Resolving Soft Conflicts
When Data Alone Won’t Solve a Disagreement
Your project is going along fine when all of a sudden you have the disagreement…you know, the one that you’ve had a hundred times before and you know won’t be solved easily. The disagreement comes in many forms, but it boils down to you thinking you’re right while the other person or team is wrong and no data or framework can convince one side of the other’s POV. While many disputes can be settled with data, there is a whole other bucket of them that aren’t even ready for data yet.
The purpose of this note is to describe a few approaches to resolving these conflicts between people and teams by diagnosing the type of conflict and deeply understanding the other person’s point of view.
Not all conflicts are ready to be solved with data; these conflicts center around communication, personality, and people’s working styles. If you put in the work to solve the root conflict as opposed to just the matter at hand, you will save everyone (especially you) a lot of time and pain in the future. In this note I will cover:
- What is a “soft conflict”?
- Why is it important to resolve these conflicts?
- How can I resolve different conflict types?
- Are we trying to accomplish the same thing?
- Resource tradeoffs
- Differences in working style
- Personality clashes
(Bonus) Other general tips
1. What is a “soft conflict”?
For the purposes of this note, a “soft conflict” is a disagreement that can’t be solved with data alone. This type of conflict arises when there is disagreement between two or more parties on how to move forward in achieving a product team’s stated goals and mission.
If you want you and your team to be successful, it’s important to understand what type of conflict you have, otherwise you may solve the “perceived problem” only to ignore the root cause and go through all of this again.
In my experience, there are 4 different themes of conflict between teams at work when it comes to resolving product issues (not inclusive of HR-related issues, like discrimination or sexual harassment, which are out of the scope of this note). The 4 types are:
- Conversation level: are we talking about the same thing?
- Tradeoffs on constrained resources: we both need the same person to accomplish this task.
- Working styles: I think deeply, you move quickly.
- Personality clashes: I can’t put my finger on it, but I just don’t like working with you.
2. Why is it important to resolve these conflicts?
You may ask: “Can’t I just resolve the problem at hand today and move on?! Seems like it would be so much faster!” If you just move forward instead of diagnosing and solving the root problem, two things are likely to happen:
i) You will revisit the decision. When you don’t solve the root issue, the problem has a way of resurfacing again and again.
ii). You will damage your working relationship with your peer/partner team. This will make it more difficult to work with them the next time you need to (and trust me, there will be a next time).
3. How to Resolve Conflicts of Different Types
So you want to solve the real problem! How do you do it? Below are the four types of conflict with a description, example, and method to resolve the root conflict.
a. Are we trying to accomplish the same thing?
Description: Often, people simply talk past each other because they don’t know what it is they disagree about. There are many levels of conversation, but the key themes are i) Mission (what should we accomplish and why), ii) Vision/Product Strategy (how and when are we going to get there), iii) Tactics (what levers should we pull), iv) Roles (who is going to pull which levers).
Example: One person is talking about whether we should build a product for Population A or Population B (what problem we should be solving in our strategy) and the other is arguing the best way to build the product for Population B (how to solve one of the problems). These people will never agree on a path forward because they aren’t going after the same problem.
How to resolve: Align from the top down (Mission > Vision/Strategy > Tactics > Roles) and then solve the point where you disagree. The vast majority of the time, this is the source of disagreement and the product issue is just a proxy battle. If you disagree on the mission, stop everything and have a deep discussion. You need to align on what the problem is and why it matters.
b. Resource tradeoffs
Description: Both parties are trying to accomplish something valuable, but there is an inherent tradeoff to accomplishing both right now (limited resources, launch sequencing, etc.)
Example: Team A wants to increase widgets per hour created and Team B wants to ensure each widget is as high quality as possible. Both of these are valuable goals for the business but the teams need guardrails to understand what levels of quality and throughput they need to be successful.
How to resolve: See if you have a “common currency” and alignment to make the decision amongst yourselves; otherwise escalate quickly to someone who can make the decision.
