It is often said that people take life too seriously (always others, never us!). The trick seems to be in knowing what to take seriously. When do we get fired up and when, on the other hand, do we decide that a situation is just now worth reacting to? Deciding which are the ‘small potatoes’ of life can be a great way to avoid getting drawn into a needless firestorm. But we don’t always get a choice in the matter. So when what starts as a spotfire seems to grow an unhealthy momentum, the important response is, naturally, to hose it down. This is critical in leadership, but how can a leader take the heat out of an unwelcome fire? Here’s a few tips.
1. Depersonalise. If conflict arises over an issue, then it is important to ensure that the issues are isolated and the key ones addressed objectively and calmly. Pointing to policy or an accepted practice or agreement draws the heat out of an ugly adversarial mentality. It ain’t about them and it ain’t about you! Addressing the issue at hand and, if necessary, pointing to an objective standard like a policy or handbook or set of minutes, keeps people on track.
2. Focus. Knowing the main game and looking at what is actually important can avoid distractions with minor issues which aren’t always properly motivated. Small issues may need to be addressed, but postponing issues that aren’t critical to address in a larger group, framing questions to refine focus (which politicians do well!) or simply returning to the big issues, will be key to avoiding getting drawn into the things that take others away from what is really important.
3. Ask questions. Questions often help us to avoid turning a conversation into a classroom. Spotfire issues or curly questions may need a statement, but answering a question with a question is also helpful. This means more than just refocusing. It also allows deeper probing which communicates empathy invites a response more sensitively. “So how did that make you feel?” “Do you believe that’s really what happened?” “Is it possible that this lie you’re talking about was just a misunderstanding?” “Can I suggest a more positive way of looking at the problem?” The possibilities are endless.