Conventional advice on solving conflict says you should “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” This old adage suggests that by increasing understanding and empathy for the other side, we will be better able to create solutions that take their interests into account, thus allowing us to more quickly and effectively reach agreement.
For several decades now, this advice has helped millions of people reach “win-win” agreements. The problem is this assumes people know what they want, and why they want it. Which is not always true.
Think about it: ever been confused about what you want? Or have you ever known what you wanted, but couldn’t exactly put your finger on why? You had a vague sense or a gut feel, but found it hard to put into clear words. In these situations, it’s difficult to explain the rationale behind our decisions, never mind advocate for our own point of view.
A client of mine, the CEO of a multinational professional services firm, told me that when people on his team question a decision he makes, it is sometimes very difficult for him to pinpoint exactly why he made the decision. Even as he stands by it, he struggles to find the words to explain why. As a result, he and his team members suffer: his inability to explain his thinking is frustrating for him and his team members, and it decreases his ability to influence them. His team members are left without a clear rationale and with little opportunity to weigh in on why another choice might have been better. It’s lose-lose for everyone.
Why is it so hard for smart leaders to find the words to describe their own rationale? The reasons are many. If, for example, you grew up in settings where putting yourself in others’ shoes was expected, or where opportunities for self-expression were limited, it is potentially more difficult to put yourself in your own shoes or express your own needs.
If this sounds like you, the next time you find yourself in a difficult conversation, before taking the other side’s needs into account, try putting yourself in your own shoes first. Take the time to ask yourself: What do I want here? Why do I want it?
Then allow yourself to be quiet and notice what emerges. Write down as many answers as you can. Don’t edit yourself; just get them down on the page or the screen. Particularly when we need to make decisions that are hairy or complex, there are often multiple reasons why we may want one thing or another. The clearer you can get about what you want and why, the better able you will be to communicate that to others. The more effectively you communicate, the more persuasive you’ll be. And the more persuasive you are, the more likely you will reach an optimal agreement and achieve your goal.
Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D. is the Founding Principal of the NYC-based consulting firm Alignment Strategies Group and the Director of Coaching at the global transformational leadership development company Mobius Executive Leadership. She is also Adjunct Professor at the Morton Deutsch International Center for Cooperation and Conflict Resolution at Columbia University.