- Similar to the “Conversation Levels” conflict type, first make sure you both clearly understand the problem the other team is trying to solve for. Often, teams actually are aligned but don’t understand each other clearly.
- Next, see if there is a “common currency” that will help you clearly make a tradeoff (e.g. both of our goals roll up to revenue and are on the same timeframe. Project X drives more revenue in the next 3 months so we should prioritize that and communicate our decision. (See, the PM Execution interview is what we do in real life!).
- Lastly, if you understand each other but don’t have a common currency, escalate to the person (or people) who can make this decision. There are some great posts on this area already, but tl;dr get to this step quickly so you don’t spin your wheels.
c. Working styles, or “how do we like to solve problems”
Description: The ways in which you and your peer do work causes friction. There are four general working styles and all are necessary for a successful team i) data-oriented and analytical ii)planned and detailed-oriented, iii) expressive and emotionally oriented, iv) big-picture and ideation-oriented. Additionally, differences in culture, identity, and/or background can unintentionally lead to conflict and/or bias in how you interpret someone else’s actions.
Example: You like to discuss get everyone’s inputs and thoughts whereas your peer prefers to sit down alone with the research and data to digest a subject matter and then offer a proposal. You feel like your peer is moving too quickly without aligning while your peer feels that you’re moving unnecessarily slowly.
How to resolve: First, get to a point where you acknowledge that you work differently, then decide whether a certain style is required for the situation or one/both of you can adapt your style.
- Assess where you are in the project and what you need to optimize for (e.g. speed vs. collaboration or execution vs. ideation).
- If one style takes precedence (e.g. you’re 3 weeks from launch, so you need to be speedy), have a direct conversation with your peer/team about why you think it’s important to move that way and set ground rules for how you will collaborate together moving forward.
d. Personality clashes
Description: Sometimes, you feel like you just don’t plain like working with someone.
Example: A peer you work with comes off as arrogant; you were always taught to be humble and this type of behavior puts you off and makes you less productive when you work with them.
How to resolve: These are the most difficult conflict types as there are not “objective truths” like there can be in the first 3 conflict types.
- First, assume you don’t know the other person’s intent (you can assume best intent as well, but I think assuming you don’t know their intent forces you to be more curious and open to their perspective). Often in personality clashes, people internalize and assume that the other person is trying to make you feel that way when, in reality, that’s just the way that person operates.
- Next, set up a 1:1 to help the person understand how the way they are acting is making you less productive. If you don’t feel comfortable doing this, lean on your manager or a peer.
- In the example above, the “arrogant” person may feel that they or their team aren’t getting credit for valuable work they have done and they’re being extra loud about it to make sure a teammate gets due credit. Once you identify the root problem, you can better resolve it.
(Bonus) Other general tips to resolving conflicts
- Empathize with the other person/team before going into a meeting with another team or organization. What problem are they trying to solve and why does it matter to the team/company? Too often we get so caught up in what we’re trying to do that we lose track of all of the other work it takes to make our product great.
- In the meeting, listen first, then clarify and align. People’s first instinct is to get their point across to prove why they are right. This is a major misstep: until people feel like they’ve been heard they aren’t going to listen to you. You’ll spend 30 minutes talking/arguing past each other and resolve nothing.
- Once you’ve listened then make absolutely sure you’re on the same page. You can tell them what they just told you (“Let me paraphrase what you said to make sure I understand”), ask questions on key points you don’t understand (“Explain that part to me like I’m a 5th grader. It sounds important but I don’t understand it”), and define vocabulary to make sure you’re on the same page (“When you say ‘value’ do you mean…“).
- Keep “peacetime” relationships after the meeting. The pessimistic view of this approach is that you’re just doing this out of self-interest. Realistically though, you get to build relationships with some amazing people who probably think about things very differently than you, which means you get to learn and become a better product thinker.
In summary, you first need to be aware that soft conflicts exist. If you find yourself in the midst of one, identify and understand what conflict type (or types!) it is and then get to the root of the issue by using the suggestions above. I hope that these tools help you move through conflicts with more ease next time!