Do you ever find yourself in conversations that turn out to be more combative than they really need to be at work, or maybe even outside of work?

Sometimes it’s even with a colleague or a person you really get along with in real life, but yet in these conversations it’s almost like you’re playing verbal tennis. One person says one thing, the other person smacks it back and it just escalates from there.

One of my clients is in this kind of situation. He runs a business unit and another equally senior colleague runs another unit. They sometimes need to collaborate and cooperate but each of their units has their own goals and KPIs (key performance indicators).

He asked me, “How do I figure out a way to get out of this verbal tennis that’s not productive and frankly doesn’t feel very good?”

I shared with him five things that have worked well for me in the past. Maybe they’ll help you too.

1. Stop trying to convince

The first thing is to stop trying to convince the other person. The other person is just as sure they are right as you are sure you are right.

It’s sort of like trying to get a ring off your finger when your finger is swollen already. The more you tug at it, the worse it makes the situation. So, stop trying to convince people.

2. See things from their perspective

The second thing is to start seeing things from their perspective and invite them to see situations from yours. But someone has to go first and that person might have to be you.

Think about asking, “what would success be from your perspective?” or “what would need to be true in order for this to be something that would be really energizing for you in your department?”

3. Do a Pattern Interrupt

Then the third thing is when you’re in the conversation, meeting, or discussion and you find that the old patterns of verbal tennis are coming up again, you can do what I call a “pattern interrupt”.

A pattern interrupt could be asking a question. It could be just saying, “Hey, are we in a fight?” It could be just calling timeout and saying, “You know what? I’m really sorry. Whatever I said, I want to take it back because I don’t want to end up arguing with you. I respect you too much and frankly I’m just remembering we really get along well. Can we get to a way forward that’s going to be a win for both of us?”

4. Sit side-by-side

The fourth thing is, try figuratively and literally sitting side-by-side. Somehow when you’re sitting side-by-side, it’s a lot less combative than if you’re sitting across the table from each other, mentally as well as physically. See if you can swivel yourself around mentally, if not physically, to sit next to each other.

5. Look at the common mission

Then comes the fifth part, which is looking at that common mission, that common goal that’s bigger than each of your individual department’s goals or unit’s goals or your personal goals. Remind yourselves that you’re in it to make a bigger impact so you can sit side-by-side and really look for that third way.

That’s where you can start having “what if” discussions. Ask, “what if we did this?” or “what if we could find that third way? What would that look like?” Get yourselves really energized about this new, better way that would be a win for you, for them, and for the entire organization – or the entire family in the case that this might happen at home.

I hope these five steps help you when you’re in that verbal tennis type of situation.

How often are you finding yourself playing verbal tennis and which of these strategies might be helpful to you?

Leave me a comment and let me know. I’d love to hear from you.