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Difficult Conversations, Part 2: How do we get there from here?

The road from positions to interests can be hazardous, but it is worth the trip. Road sign warning of the danger from bears, 1961 (ARC Identifier 286014)

In last week’s post we discussed the difference between positions and interests. In brief, positions are what an angry person presents during a confrontation; interests are the secret, unmet needs that anyone in a dispute may be reluctant to share. We also learned that the only way to move toward a resolution is to discuss those hidden interests; arguing positions will inevitably lead to butting heads. So how does one help an angry position-based person focus on underlying interests?

Here at OGIS we rely on a set of communications skills identified by our friend Jean Whyte, director of the National Archives’ alternative dispute resolution program, as we attempt to move our customers from positions to interests. While not every situation calls for each of these techniques, they’re good to have in your toolbox.

Cultivate curiosity. When you are curious, you tend to let go of presuppositions about the issue or people in dispute. Stay calm, and express that calm through a low, even, relaxed tone of voice. Don’t be defensive, even if the other person is on the attack. Be hard on the problem at hand rather than the person in conflict (no matter how big a “problem” that person might seem). Cultivating curiosity and expressing that curiosity through kind detachment helps an angry person relax. It also builds trust — the other person will be more willing to admit his or her interests when you use this technique.

Ask open questions. Do you know what an open question is? Wait, let me ask that a different way. Could you tell me what you know about open questions? A closed-ended question (like my first question) draws from a defined list of answers, such as “yes” or “no.” An open question stimulates conversation by inviting a person to share his or her thoughts and experiences. Open questions are like the gas pedal that quickly drives a position-based dispute toward a discussion of underlying interests.

Practice active listening. In order for an angry person to trust you enough to share his or her interests, you first need to show that you are a good listener. “Active listening” doesn’t refer to any one behavior, but it includes techniques like summarizing what you hear the other person say, engaging non-verbally through eye contact and nods, and checking out your assumptions with the speaker. Active listening does not include interrupting, finishing the other person’s sentence, or acting distracted or bored. Active listening also doesn’t mean total silence on the part of the listener — a silent listener may be completely misunderstanding what he or she is hearing.

Try reframing “hot” phrases. An angry person may use highly emotional language to express his or her positions. You may be able to rephrase a statement in a way that makes it neutral while acknowledging the person’s emotions. For example, if someone says “Nobody ever answers their phone in the federal government! Federal workers do nothing all day!” you might reframe that statement as “I understand that you are angry, and that you are trying to connect with someone who can assist you. You have reached me now, and I will do all I can to help.” Reframing is extremely difficult, but also very effective.

Focus on the future, not the past. As you begin to move the conversation away from positions and toward interests, help the (formerly) angry person focus on the outcome that he or she desires rather than the events in the past that created the dispute. It’s fine to be pretty explicit with this technique, to say things like “that’s what happened in the past. Let’s focus instead on what you would like to see happen in the future.”

We wish you happy travels as you negotiate the road between positions and interests. We’d love to hear your tips for productively dealing with disputes.