Dealing with Confrontation

Working with people can be a lot of fun, but not always. Sometimes when different people get together in a small space there is friction, and its the job of the leader to deal with it effectively. This led to another great leadership lesson:

"Solving conflict is about
finding common ground"

One evening I was sitting in the front of the bus taking fares while my co-driver was loading luggage into the back. The passengers were lined up outside the front door waiting to check in for an overnight trip to Seattle.

I was about halfway through checking the people in and called for the next passenger. Into the bus stepped a tall African American man of about 30. He was dressed in work clothes that looked well worn and in need of a washing. He had a small backpack on his back with a bedroll tied to it. The overall look said "homeless, but hard-working". His name was on the list and he paid his fare in cash, mostly one dollar bills.

When he was done paying I gave him his ticket and told him we'd be loading in a few minutes. He didn't leave right away though, now that his fare was paid he told me a little of his story. He was out of work, but headed up to Seattle because he had a friend up there who had a job for him. He worked in construction and rattled off several skills that he possessed, such as framing, wiring, and roofing. He also said that the economy was good up there and that he expected to do well.

I got the sense that it was important to him to let me know that he was a decent guy who'd had a rough time recently. He was basically 'giving account' of himself and how he looked. Even though there were still a line of people waiting I didn't interrupt him because it seemed important for him to tell me and I could see that it was a matter of pride with him that he had a goal, and it looked like he didn't have much else at the moment.

While he was talking I also noticed that the next passenger in line was a Mexican man in his 40's. I had heard from another driver that this man and his family would be on the bus, headed for Seattle. They had started out in Los Angeles and were visiting relatives. They had two small children that they kept a watchful eye on and were nice folks. When the American man had stood to go the Mexican man had started to enter the bus, but stopped, as if uncertain of whether he should step forward or not. Suddenly the second man stepped around the man who was still talking to me, and presented his tickets.

"I am Jose _________, I am going to Seattle. This is my ticket. These are my family's tickets". He said this quickly, as if he had rehearsed it.

At being interrupted the American man threw his hands up in the air and glared at the second man, speechless for a second. When the second man did not notice him the first one slapped him gently on the shoulder and said, "Dude, what are you doing?".

The Mexican man ignored him. He was focused on me and he started to repeat the speech more slowly, in case I hadn't understood him. On being ignored the first man got even more angry and I moved to step between them because I thought this might escalate quickly. I asked my co driver to give me a hand and he walked the American man away so that I could talk to the Mexican guy.

What is the Problem?

It was obvious to me what had happened here; both men were being culturally appropriate in their behavior, but their behaviors were in conflict.

The Mexican man did not speak much English and I spoke even less Spanish, but I was able to tell him that pushing in front while the first man was talking was disrespectful.

"But he was finish!" he kept saying, "He have his ticket! I need to get my ticket — my family's ticket!".

It was clear to me that the Mexican man felt like the American man's transaction was done, so his should start. Any chatting that was happening was not important, so it was his turn. To the American man, however, this conversation was clearly important — otherwise he would not have taken the time to do it.

After calming the Mexican man down we brought the two together. The American man was the most upset, so I started with him. I asked him if he had ever been to Mexico.

He shot me a look that said, "What does that have to do with anything?"

I explained to him that the other man was from Mexico, and that the rules of conversation were different there. Talking over someone else is commonplace and people don't line up and wait in the same way that they do here. I also pointed out the man's family and that he was concerned that he make sure that all of them get on the bus because they have no family in San Francisco, so no place to stay if they don't get on the bus. This seemed to hit home with the American man, as if he understood what that uncertainty was like and it calmed him down. He looked over at the Mexican man's family — standing a short distance away and looking very concerned — and slowly nodded.

Now I went back to the Mexican man. I told him again that to talk while someone else is speaking is generally considered a sign of disrespect America. It says that you think you are more important than them. This last statement seemed to strike something with the him and it seemed to me that this experience might have been familiar to him as well. With both men now calm and apologetic I asked them if they could shake hands. They did and my co-driver and I went back to work, but not before I told him under my breath to keep an eye on them.

The bus made a few stops that evening to pick up passengers and to give the folks a chance to buy some food for dinner. As we were getting everyone back on the bus with their dinner I noticed the American man making his way toward the Mexican man and his family, and I could see the wife tense up, uncertain of what was happening. I stopped what I was doing to watch as well. The American man addressed the Mexican man and he said that they had given him more food than he could eat at the restaurant, and since the other man had his whole family would they like some. There was a moment of uncertainty until the wife said "Gracias" and motioned for the American to sit down. The two men talked together for a long time in very friendly tones. I could not hear the conversation, but I got the sense that they were learning more about each other, now that the conflict was passed. I drove the bus north, occasionally looking back to see them talking and motioning with their hands, the wife joining in too. They seemed to have come to a new understanding about each other and where they each came from.

Managing Conflict

This experience stuck with me because it was so obvious that what was in conflict was not the two people, but their cultural training and their goals. The people got along great, once they started to talk. The conflict was based on habits they had learned from their environment and the what they were trying to accomplish. Once they sat down as people they found they had a lot in common.

This experience comes to mind whenever I find myself in conflict with another person, or in mediating a conflict between others. I first try to understand who I am in conflict with and what they are trying to accomplish. Do they have an assignment they are working on and a deadline they need to meet? What is driving their sense of urgency? How important is that to the overall enterprise? When I am mediating between people I start by asking each of them questions to illuminate what is motivating them. These conversations serve to illustrate for the other person why the person they are in conflict with is the way they are. Once their goals are defined I look for the common ground to all, and it is generally not too hard to find. Once everyone is "on the same side of the table" the conflicts generally disappear.

Sometimes people just don't get along, and some conflict is inevitable. That said, I have encountered very few people who like living in conflict. If they can be shown a way to achieve their goals without it they will almost always choose the gentler path — and that is much better for all involved.