How Shared Purpose Can Keep Arguments from Becoming Personal

The two men glared at each other from opposite sides of the conference table, looking like mortal enemies, and in some ways, they were.

Steve, the younger of the two, had his hands perched on the arms of his chair, clenching his fingers on the edges as if he were ready to leap into battle.

Bill, at the age of 50, looked like a war-weary soldier.  He’d been through this type of fight before and he knew it wouldn’t end well.  He loosened his tie, let out a sigh, and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms and looking over his glasses, as if daring Steve to speak first.

It worked. Steve took the bait.

“My team can’t survive on this budget,” Steve shouted. “Are you trying to kill us?”

Bill looked at Steve with the dismissive disdain one might have for a chubby toddler stomping his feet for more cake. Steve was always whining about not getting enough. Didn’t he understand?

Bill had bigger issues to contend with, he reported to the top. Steve’s petty demands revealed what Bill had long suspected, Steve only cared about his own department. He wasn’t seeing the big picture. He just doesn’t get it.

How many times have you found yourself saying that about a colleague?  Or a fellow volunteer, or even your spouse?

“He or she just doesn’t get it” is the ultimate insult because it means: I understand what’s really going on, but you, the lesser informed, less intelligent being, are dragging us down.

The case of Bill and Steve is based on an actual interchange between a CFO and a sales manager.  But it could just as easily have been two spouses arguing about a kitchen renovation.

Which person is right?  It’s hard to say. They’re both doing the very best they can to meet their own goals. Therein lies the problem.

Life is filled with competing agendas. Salespeople have different goals than finance people.  Analytics think differently than expressives. Teachers have different objectives than administrators, and men and women view the world through totally different lenses, a fact that becomes ever more apparent to me as I age.

In the macro this is a good thing. But in the micro it can be annoying as all get out.

Everyone believes their agenda is the most important. In a way they’re right, their agenda is the most important thing. To them.

If you want to leverage the power of different perspectives (versus being derailed by it) you need a shared purpose.

In the case of Bill and Steve fighting over budgets, if they had started the conversation saying, “We’re both in agreement, we want to win more customers next year,” the argument wouldn’t have become so personal.

A common purpose ignites higher-level thinking, which leads to discussing a wider variety of options. The fact that Bill and Steve have different perspectives would no longer be a negative. It can become a positive when both perspectives are in the service of their common purpose.

The same technique works in personal situations. Whether you’re bickering with your spouse about kitchen renovations or a coworker over budgets, establishing a common purpose at the start of the conversation keeps you pointed in a positive direction.

Next time you find yourself on the other side of a “He just doesn’t get it” debate, try reframing the conversation in the context of a larger purpose. You’ll be amazed at how quickly people respond when they understand that you both want the same things.

(c) Lisa Earle McLeod

Lisa Earle McLeod is a sales leadership consultant. Companies like Apple, Kimberly-Clark and Pfizer hire her to help them create passionate, purpose-driven sales forces.

She is the author of The Triangle of Truth, which the Washington Post named as a “Top Five Book for Leaders.”

She has appeared on The Today Show, and has been featured in Forbes, Fortune and The Wall Street Journal.  She provides executive coaching sessions, strategy workshops, and keynote speeches.

More info:

Lisa’s Blog –How Smart People Can Get Better At Everything

Copyright 2012 Lisa Earle McLeod.  All rights reserved.

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