Effective Communication

During conflicts, ask HOW not WHY

September 13, 2021
min read

When you hear the word CONFLICT, you’re unlikely to be filled with a warm fuzzy feeling on the inside. Instead, you probably feel quite nervous. But here’s something interesting about conflicts.

Karen “Etty” Jehn, one of the world’s leading experts on conflict, explains that there are two types of conflict:

(a) Relationship conflict e.g. “You’re in your ivory tower! You have no idea what our customers need.”

(b) Task conflict e.g. “I believe we should implement this feature differently.”

It turns out that while relationship conflict is generally detrimental, some task conflict can be quite helpful in a team, since it can lead to more debate and better outcomes.

The trouble is that task conflict can quickly escalate into relationship conflict – especially when we focus on WHY we are right as opposed to HOW the option we’re proposing is likely to work.

A quote to keep in mind

“The absence of conflict is not harmony, it’s apathy.”

– Adam Grant, ‘Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know’

How to overcome conflicts with a HOW discussion

Next time when you’re debating with someone on a few different options, try to avoid asking the following question:

WHY is this option going to / not going to work?

Instead use the following question to guide the discussion:

HOW is this option going to work?

In doing that, you’re going to encourage a mutual thought process fuelled by curiosity rather than defensiveness. During this process, you’re going to explore together the different options and discover together unexpected benefits, question marks and red flags. This will increase the chances of agreeing OR disagreeing but committing.

P.S. I can’t take any credit for the insights above – today’s newsletter is inspired from the thought-provoking book ‘Think Again’ by Adam Grant.

Author Portrait
Written by
Mica Vaipan

Performance & wellbeing coach, entrepreneur. Formerly startup founder, tech startup COO and investment banker.

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