Updated: Mar 19, 2021
Alternate title: “How negotiating with my 9-year-old helped me navigate strategic conflict with highly skilled executive.”
It started with classic tattling. My oldest son tells me that his younger brother has broken one of our core video game rules: only play with people you know. He was playing with strangers. When I asked what he hoped the outcome of his sharing this information would be, I learned that the big's motivation was not to keep his little safe from the strangers, but to get him back for all the times tattling had landed him in the hot seat. Sweet revenge.
Still, I decided to sneak up on the accused a couple of nights later while he was playing. “Hey! Who are you playing with?”
Look of shock and despair. Big eyes. Busted.
“Who are those people on the screen? Do you know them from school?”
Tears stream down his face and he throws the controller on the table.
This was handy, because I was about to take it anyway. My standard response to a video game broken rule is to remove the problem. Control it. Especially when there’s sneaking involved.
About a week later, the rule-breaking child comes to me to beg for his stuff back. Bright-eyed. Charming. He’s ready for the negotiations.
I said no. I don’t trust that he won’t break the rule again. He’s such a good sneaker.
This is the moment where I would ordinarily step up onto my mom pedestal and preach a well-developed sermon about why my rule is totally proper for someone his age, how unsafe his behavior was, how awful the world can be, how he might (in the words of my grandmother god-rest-her-soul) ‘get carried off in the night', and how I AM RIGHT AND I KNOW BETTER. This would be a legitimate argument made from a sturdy position as I am the grown-up and he is the child.
Instead, I decided I would pause, break from my own pattern, and listen.
I asked him to tell me what was important to him about the way he played - so important that he risked losing the ability to play at all.
He told me.
Then I told him why it was important to me that he not.
Then, I had him write down both sides of the argument, so that he could start to understand it from a viewpoint other than his own. I told him if he could figure out this skill, he’d fare better in his life, and would probably also win more arguments (a key value for him).
I won’t get into all the details about our sides and our arguments. I’ll just tell you that by the time we were done, he and I were on the couch together, watching videos about internet safety, real news stories about kids who got hurt online, and advice from professionals about how to stay safe. His eyes got big. He didn’t know that stuff really happened. And my eyes got narrower – I didn’t realize there were some steps we could take to meet in the middle, steps that would allow him a little more wiggle room and still not get hurt. I was willing to compromise, and he was too.
It’s going OK for now. And, the sneaking has stopped because it’s all out on the table.
Why this story? Because any story where we break an old pattern is an important one - one we can reference when the stakes are high and we're tempted to revert to our usual habits.
Just a couple of weeks later, I found myself in a heated debate with a colleague. He and I have different risk tolerances, different experiences, different opinions, and different things at stake. I realized that I wanted to be right more than I wanted to get to right. I was tempted to use my authority to control the path. The situation reminded me of my experience with my son and I decided to pause and find a way to listen. I considered what I was most curious about and I designed a coaching session for him, centered around his perspective.
I listened and I learned more than just the technical or theoretical details of how he defended his position. I learned what’s important to him. I learned about ethical boundaries he’s concerned about. I learned about his fears which told me a lot about his values. By the end of the conversation, we were in a position to design the solution together - and our next conversation was to do just that.
This idea that there's a right one, a winner for whom everyone claps, is a mirage when it comes to adaptive problems and the conflict they incite. Leadership is not a game of Win, Lose, or Draw.
Every conflict provides you the opportunity to choose how you use your intellect and your energy. You can use it to dig in and glue yourself to your position; or you use it to propel forward.
You even get to choose how you name the adversary. You can see the other person as an enemy, or you can join them as a partner, which makes the real enemy whatever keeps you from connecting to them.
Choosing to work toward the next right thing instead of being right; choosing to use your energy for momentum instead of digging in; choosing to name the person as partner instead of enemy – those are choices that reflect a coaching mindset, a mindset that privileges connection over control.
In every conflict there are at least 4 elements at play:
There’s the problem itself. (How should we approach reaching this big, crazy goal? How can my kid stay safe online?) There’s the relationship within which you are trying to solve the problem. (My colleague and me. My son and me.) There’s the cultural context where this occurs (cultures shape how we solve problems – they can be supportive of or hostile to connection.) And, there’s YOU.
How you choose to approach conflict will influence if and how these four areas shift.
When I choose to shut my kid down, shut him up, so that I can control him and ‘be right’, nothing shifts. I’m an out-of-touch mom with a kid who keeps sneaking. When I approached our problem with him through connection, everything shifted. The problem got more solvable. The relationship grew a bit more trusting. Our household became more committed to its value of not hiding or sneaking. And I became a smarter mom who pays attention a lot better when he’s on that game.
Digging in keeps the people, the problem, and the environment in exactly the same place: Stuck.
The power of conflict is its ability to move you, your problems, your organization much more effectively than harmony. So why wouldn’t you let it?
Maybe because it’s hard work that you don’t know how to do. Maybe because it’s uncomfortable and awkward. Maybe because it means giving up the idea of yourself as good, better, best, the one who’s right, the one who knows. That’s a pretty big casualty for most of us to absorb. A good next step for a leap this big is to find one way in your relationships this week where you can pause, step down off your pedestal, and ask a question. It gets a little easier every time you do.