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Life Skill #601: How to defuse an argument

by Heidi Stevens, Chicago Tribune Newspapers on May 13, 2014 10:50 AM

Improv theater's "yes, and ..." rule is quoted far and wide as the holy grail of negotiating.

Person No. 1 offers an idea. "Let's hold the meeting at a steakhouse!"

Person No. 2 replies with "Yes, and …" — offering an idea that furthers the first. "Yes, and let's make sure there are vegetarian options on the menu!"

Progress and collaboration replace rejection and discord. ("Let's hold the meeting at a steakhouse!" "No way. What would the vegetarians eat?")

The approach is not without its loopholes. Depending on the personalities and agendas involved, even "yes, and" can turn ugly.

"Yes, and you're an idiot," offers Harvard Business School professor Michael Wheeler, author of "The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World" (Simon and Schuster). "Yes, and I've never heard anything more ridiculous in my life."

We called on Wheeler for tips on defusing an argument between two foes, be they siblings fighting for the last brownie or co-workers fighting for a manager's favor.

Should you find yourself in a situation unsolvable by "yes, and," Wheeler suggests the following tips.

Degree of difficulty: Medium

Skip the pointless questions. "'Who started it?' (is) the world's most stupid question," Wheeler says. "And 'What's this about?' Which is well-intended, but you're just going to get a version A and a version B."

Hold up a (metaphorical) mirror. Make a statement that helps both sides consider, for a moment, how they look to bystanders. Wheeler tells a story, possibly apocryphal, about a famous sports announcer catching a glimpse of an alley fight from his limo window and asking the driver to pull over. "He starts calling the fight as if it's a professional event on television … and the two stop fighting," Wheeler says. "They turn to him and they can't believe what's happening." Introducing a third-party perspective — with humor, if possible — can help each party step back and take the long view. "It can also allow each person to change his or her behavior without it appearing to be a concession," Wheeler says.

Call a timeout. Ask each side to take a break while you sum up the situation, as you see it. Wheeler suggests: "Neither of you is convincing the other, and speaking in higher decibels is unlikely to do it. You've clearly stated your differences. Now we have to move beyond them."

Remind them what's at stake. Steer the conversation back to the reason you're all gathered in the first place. "You might say, 'We're not going to have a conversion experience: The vegetarian is not going to start ordering rib-eye, and the carnivore is not going to say, "Pass the tofu." We have a job to do, and we're regressing, as opposed to progressing, here.'"

Change the subject. Wheeler says conflict resolution research shows that when labor negotiations begin to break down over whether raises should be 3 percent or 4 percent, for example, it helps to shift the negotiations to a different topic — number of days off, maybe. An agreement on an easier topic may breed enough goodwill to carry over to the stickier ones. "It's a way to find some area where the group can make progress, instead of just pounding more nails in the coffin," Wheeler says.

hstevens@tribune.com; Twitter @heidistevens13

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