by Alan Willett

“When sparks fly, some truly great ideas come to light.” — David Heinemeier Hansson

Even on the small screen of the video conference, the body language was clear. The teammates were about to engage in an argument based on some firmly held beliefs. The sparks were going to fly.

At points like this, the two most likely outcomes are opposites. The heat of friction can be of a destructive nature, burn a hole in the relationship, and make a bigger chasm between the positions. Or the heat of friction can be used to create something new and better while bringing a higher level of trust between the protagonists.

I teach people the following steps to ensure that the positive outcome is the most likely outcome.

  1. With joy, say, “I can tell by the heat of responses there is something significant here!”  I encourage people to adopt a positive attitude about conflict and treat it as an opportunity to learn more about the people and the topic. In other words, it is not about winning. It is about learning.
  2. Explore and listen.  Each person should question the other to understand their position fully. What are their goals, and what are their worries?
  3. Find the common goals.   The listening exposes shared goals. Take a moment to note all the shared goals. Now, it becomes a discussion about different pathways to find the best approach.
  4. Allow the heat to spark new ideas.  By this point, many new ideas and approaches have emerged. Fan the flames. There will be more ideas than before.  There might even be more arguments than before.  Now is the time to change the pace.
  5. Take a break.  I personally have found this approach to be most valuable. My arguments with my colleagues have typically been quite robust. We are all quite passionate about our ideas because to us they are so important!  The break allows the ideas to come together, merge, and create new ideas.
  6. Re-engage, Re-combine.  By the next morning, we often find we have new ideas and that they are coming together.  They are better ideas than we started with.

The video conference I was in turned out to be very fun. The protagonists did have an excellent fight with their ideas. And they did so in the way I outlined above. The robust discussion had improved the ideas.

When you are about to engage in your next fight about ideas, take a moment to rub your hands together and say, “Okay, let’s have some fun.  Let’s use the heat to forge stronger ideas.”

Yours in the calm pursuit of excellence,

Alan Willett