OCI #25: Collaborative Issue Resolution
Part 4 of a series on effective communication...a process for exploring uncharted or difficult territory
This is the fourth post in a series on communicating in ways that create deeper connection and understanding. The first post describes four types of “talk” and provides background on the Core Communication model I’m drawing on. The second post is about identifying and exploring focal issues. The third post explores a range of listening styles and ways of increasing our effectiveness as listeners. This post brings all the pieces together to lay out a collaborative process for working through important issues that involve problems, conflicts, or high-stakes decisions.
Dealing with Issues
An issue is anything that gets in the way of people (individuals, a team, multiple teams) making progress toward a common goal. It typically involves an underlying conflict, which is often rooted in differing perspectives and experiences of the people involved. Some of the aspects of a situation that can raise an issue include:
Varied perceptions of sensory data
Differing beliefs, expectations, values, or interpretations
Competing wants and interests
The content of issues can include business matters, personal concerns, relationships between people, and group- or team-level topics.
In organizational change, issues often arise when stakeholder groups have varying needs and interests, or when information is interpreted in different ways by various functional areas within an organization.
Can you identify issues that are present in a relationship, team, organization, or other system that you are a part of? To what degree are they hindering effective movement toward shared goals and desired outcomes?
While some issues go away by themselves, many will continue unless they are resolved. This might mean living with indecision, working around ongoing disagreements, or simply getting stuck in a polarized standoff.
Five Ways of Addressing Issues
Taking action to bring an issue to closure involves using some sort of formal or informal process—the effectiveness of this process affects the quality of the outcome. When issues arise, there are five basic ways the people involved can apply the talking and listening styles to address them.
Avoiding an issue can mean denying its significance, refusing to discuss it, changing the subject, ignoring it, joking about it, or deflecting it by claiming to be too busy. Typically this involves using Small Talk, Shop Talk, and Conventional Listening (these are described in previous articles).
While avoiding an issue is not always a bad thing—there may be more important things to spend energy on—it can lead to critical conflicts and decisions going unaddressed. It’s also likely to lead to dissatisfaction if one or more of the people involved have something at stake in the situation.
What issues can you think of that you or others are avoiding? What would make one of these issues significant enough to need to invest more energy in resolution?
Efforts to push for agreement can range from mild (making a case for a course of action) to coercive (pressuring others to comply). This process engages the Control Talk and Reactive Listening styles. While this approach can work in the short run, it has some costs that may undermine performance in the long run:
Some points of view may be suppressed or discounted.
Decisions may be made too quickly, without considering all relevant information.
Tension may escalate, leading to the use of Fight Talk and Spite Talk, struggles for control, and greater levels of polarization.
People may capitulate to keep the peace without truly being convinced, leading to increased resentment and distrust.
The group may splinter into apparent “winners” and “losers,” undermining long-term relationships.
What examples can you think of in which people used their power, influence, or “sales” skills to persuade others to adopt their preferred solution to an issue? How did that affect buy-in to the solution? Were there perspectives or interests that were systematically discounted or overlooked?
Floating on an issue involves talking and brainstorming about it, considering possibilities, and searching for solutions, but never digging deeply into critical aspects such as feelings or wants nor committing to taking meaningful action. This involves the use of Search Talk and Exploratory Listening, and stays in a safe and comfortable zone without reaching resolution.
Dealing with issues in this way gives the appearance of forward motion, and may occasionally allow people to find a path forward on issues that are not particularly tough. However, for more significant issues it can create longer-term problems for the group:
A lot of time is wasted in talking without delivering any results.
Even when issues appear to be treated seriously, commitments are vague and there is no follow-through.
With all the discussion, people expect something to happen; when it doesn’t, discouragement and cynicism increase.
Over time, the cautiousness and inaction are dissatisfying and sometimes even devastating for the people involved.
Have you been in situations where it seemed like people talked about things endlessly but never got anywhere? Can you see how staying in the styles of Search Talk and Exploratory Listening might lead to this outcome?
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Compromising involves seeking a solution through trade-offs. People use Search Talk, Straight Talk, and Exploratory Listening to understand one another’s wants, identify potential options, and commit to action. This involves figuring out and exchanging various concessions—each person gives up some part of what they want in the service of reaching an agreement.
When people go into compromise with good will and strong communication skills, it can sometimes yield satisfactory results. If people are able to give and take without losing things that are particularly important to them, issues can often be resolved in this fashion. The primary caution is that compromises can be fragile. People tend to remember what they gave up more than what they gained, and if one party doesn’t fully keep their end of the bargain, others feel entitled to break their agreements as well.
What are some creative compromises you’ve seen or been part of? How well did the agreements hold up?
