When she teaches journalists how to resolve conflict in newsrooms, Jill Geisler likes to show a film clip from the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding. In it, the main character, Toula, gets help from her mother and aunt to convince her father, a traditional Greek patriarch, that she should leave the family restaurant to work in a travel agency, where she can pursue her true passion, working with computers. Rather than confronting the father, the women use gentle questioning to gain his support for their plan. They are so effective that the patriarch thinks that Toula going to work in the travel agency is his idea.
What does this have to do with difficult conversations in newsrooms? Geisler, who heads the Leadership & Management Group for the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, says that it is a good example of the best way to resolve conflict. “People are much more likely to support ideas of their own creation rather than ideas imposed on them. This scene is a caricature of that idea, but it also highlights how effective conflict resolution can work,” she says.
Some participants at Taking the Lead: Building Your Influence in the Newsroom, the recent IWMF advanced leadership program in Washington, DC, protested that the women in the movie were being manipulative. Geisler admitted that they were. She added, “The clip also demonstrates how people who use control as a leadership or conflict management style are likely to find themselves manipulated. People find ways, often by using guerrilla tactics, to get around that control.”
Finding Your Conflict Resolution Style
Geisler says that everyone has a conflict resolution style, whether we know it or not. “We need to know ourselves well enough to know whether that style is constructive for the situation we’re in and be able to use other styles as needed,” she says.
Understanding what the other person in the conflict needs is also critical. “We have to get past the positions we take in conflict and find out what the other person’s interests are. If we come into a conflict with an open mind, we can express our needs and let the other person do the same and then find a solution that works for everyone.”
The first step is recognizing your “default” conflict resolution style and knowing when to use other styles. Collaborators seek to find a solution and maintain relationships while ensuring that all parties achieve their personal goals. Controllers aim to win, to meet their goals regardless of what happens to others. Compromisers don’t believe win-win solutions are likely, so they settle for a "mini-win" while preserving interpersonal relationships. Accommodators believe in preserving relationships at all costs and may give up goals in the process. Avoiders refuse to acknowledge conflict at all and are willing to give up both goals and relationships rather than confront difficult issues. (For resources on conflict resolution, go to the IWMF’s Leadership Training Resources page.)
Truth Versus Perception
While collaboration is considered the most effective style to use in the workplace, it shouldn’t be the only style in someone’s repertoire. For example, an accommodating style is often appropriate after a negative event, says Geisler. She cites The New York Times management’s decision to hold meetings after the Jayson Blair crisis to allow employees to air their grievances as an appropriate use of an accommodating style of conflict resolution.
In a crisis, a controlling or “command” style might be best. “There may not be time to have a conversation about what the possible options are. People need to know what to do,” says Geisler.
“As journalists, we care about truth,” says Geisler, who spent 25 years in broadcast journalism before joining the Poynter Institute in 1998. But knowing the facts may not help effectively resolve a conflict. “Even if we have all the facts, even if we know the ‘truth,’ it’s the perceptions of the people we’re dealing with that matter,” she says.
“In conflict, people stake out positions. We often lock ourselves into positions and waste a lot of energy defending them,” she says. Statements like “This place is totally screwed up” or “I deserve a raise” are examples of positions that people take and defend.
Effectively resolving conflict requires moving people from their positions to resolutions, says Geisler. To do that, a manager must uncover a person’s real goals, which fall into four categories:
-- Content goals are measurable and focus on resources. Trying to get the best story assignment or a window office are examples of content goals.
-- Process goals are about how decisions are made. An employee may come to a manager wanting to know who gets to make the decision about whether a story appears on the front page or not and what kind of role she gets to play in making that decision.
-- Relational goals are about how someone wants to be treated. “Who am I to you?” “Who are you to me?” “Where am I in this discussion?” are questions that deal with relational goals.
-- Identity goals are about self-image or “face.”
Most of the time, says Geisler, content and process issues mask identity and relational goals. “In a conflict situation, people need to walk away feeling somewhat good about themselves,” she says. A manager resolving a conflict may not be able to give everyone what they want, but it’s important to make sure that no one walks away feeling like an idiot.
Uncovering a person’s goals is complicated. Too often, Geisler says, people with power try to resolve content and process issues without getting to the “real” goals that lie beneath. A manager may get an employee the thing she wants -- a new camera or a plum story assignment, for example -- without uncovering deeper goals. To uncover those deeper goals, “the first step is for the manager to ask a lot of questions,” she says. Those questions should be open-ended and begin with "why" and "how."
The Case of the Impossible Photojournalist
Imagine, says Geisler, offering a typical newsroom complaint as an example, that a television reporter says to her boss, “That photojournalist is impossible to work with!”
How does the manager approach what the reporter has said and help her resolve the problem? First, the manager has to get the reporter to be more specific, to move her from her vague complaint to describing exactly what the photojournalist does that bothers her. That may be as simple as asking, “What does the photojournalist do that makes him impossible?”
Once she knows that, the next question might be, “Why does that bother you?” Geisler warns that the manager should not offer solutions to the problem too soon. “Keep pushing for goals,” she says. “What does the person really want? When you get to what the person really wants, she can start taking responsibility.”
For example, if she is upset because the photojournalist has asked her not to talk to him while they are on an assignment and she feels that constricts her ability to get her job done, she can go to him and say, “When you ask me not to talk to you, it makes me feel like I can’t do my job.”
It’s easy to get frustrated with complaining employees and respond emotionally to them, says Geisler, but it’s important to stay calm and keep asking questions so a solution can be worked out.
Pam Johnson, who co-led the IWMF workshop with Geisler, suggests that role playing the situation before you have that difficult conversation may be helpful. Johnson wrote in a recent column for Poynter Online that when she and Geisler have added role plays to their difficult conversation seminars, participants take on the role of the person they need to talk with. “It helps managers get past emotions and conduct effective discussions,” she wrote.
Ultimately, a manager’s goal is to help her employees resolve conflicts for themselves, Geisler says. When someone complains, help turn the complaints into descriptive, “I” statements such as, “When you do ‘blank,’ I feel ‘blank.’” “Ask her to take responsibility,” she says. “This is a skill we all need to learn.”
Skills such as asking open-ended questions, looking for true motivation and calming emotions may not come easily to newsroom managers, however. “Managers [in newsrooms] tend to want to talk about journalism,” said Susan Areson, city editor for The Providence [Rhode Island] Journal, who attended the IWMF's workshop led by Geisler and Pam Johnson, who is also on the leadership faculty of the The Poynter Institute. “We shy away from difficult conversations.” Still, after attending the workshop Areson says she will seek out difficult conversations in her newsroom and not just wait for yearly reviews.
Learning how to have those difficult conversations effectively may not be easy for Areson or other newsroom managers, but it is a critical skill. Without it, “we’re missing opportunities to do our best work and we’re shutting out relationships that can help us grow personally and professionally,” says Geisler. “Conflict can be an opportunity to express our needs and find creative solutions.”
Additional Resources: Jill Geisler uses three main sources for her conflict resolution sessions:
-- Communication and Conflict Resolution Skills by Neil Katz and John Lawyer
-- Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and William Ury
-- Interpersonal Conflict by William Wilmot and Joyce Hocker