I have the opportunity to teach our conflict methodology to CPA firm leadership teams across the country. In doing so, it never ceases to amaze me how transformational applying one critical distinction can be in our communications with others. In this blog, I want to share that distinction, which is learning to interpret a conflict situation from many viewpoints in an effort to give up being “right” and realize that there is very likely more to the story than we have.

Usually, we operate and communicate from only one interpretation – our own – and in a conflict situation it’s not usually the most optimistic or positive viewpoint – instead it is the hurt, victimized, disappointed or angry viewpoint. When we teach conflict management, we distinguish that there are other possible interpretations, or views, of each conflict situation.

To do this, we play a “game” and develop a number of potential ways to view a conflict before we engage in a conversation with our “conflict partner” about it. We consider all of the possible ways to interpret what happened, including both “ugly” and “hopeful” interpretations.

As an example, some ugly interpretations for why a co-worker didn’t complete their portion of the project on time are that your co-worker is lazy, doesn’t care about their work, doesn’t care if they inconvenience you, or even that your co-worker is trying to sabotage you or make you look bad.

Some hopeful or positive interpretations for that same scenario are that your co-worker didn’t know the timeline or may have missed the kick-off meeting and didn’t receive the schedule, received multiple assignments from multiple partners or managers and didn’t know the priority of your project over the others, or had a personal emergency they needed to deal with, such as a sick child or an injured spouse so they couldn’t work late.

What’s important to note is that there are many possible interpretations of any given situation, yet most of us relate to our own chosen interpretation, which is usually an ugly or negative one, as our “truth” about what happened and why. Negative interpretations are typically those where we’re making the other person wrong or blaming them for a situation, and hopeful interpretations allow us to see where we could be 100% responsible for the situation and begin to generate some possible solutions that give us the power to change the situation ourselves.

Without having critical and honest information from the other person, our approach to conflict situations could come from negative “made up stuff,” causing our conflict partner to be defensive and keeping us from getting to the true root cause of the situation. Instead of approaching our communications from these made up interpretations, we can play “detective” and ask for our conflict partner’s view of the situation and be open to other possibilities for why the situation occurred.

Be willing to be surprised! When we are willing to set aside our own “made up” views, we can manage conflict situations more powerfully with more successful results. You can begin by playing the “interpretations game” on a current conflict situation you have and then set them aside and ask your conflict partner for their view of the situation. You may be surprised at the results. We’d love to hear about your thoughts, so post a comment and share what opens up for you when you stop and practice 360 degrees of interpretation.