toward jumping to the "how" without thinking much (or at all) about the "what" or "why." There are a number of realms where this behavior is rampant. This article focuses on the interpersonal.

We all know of situations in which someone attributes some negative action or characteristic to someone else and in an effort to be friendly or accommodating, we unthinkingly take that side-without considering that there might be something deeper going on. This can happen with children, spouses, co-workers, political candidates, public issues or corporations.

In the last month, two friends of mine have had job problems because someone in management took action without finding the facts in the situation. Unfortunately, these kinds of situations are fairly common. The results are at best misunderstandings and hurt feelings, and at worst divorce, law suits or even violence. Fortunately, it's often possible to take action to avoid the worst problems and sometimes completely resolve the issues and create new understandings and a more positive climate.

Here are some suggestions to apply in a business, or other, setting.

  • If there's a problem, handle it when you learn of it. Don't let it fester and get worse.
    Unresolved conflict tends to become magnified and people's positions become more entrenched. The best chance to get a positive outcome is before a situation has become too hostile and other issues that cloud the original one enter the picture.
  • Keep an open mind until you've spoken with everyone concerned.
    The worst of situations can often be simple misunderstandings. People tend to be convinced of the correctness of their world view and position. This doesn't make them bad or unscrupulous, it makes them normal. Nevertheless, it doesn't mean someone else would or would not agree with their assessment.
  • Be scrupulous about not taking sides. This is so important that it's worth making it two points (see the previous point).
    Find out everyone's perspective before coming to any conclusions. If you are the decision maker, you have to be able to listen and truly hear what everyone has to say. If you have taken a position, it will be hard to ascribe value to the party you think is wrong.
  • Talk to all of the people involved individually and in private.
    Meet privately with each of the disputants. Make sure they each understand what is happening. Create a safe environment for each of them to present his or her version of the situation. Make sure that you understand each person's position before ending the meeting with him or her.
  • Be a moderator and mediator. Bring the parties together to talk about the situation.
    This may not always be possible, practical or on occasion even desirable. For example, if there's a significant power disparity, and the presence of one person may intimidate the other, you may want to find another approach.
    Explain each party's position before allowing any responses or rebuttals. Observe the parties interaction. Observe the people and if someone is uncomfortable, find out why. This is a process of discovery. Learn from it.
  • Create a safe environment.
    No intimidation-ever! If you want people to be open with you and tell you what's really going on, they need to trust you. Cultivate a reputation as someone who can be objective, open and honest. When your good reputation precedes you, people will be more likely to trust you.
  • Try to reach an agreement that everyone is happy with, or at least can live with, but in any case make a decision.
    The best thing that can happen is that everyone will agree on a plan. Failing that, if everyone can at least accept an approach you will most likely have defused the situation. Unfortunately, sometimes the parties can't agree in which case you have to decide. When that happens, explain your reasoning and conclusions.
  • Write down the decision, give copies to the parties, have them sign it (acknowledging receipt if not agreement) and keep signed copies for the files.
    By acknowledging that they received the decision, people are agreeing that they went through the process and that a decision was made. They are not acknowledging that they agree with it.
  • Get a written response and include it in the file.
    Encourage each of the parties to include a written note about the process and the decision in the file. This can let the participants say anything they want about the situation, the process or the result. It will help you to develop the process and your skills and could be useful in the future if the agreement unravels.
  • Implement the decision evenhandedly.
    Follow up. Meet with the parties at some point to ensure that all is well. Make sure that the decision is being implemented. If it isn't then take action-unless things have improved so much that the parties are working well together and the agreement is no longer relevant. Document the follow up in the file.