As we attempt to navigate through resolving conflict, there will be a number of technical issues that we will face. Especially with all of the different parts we have to address in our organizations, we have a need to bring in subject matter experts to help us get through these issues using best practices. There are clear pitfalls that occur, intentionally or not, when conducting negotiations. First of all, there is the phenomenon of “political irony” that occurs when the parties leverage all their power to persuade others to pursue a particular option. This irony occurs when due to an understanding of the total picture, the option fails to deliver the intended result, and even more so, when it delivers the complete opposite of what was desired.
Another problem is when we confuse facts with values. When we consult subject matter experts within our ranks, or those who we have enlisted to help us understand a component of the negotiations, those experts should be assisting us in developing options for dealing with that particular problem and identifying the likely consequences of pursuing those options. These experts should not, however, decide which option is more desirable. Those are the value judgments that need to be made by the leaders and negotiators representing the aggrieved parties. Get these experts to give you the options, and you make the decisions, not them.
However, there are some problems in getting “facts”. One is the possibility of “analysis paralysis”, where leaders who are uncomfortable with the limits of technical analysis get bogged down and fail to create progress because of a desire for more and more information. We must, as leaders, get enough information to make a decision, but not so much that we aren’t able to decide for fear of not having every possible aspect covered. Get as much information as you can, understand it, clarify it, but don’t let it stall the efforts because of a need to examine the minutiae.
Another is when those experts we enlisted are using suspect information, data, or facts. It is commonplace for individuals to use statistics to support their side of the argument while failing to expose the shortcomings of their data. We must use good logic in looking at how the facts are presented to us, understanding their significance, and utilizing appropriate context.
This leads to the final issue, in that contradictory experts are often employed to refute the facts as presented, and sometimes their science isn’t any better than the statistics they are trying to disprove. Good governance requires us to evaluate the facts as presented to us objectively and unemotionally, examining the means in which the data was obtained and whether it will stand up to critique. While we can’t allow ourselves to get dragged down by inconsequential or petty information, we need to ensure that the decisions we are making to resolve our crisis aren’t supported by rhetoric and anecdotal evidence.
Both sides need to assure that they seek trustworthy, ethical, and technically competent individuals to get this advice. When we are going to discuss something like, say, retirement systems, we can’t rely on the “shithouse lawyer” at Station so-and-so to be our expert, unless, of course, they have real credentials to back it up, and even then, if they have an iron in the fire, they may be too close to the problem to maintain objectivity. And when the Chief of Department is trying to determine whether repeated mechanical problems are complicating things, maybe the maintenance shop director isn’t the person you should be asking whether the problems are real or imaginary. At that point, it may be wise to seek outside advice.
When formulating plans on how to resolve conflict, it is important that our decisions are not based on reflexive responses to what we perceive the problem to be, but on the facts. We must also take the perception of our opposition into account when we are trying to understand how it is we got to this point of intractability. The other side must be willing to open their minds and to also use good counsel when trying to gain their own facts, which is hard to get others to do sometimes. However, if you are using good information to make decisions and you can show the methodology behind how that information was obtained, it will certainly go a lot farther in supporting your case than shooting from the hip and hoping nobody calls “shenanigans”.