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Whenever you’re trying to resolve a problem you have with someone, you deserve to get the best possible resolution. You deserve a resolution that furthers the business goals, meets your needs, safeguards your position in the organization, helps you maximize engagement with a colleague or business associate – whatever you need in your situation.

Resolving interpersonal problems can be hard; we all know that, we’ve all experienced it. In my 12 years as a mediator, I’ve helped people resolve problems of all kinds. Over the years, I’ve noticed some things that people do that makes it harder for them to get the resolution that they deserve. I call these things personal barriers to resolution.

In my previous article on personal barriers to resolution (Personal barriers to problem solving #1: Being stuck in your perspective), I talked about how you can get better resolutions to problems if you learn how to let go of your perspective on the problem.

In this article, I’m going to talk about how you can get better resolutions to problems if you let go of trying to control the other person, or trying to change the other person’s behavior.

Paradoxically, the more institutional power you have over the other person, the more important it is to not try to control or change the other person, not while in a problem-solving session. If, for example, the other person is a direct report or in your reporting chain, giving them directives or notice of required changes in work performance must be done following standard HR guidance.

A personal barrier: trying to control the other person

In many of my mediations, I hear the parties say things like, “That person needs to learn a lesson,” or, “I want to make sure he or she doesn’t do this to anybody else,” or “He or she clearly isn’t producing to the desired standard, so we must set tighter deadlines.”

It’s possible that any of those things could be true. But if you try to teach the other person a lesson, set excessively tight deadlines, etc., you’ll demand behaviors and outcomes that won’t solve the true problem. Even if the other person has no choice but to agree, their engagement, productivity and work performance will suffer.

Removing this barrier: taking control over what you have control of

In mediation, I see parties wanting to over-control others because they feel they don’t have enough control themselves. Again paradoxically, having institutional power doesn’t always mean believing one has control over a situation. So, ask yourself if you feel that the other person has too much control over the situation, or is endangering something that’s important to you.

People come to better resolutions to problems if they increase their sense of control in a genuine way. Ask yourself, what can I do? What can I control? How can I get for myself what I need, and protect myself? You probably know this already; once you remind yourself, you won’t feel as though you need to control the other person. And as a bonus, you’ll also be more aware of what you need in a resolution, and more able to get it for yourself.

An example of how this works

Here’s how you might do this. Suppose we have Maxwell, the CEO of a medium-size company with an IT department that isn’t delivering projects on schedule.

Frustrated with IT projects not being delivered on time, and knowing himself to be responsible for the company’s overall expenditures, Maxwell issues a mandate. Every Monday at 9 AM, every team leader must submit a report directly to him, detailing the state of each project they’re working on, and any additional resources they need to deliver on deadline. Failure to do this, or preventing someone from doing this, will result in immediate dismissal (what HR would have to say about this, he doesn’t know).

Will this solve the problem of IT projects not being delivered on deadline? Of course not. Like the majority of CEOs, Maxwell has no experience in IT. He’s taking his (justified) frustration with cost overages and project delays, and using it to exert harmful control.

He would exercise better responsibility for the company’s expenditures, and deal with the issue of unmet deadlines, if he would ask IT if there are better ways to do what they’re doing. He’d probably hear that they need to change their software development methodology, that using an incremental development method or Agile would produce better results than the waterfall methodology they’re currently using.

Abandon seeking control, and solve the true problem

Next time you’re trying to resolve a problem with someone and it isn’t working, ask yourself whether you’re exercising too much control over the other person. If you are, back off, control what you can control, and look for the true problem. Then resolve the true problem.

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