The First Step in Resolving Conflict: "Go to the Balcony"

During trying economic times when we have to do more with less, the need for collaboration and productivity is heightened.

During trying economic times when we have to do more with less, the need for collaboration and productivity is heightened.

It is not surprising, however, that with increased stress can come tension and conflict. Even in the best of times, I find that unacknowledged and poorly handled conflict prevents teams from working to their potential. A high percentage of my consulting work involves supporting people in reducing tension and resolving conflict — even if that’s not what I was originally hired to do! So I plan to write about conflict and its resolution frequently in this column.

Fresh Air and Fresh Perspective

“Speak when you are angry and you will make the best speech you will ever regret.”
— Ambrose Bierce

This month, I’m going to focus on the first — and often overlooked — step one can take in reducing tension and conflict. In his book, Getting Past No, William Ury emphasizes the importance of being self-aware and making choices about how you respond in difficult situations. Ury suggests that the first step is “don’t react: go to the balcony.” Going to the balcony gives you a bit of fresh air and, potentially, a fresh perspective.

Sometimes you can take the time you need to cool down and come back to a tense situation calmer and more creative. And the idea can even be useful when you can’t physically leave a situation. A few years ago, I facilitated a large workshop for an office in considerable tension. I became a lightning rod for some of the anger in the room. At a break, a big guy (bigger than I am, and I’m 6’4”) came right up to me and started yelling. He was angry!

Agreeing to Disagree

I had to make a choice on-the-spot. Because I had the image of the balcony in mind, I took a deep breath, didn’t say anything right away, and listened to him carefully. When I could, I let him know I was listening, by paraphrasing (“So you believe that ... Is that right?”). Gradually, when he saw I was listening and taking his concerns seriously, his tension level started to go down. Eventually I was able to say my view of things. We agreed to disagree, but it could have been much worse. Going to the balcony, by taking a deep breath and choosing how to proceed, made a huge difference.

Here are a few excerpts about going to the balcony with practical tips from Getting Past No by William Ury:

Human beings are reaction machines. The most natural thing to do when confronted with a difficult situation is to react — to act without thinking. There are 3 common reactions:

  • Striking back: “fight fire with fire” and “give them a taste of their own medicine.”
  • Giving in: Sometimes we are intimidated and appease unreasonable people under the illusion that if we give in just this one last time, we will get them off our back ... There is a saying that an appeaser is someone who believes that if you keep on throwing steaks to a tiger, the tiger will eventually become a vegetarian.
  • Breaking off: A third common reaction is to break off relations with the difficult person or organization.

If the bad news is that you contribute to the vicious cycle of action and reaction, the good new is that you have the power to break the cycle at any time — unilaterally ... When you find yourself facing a difficult negotiation, you need to step back, collect your wits, and see the situation objectively. Imagine you are negotiating on a stage and then imagine yourself climbing onto a balcony overlooking the stage.

The “balcony” is a metaphor for a mental attitude of detachment. From the balcony you can calmly evaluate the conflict almost as if you were a third party. You can think constructively for both sides and look for a mutually satisfactory way to resolve the problem.

Buy time to think:

  • Pause and say nothing. You obviously can’t eliminate your feelings, nor do you need to do so. You need only to disconnect the automatic link between emotion and action.
  • Rewind the tape. Slow down the conversation by playing it back. Tell your counterpart: “Let me just make sure I understand what you’re saying.” Review the discussion up to that point.
  • Take a time-out. A time-out give both sides a chance to cool off and go to the balcony.
  • Don’t make important decisions on the spot. [After you have] suspended your initial reaction, you can now consider the decision in a more objective fashion — on the balcony.

The first thing you need to do in a negotiation is not to control the other person’s behavior but to control your own.

I’ve quoted Ury at length because I believe these tips can be put to use immediately. And because his notion of "going to the balcony" emphasizes the importance of self-awareness, an often under-appreciated aspect of work life.

Hide blurb on post page: