Conflict 101: Underlying Motives

Sometimes, underlying motives are something to work with and build upon. Well, as long as they are under the surface and not explicitly discussed, that’s not really possible. However, once they are out in the open, they might act as a bridge between apparently conflicting views. 

Yesterday, we saw how asking a couple of questions can help us better understand each view. Sometimes, that’s all we need to resolve an apparent conflict. However, often, this is just the starting point. After we understand the essence of each view, we should try to uncover the underlying motives. 

It’s important to note that underlying motives are not sinister. They are often hidden simply because people think they are either obvious or irrelevant to the discussion. Let’s revisit the manager who claims we should work faster. Yesterday, we tried to understand what it means to work faster in their view. If this didn’t help us resolve the conflict, the next question is, “Why do we need to work faster?” While this might seem like an obvious question, the answer can often be surprisingly nuanced. There’s a big difference between having a concrete obligation to a specific customer and a desire to be the first on the market. There’s a huge difference between “I feel we are under-utilized” and “We are not meeting our sales goals for this quarter.” 

When the underlying motives are not openly discussed, any attempt to address the conflict will remain shallow. We might find some tactical solution everyone seems happy with, but the conflict is likely to surface again soon. In contrast, when we tackle the underlying motives, the discussion could get simpler or more challenging, but no matter how it unfolds, the outcome is more likely to have a longer-lasting impact. 

Putting the underlying motives on the table and discussing them in the open requires a fair amount of trust. While some underlying motives are simple to digest, others might be perceived as having more profound implications. One way to address this pitfall is to establish the shared mission of everyone involved. This can get tricky, as not all organizations invest the time and energy to ensure different missions of different stakeholders and teams are aligned. Investing in defining a shared goal will help diffuse at least some of the sensitivities of the underlying motives. If we are all working together to achieve the same target, we can discuss the gaps without taking them personally or emotionally. 

We should not be afraid to discuss the more profound things we initially decided to keep off the table. The more we are willing to expose, the greater the reward when the conflict is resolved. This doesn’t mean the discussion will be easy, but it will be more authentic and honest. As a result, meaningful action will become more likely.

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