Conflict with Colleagues: What We Miss When We Misunderstand

Last week, I offended a colleague.


I know this because, in the presence of others, he told me he was personally offended when I disagreed with him. Afterwards, when we were alone, the full story came out:

“I’ve heard you don’t trust me — that you think I have a misguided perspective on our business.”

“You’re right,” I said. “I haven’t trusted you or the direction I’ve perceived you’ve pursued. But I was wrong.”

“You know,” I went on, “we really haven’t spoken openly with each other in quite some time. Literally, in the past several hours of conversation, it’s become clear to me what you think and how you feel about our business. And it’s very different from what I had thought.”

You have no idea how profound of a realization this was for me.

So much mistrust and misalignment comes from misunderstanding. When we don’t interact, we perceive and assume. And we’re skilled at manufacturing stories in our minds.

How did my colleague and I get to the point of such misunderstanding? We hadn’t been guarded or mean-spirited. We had been busy and lazy. We assumed that hearsay and regular business communication painted the entire picture of reality. As a result, I missed what he was really saying, and he misconstrued my disagreement with him.

What if the majority of those you don’t trust or agree with are just misunderstood? Looking at it from this point of view certainly isn’t the easy way out. It’s actually pretty inconvenient. It forces us to answer a question: If trust and alignment are important, what inconvenient actions do I have to take to avoid misunderstanding?

Perhaps it would encourage us to:

1. Speak well of everyone. We would realize that, when we criticize, we are standing on shifting sand because there’s a good chance we’re wrong about the person or situation. We would hold off on the rush to judgment because we’d recognize we’re likely constructing a story without all of the facts. We would only be able to tell our story rather than filling in the blanks with unfounded characterizations.

2. Constantly pursue understanding. The natural tendency is to pursue immediate gratification: We want to be heard, be productive, be comforted and be certain. Whether in our personal lives or our professional lives, prioritizing continual understanding is messy and humbling. It’s hard work. It’s inconvenient. But it more than delivers in the long run.

3. Schedule priorities. Most people spend most of their day on email, in meetings and checking off their to-do list.  This level of communication with colleagues produces “predictive-based trust”: we get what we expect from others.  Patrick Lencioni says, however, that “while laudable, ‘predictive-based trust’ is not as important as ‘vulnerability-based trust’ where we work to genuinely understand one another.”  To achieve this level of communication, we have to block time for it.  Put it on the meeting agenda.  Go for coffee.  Shut down email and walk the office floor.  Schedule a recurring phone call.  Make it happen.

Dale Carnegie said, “Any fool can criticize, and most fools do.”

Swallow your pride. Where are you being foolish in your understanding of someone?



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  • Laura
    January 22, 2014 at 5:30 pm

    Fantastic post and wise advice! Kudos to you for modeling what you’re talking about!

  • Jarrel Golthe
    January 23, 2014 at 3:50 am

    that man and woman in the picture have enormous breasts