"Why the hell would you suddenly pull that in here?" shouted Oliver F., the company CFO, at a tense budget planning session. "We agreed at our meeting yesterday how we were going to proceed, and now you come in here with something totally self-serving!"
"No," said Jack B., "when we talked about this yesterday, we did not agree to what you're proposing!"
"That's not true!" Oliver rejoined.
And Jack came back with, "Well, of course it's true, and there are four other people who were there and will back me up!"
Everyone else in the room was frozen in place – mature, experienced people who were beginning to feel like children in business attire – until someone finally called a break.
Out in the hall Oliver turned to Jack and said, "You're a #@&! liar!"
Jack wondered how this had escalated to such a point, when he'd worked so hard to get buy-in to his budget before the meeting. In addition he was aware that Oliver – while he couldn't call the shots without agreement – held higher status in the company and was in a particularly key position during a financially troubled year for the company.
Normally a personable guy, Jack wasn't sure at the moment how to proceed. The only options he saw were to continue an apparently unresolvable conflict, cave in, or take it to Bob, the CEO, though he knew Bob hated bad news and would be particularly annoyed his so-called "senior" executives couldn't resolve things among themselves without bickering.
From the perspective of any observer it's clear Oliver and Jack's personal attacks had sidetracked their focus on solving a financial problem important to the business, and placed their energy instead on who was right and who was wrong.
You no doubt have plenty of your own examples – situations you've encountered, or problems members of your family or team have described. I've seen this competitive dynamic over and over, and it's a great relief for people to realize there are practical techniques they can learn on their own or with a little coaching help.
In the situation above, for example, Jack was able to improve his relationship with Oliver by using an assertiveness technique for responding to criticism without defensiveness. The next time he and Oliver got into a conflict, it went more like this:
Oliver: "I can't comprehend why you would say that now!" (Starts crunching numbers on the side to show his annoyance and disinterest in resolving their problems.)
Jack: "I can see you're shocked, and I'm surprised too, because I thought we were in agreement. Let's figure out how we can get back on track." (Paraphrases, discloses own reaction, offers solution.)
Oliver: "I don't need to get back on track. You're the one who's off!" (Still in a competitive mode.)
Jack: "Well, I have been known to rethink things between meetings. What have I added that seems new to you?" (Agrees to a possibility, probes.)
Oliver: "I never agreed to sign off on this budget today. I only agreed to discuss it with the rest of the leadership team." (Still in competitive mode, but willing to talk.)
Jack: "I also understood we'd talk with the rest of the team. What would you need to have happen in order to get sign-off?" (Confirms the part he agrees with, offers solution.)
Oliver: "I'd need to be sure your figures are accurate." (Doesn't offer counter-attack – a sign he's no longer in a competitive mode.)
Even more powerful for Jack than his new-found skills was the understanding he gained with the Enneagram. This powerful model of nine worldviews goes right to the heart of what makes people tick.
Jack identified himself as operating from style Seven. Charming and easy to talk to, they're the organization's cheerleaders because of their natural optimism and democratic style. Equality is important to them, so they sometimes have difficulty with people like Oliver who try to pull rank. In addition, style Sevens are natural storytellers who -- sometimes unwittingly -- can embellish the facts.
Recognizing these underlying dynamics helped Jack examine some of his own plus and minus characteristics. Enneagram Sevens particularly like to be upbeat; consequently they tend to avoid what's painful. In Jack's case this underlying motivation initially made it difficult for him to deal effectively with Oliver's criticism or to accept his role in their competitive interaction. He wanted to make the whole thing Oliver's fault. Taking responsibility for his piece of it was a big step in the right direction.
Jack also gained understanding of Oliver's Enneagram style Three as someone who's results-oriented and competitive. Coming from this strong bottom-line focus, Oliver was impatient with the more touchy-feely aspects of work situations. Style Threes also have an underlying motive to "look good," so Oliver's buttons were really pushed when Jack challenged him in front of his peers.
In the second go-round, where Jack managed to de-escalate a potentially competitive situation, he allowed Oliver to look good while moving the conversation toward getting results, both guaranteed to work better with Oliver.
Like Oliver, you may wish you could focus on the task at hand, but personality characteristics and the emotional aspects of relationships are an irreducible part of the work equation. Some studies suggest that almost 20 percent of the typical focus in work settings is spent resolving personality conflicts.