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Workplace fights or why acting ‘nice’ messes with your next promotion.

Want to impress your senior management?

Then you need to learn how to fight – and no this has nothing to do with white collar boxing or blue collar cagefights, – arguments happen and promotion lies ahead for those who can effectively ‘fight professionally’. Confrontation and conflict are the modern way of testing and challenging everything in the fast moving world we live in. For some it is the only avenue available to get things done or changed. Conflict and confrontation are here to stay. True conflict control is the use of influence and critical skills to gain control in a situation rather than manage the situation itself. Conflict – in most business contexts – entails a clash of emotions, expectations, hopes dreams and agendas, and is often hidden behind an elusive nominalization called “a situation” or “an issue”.

The solution is to control it effectively – one insider secret relies on a concept borrowed from boxing and other martial arts – namely sparring. In a ring the aim of sparring is for both parties to improve their skill without the express need to determine a winner. I am glad to see that even the grand master of networking Keith Ferazzi advocates this as a technique.

First, please bear with me while I set the scene.

The novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald made his famous observation in his 1936 essay “The Crack-Up”, about the test of a first-rate mind – he stated that “an intelligent person should be capable of holding two opposing ideas in his head and still function.”

Although the precise form or sparring varies, it is essentially relatively ‘free-form’ fighting (so is workplace sparring), with enough rules, customs, or agreements to make injury unlikely. By extension, argumentative debate is sometimes called “verbal sparring”. As in all disciplines the physical nature of sparring naturally varies with the nature of the skills it is intended to develop; the organization of sparring matches also varies, if the participants know each other well and are friendly, it may be sufficient for them to simply play, without rules, referee, or timer. If the sparring is between strangers, there is some emotional tension, or the sparring is being evaluated, it may be appropriate to introduce formal rules and have an experienced supervisor or referee in attendance. Sparring is normally distinct from competition, the goal of sparring normally being the education of the participants, while a competition seeks to determine a winner.

Gandhi was a major political and spiritual leader of India and the Indian independence movement. He was the pioneer of Satyagraha – resistance through mass civil disobedience strongly founded upon ahimsa (total non-violence). His famous statement says it all, – “A NO uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a YES merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.” His exploits in sparring with the establishment are now the things of legend.

Workplace sparring focuses around a central premise or set of principles: non-violence (anything else would be bullying) and frankness. Clear impersonal honest, frank observations delivered whether you want to hear it, or whether you don’t.

A good listener tries to understand what the other person is saying. In the end he may disagree sharply, but because he disagrees, he wants to know exactly what it is he is disagreeing with. – Kenneth A. Wells

People who are objectively frank and able to spar without bringing emotional baggage to the issue get promoted faster period!

Here’s why:

  • Frankness inspires integrative thinking – namely the ability to constructively face the stress of opposing scenarios and, instead of simply choosing one path at the expense of the other, generate a creative resolution of the tension in the form of a new model which contains elements of the opposing models but is superior to each.
  • Creativity and Innovation – tough frank exchanges between people will trigger an integrative reaction – these people generate entirely new insights, new ideas, and new approaches.
  • Being frank demonstrates to your superiors are that you are in turn superior on four key points: you take a broader view of what’s relevant to the decision – you explore what and how elements relate to each other – you observe the problem in all of its complexity rather than chunking and breaking it into parts – and you never allow unpleasant compromises or trade-offs to provide solutions. The beauty is that you always seek out a creative outcome – a new model that contains elements of the individual opposing models but is superior to each. This alone provides a platform for creative contribution, by not allowing a compromise (or backing-off completely) to masquerade as a resolution. Just knowing this critical skill, will make you disproportionately able to come up with breakthrough ways of doing things and you will get noticed.
  • Silence when issues are at hand is seen by most management as a cowardly form of denial.
  • Better risk assessment. Most people who back away and avoid “saying it like it is”, as a misguided exercise in ‘career protection’ are not held aside for promotion because they are seen to be not risk averse but risk avoidant they not promoted because they are non-participants! Being frank demonstrates the capacity to asses risks, preparing you to solve problems collaboratively and demonstrates a high level of emotional stability (EQ).
  • Getting things done: Workplace sparring denotes a sense of commitment where frankness and candour combine and drive your efforts to manage change through growth, creativity and constant improvement.
  • Frankness when done properly shows up as a more considerate and joined-up work environment – candour and frankness by definition blows the chances of success for the mediocrity-driven approach which thrives on and through “jobsworth” office politics, working to rule, backstabbing, sniping and email flames.