Moving beyond compromise to collaboration involves an additional set of skills and mindsets. Collaboration draws on Straight Talk and Attentive Listening to develop the rich understanding of others’ perspectives that serves as the foundation for enduring agreements. Some of the things you will see when people are in this zone include:
Agreement on shared goals
Valuing differences, individual strengths, and the opinions of all participants
Full disclosure of critical information
Listening for understanding
Creative, robust solutions that address all interests
Commitment to follow-through with meaningful action
This form of issue resolution initially takes more time and effort than the others, because it calls for full information and understanding. However, it enables people to invent outcomes together that none of them could have created alone, generates high involvement and satisfaction, and yields high-quality decisions that save time and energy in the long run.
When have you been involved in true collaboration with others? What led you to invest the time and energy to engage deeply in this process? What outcomes were achieved? What was the long-term impact on the relationships and achievement of shared goals?
Nine Steps to Issue Collaboration
The process of jointly mapping an issue is a systematic way of working together to achieve collaborative resolutions. There are nine steps in this process:
Identify and define the issue: Any member of a system may become aware of an issue, often triggered by a disruption in expectations, and raise it for attention. Defining the issue involves articulating it and identifying the various parties involved in it.
Contract to work through the issue: Check everyone’s readiness to work through the issue, and agree on procedures for the discussion. These should include who, where, when, how, and for how long the discussion will take place. Creating an explicit commitment and a good structure will help everyone prepare and take ownership of the process.
These first two steps might take place at a separate time from the rest. Making sure the timing and process work for everyone is important. It may be helpful to appoint a facilitator to move the group through the remaining steps, check in on the process, and recognize if/when it may be helpful to pause the discussion and reconnect at a second meeting.
Understand the issue completely: Develop a complete understanding of the issue before taking action. This involves each member answering four questionsfrom his or her perspective, while the other participants apply the listening skills. Members take turns until everyone has had a chance to share all they want to say.
—What have I done/am I currently doing, that is working or not working? (Past/Current Actions)
—What have I seen and heard? (Sensory Data)
—What do I think is going on? (Thoughts)
—How am I feeling? (Feelings)
Identify wants for all parts of the system: Each member shares what they want for each part of the system (this should also include any don’t wants):
—the organization (business, team, family, etc.)
—other players who are centrally involved
—any other stakeholders
This is not about what they want from others (that goes under wants for themself), but what they want for them. This process may take a few rounds…as participants learn more about what others want for themselves, they may want to revisit what they want for those others accordingly. Articulating, affirming, and building on the wants of others and self is a particularly critical step in successful collaboration.
In my experience, steps 3 and 4 are the “secret sauce” of this process—fully allowing the time to work through and listen to one another enables much richer dialogue and more powerful solutions. These are also, unfortunately, the first things to get dropped or shortchanged when groups are under time pressure. This underscores the importance of contracting to work through the issue.
Generate and consider options: Keeping in mind the full understanding of the issue and wants for all participants, brainstorm (without critiquing or judging) a list of actions that might be taken to resolve the issue or move it a step ahead. This may include new possibilities that have not been tried as well as past actions that have been helpful. Then list the options and consider their impact on each member of the system.
Choose “best fit” actions: Select the best options for action—they should be specific, positive, achievable, and if possible, observable and measurable. Decide who will do what by when.
Test the action plan: Take a moment and imagine yourself and others actually carrying out the chosen actions. If anyone cannot envision themself or others carrying out an action, pause to consider what is incongruent. Is there a thought, feeling, want, or action that seems to dampen the plan? Discuss as needed and revise the action plan.
This is another step that is unusual and powerful. In addition to allowing the group to test their commitment to the plan, it can also potentially reveal additional issues that need resolution. Sometimes areas of “stuck-ness” can signal a deeper issue that is blocking progress on the original one. The group can contract to deal with this issue at a later time.
Implement future action(s): Follow through on commitments.
Evaluate the outcome: Step back and look at how it went. Celebrate effective actions, and reflect on anything that didn’t work. Update your action plan. If planned action was never taken, go back and see if you have fallen into the float pattern.
Consider the systems you are part of—relationships, businesses, communities, teams, and other groups. Which of these systems are best at resolving issues collaboratively? Which of these steps could you incorporate or strengthen? What speaking and listening skills would be most helpful for you to build to improve the quality of how you address issues? What benefits can you see from increasing your effectiveness at addressing issues?
I hope you’ve enjoyed this installment of Organizational Change Intersections. See you in two weeks!
These questions are based on the Information Wheel, described in more detail in the second article in this series.
The listening skills are described in detail in the third article in this series.