Today I ran across a thread from Mark Suster on Twitter where he said “It takes maturity to avoid disputes” (note – he has since taken it down).
He referred to the soul-sucking and cash-draining outcomes of most litigation, and his understanding that it is best to find a way to compromise and move on. In an era of hyper-partisanship and ruthless market competition, the adage that you can “catch more flies with honey than with vinegar” is every bit as apt today as ever.
When he refers to maturity here, I believe he is talking about the ability to subordinate the ego in an emotional dispute. Many business leaders are competitive and have pride in their organization – those qualities helped them get to where they are. But learning how to take a pause and set our egos aside is one of the toughest skills for many leaders.
The battle with the ego is well documented through millennia of philosophical and religious text. Every now and again I flip through Ryan Holiday’s excellent book, Ego is the Enemy for a contemporary view, but St. Augustine and Seneca are among the many great thinkers who have written about our insufferable pride.
When you’ve been screwed by a partner or a competitor, the adrenaline kicks in. To borrow a phrase from The Godfather, many of us are quick to “go to the mattresses”.
But like Mark, I’ve been around a lot of legal disputes, and while they almost never ended up satisfactorily for either party, I’m quite sure they resulted in some nice boats owned by lawyers. I’ve always hoped that at least the named their boats after my company. Throw me a bone.
What you can do
When you’re in a dispute, and it’s escalating, I recommend the following:
- Stop and breathe. Victor Frankl’s famous maxim (via Stephen Covey) that “between stimulus and response lies a space, and in that space is our freedom to choose” is good medicine. By the way, the “pause” I’m referring to may be for several days.
- Listen! When people get up in arms they rarely schedule time with the other party to simply listen. Seek first to understand, then be understood. A relevant story here.
- Seek counsel from a disinterested mentor. Here I don’t necessarily mean “legal counsel”, but smart business counsel from a trusted veteran who is not remotely involved. Most of the time I find those people have a more balanced perspective on the matter because their ego isn’t involved.
I’ve caught many more flies with honey than with vinegar. People who default to vinegar rarely succeed long-term. This is another reason why looking for signs of emotional intelligence during an interview process is so important. Perhaps a good interview question should be “when have you walked away from, or de-escalasted, a dispute”?