Things to know about the workplace ‘ring’

Fighting is dangerous, and sparring can be dangerous. Frankness, irrespective of how its is delivered, and no matter how much care and respect is applied or taken into account, can and certainly will push people’s buttons. That’s a fact – so you need to get used to it and you need some basic checks.

There is one overriding check that must apply at all times – safety – before you speak and before you answer: Are you being truly frank objective and candid in your observations, expectations or requirements, and is it safe to proceed? First – check your own emotional state and ensure that the environment is safe. Insensitive candour and frankness without due consideration and care for the other party is insensitive and stupid – tantamount to bullying and coercion.

Understand its only information you are dealing with and make it clear by saying something along the lines of “Before I jump to conclusions . . . . This is the information I have. . . . . . that leads me to this observation . . . .” State that you expect them to be the owner of the input, the solution, and the outcome(s). State clearly that your comment is only data or information – they have full right to decide how to respond and when.

No leading questions, only ask clean questions and distill or contest ideas by asking questions. This allows flaws and missing data to arise for discussion without anyone getting defensive. Stepping through the thought processes that lead up to or represents the flaws is key to integrative reasoning. The beauty is that you always seek out a creative outcome – a new model that contains elements of the individual opposing models but is superior to each – expect new insights while you get to avoid ego-trips or victim mode.

Frankness and sparring can get heated, even aggressive, and sometimes you will need to express yourself more bluntly than usual if you wish to overcome that bugbear human condition called ‘denial’ – sparring by definition is about not pulling any punches – someone will be required to defend against a sparring move and it may hurt the recipient a bit, because sometimes you need to make sure your point is genuinely heard. Should you get frustrated make it very clear you are getting annoyed not because of a difference in opinion but because an important point is being deliberately ignored.

Forget all that crap about Active Listening. Paraphrasing may work on some people but anyone with an iota of an analytical mind will soon become very irritated at being paraphrased, simply (sic) to confirm what they already know they have just said – but with someone else’s spin on it! Anybody who has argued with a polarity responder knows that unless you play their ‘exact words’ back to confirm what they are saying a you will end up at cross purposes. Folks – it’s ALL about engaged listening.

First, be human, give the person a genuine smile. A smile says, “I’m approachable”. Maintain a reasonable balance of eye contact. Unless you are Tim Roth in a ‘lie to me’ episode – know this:- If you maintain an unblinking stare 100 percent of the time, that qualifies as leering – and it’s just plain scary in my experience! If you display eye contact less than 65-75 percent of the time, you’ll seem disinterested and rude. Somewhere in between is the balance you’re looking for – I always look for signs of compassion, happiness or sadness in other people’s eyes. Laughter lines and wrinkles are especially interesting things to admire in the other person. Find something to admire in another persons eyes and they will feel like they are the most important person in your world!

Unfold your arms and relax. Crossing your arms can make you appear defensive or closed. It also signals tension. Relax! – people will pick up on your body energy and react accordingly. Nod your head and lean inward, but without invading the other person’s space. You just want to show that you’re engaged and interested. The engaged listening method helps to diffuse any volatility and keeps things process focused.

If you are not confident in your ability to be frank and open and if you are unsure as to how you will respond to candid feedback or observations then PRACTICE!!!! Practice on that difficult shopkeeper, ticket inspector maybe some of your friends. Get used to the idea of frank, no holds barred candid conversation – and to help you to get over defensiveness when people give you feedback – say to yourself – “this is information – I’ll determine the threat level later”. Once you can do this with ‘friends and family’, then move on, take on your colleagues managers and reports.

When issues arise, in some really unpleasant companies people will withdraw into a cowardly form of denial called silence. Most companies will pay lip service to the problems, at least to the authorities, but the underlying situation still exists. However, enlightened companies encourage everyone to assess the value and address the confrontation, up-front and up-to-the-moment. And they will resolve the problem. Doing this consistently, takes skills and maturity.

Point them to this link.

Be sensible and be sensitive – otherwise you might really get thumped! Do this right and your arguments will almost certainly take to up to the next level.

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