How do we solve problems when people disagree on what truly happened?
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Recently, at a basketball game (yes, again), the ref made a call that one of the fathers disagreed with. When the ref ran by, the father said, “Come on, that was a foul.” The ref smiled, and with the whistle in his mouth, said, “Could be.” But he didn’t change his call.
This doesn’t only happen at high school basketball games. Millions of people watch sports games and disagree with the refs. Sometimes the refs, who are right there on the field, watching the action, disagree with each other. And on instant replay, millions of fans call it one way, and millions call it the other way.
How can this be? Isn’t our definition of truth that we all see the same thing and it lines up with what truly happened? In other words, what is the reality of that moment? And how do we decide that?
This happens as a parent on almost a daily basis—our children disagree with each other, sometimes violently: “She’s the one who left the bathroom a mess. He’s the one that started. Those leggings are mine! Mommmmmeeeeeeeeeeee.”
Conversations in my marriage can be the same way: “I told you this yesterday. I thought we agreed you would make the appointment with the orthodontist. You said you were going to order pizza.”
This doesn’t happen so much at work (go team), but every once in a while, I feel like I’m not getting the whole story about a problem with a client or project. Or, I’ll talk to different members of my team and get the same story, but with nuanced differences.
Why does this happen? Isn’t the truth, the truth? Either it happened one way, or it happened the other. “They are this daughter’s leggings. We agreed a long time ago it was your responsibility to order pizza every Thursday. You said the client never complained.”
Who owns the ‘truth’?
Philosophers spend a lot of time arguing about what truth is. I do not understand half of what they say, honestly. What I do know is not one person holds the truth. The truth is not a shared reality, and we can rarely get people to agree on whose ‘fault’ it is. Instead, as managers and parents, we need to decide, “How am I going to handle this in absence of any proof?”
There are three ways I’d like to suggest:
- Instead of focusing on what happened, focus on how to manage it: This kid’s perception is one way. The others differs. Who cares? Looking back can cause paralysis through analysis. Work on the way forward: To avoid the legging mix up again, please put your initials on the tag in the back. Don’t share clothing anymore if you want to avoid this happening again. And I’ve given you a solution, so don’t bring me into it again.
- Is the struggle real, or is it a call for attention: My father-in-law once said, “Many times children fight with each other as a way to get attention from their parents.” I think this is true with direct reports as well. Amping up the drama in a work situation can make your manager focus on you in a way that makes you feel special. This is a mistake. Most managers—and parents—would prefer a drama-free day. Life has a way of throwing enough drama at us without manufacturing it. If you are the manager, or a parent, ask yourself if this is a drop the rope situation with the pair who are arguing about the truth. Or try to understand how to resolve the issue without turning the volume on the drama up.
- Create a boundary that says work this out together: Sometimes, I listen to people arguing about what really happened, or what their take on a situation is, and I don’t care. I’ll say to my kids, “Work it out together and don’t involve me.” This works about 50 percent of the time. The other 50 percent I get involved anyway. But hey, I’ll take 50 percent. At work, I’ll ask my team, “You’ve brought me a problem. Why don’t you come up with two or three solutions, and present them to me. Then we can move forward.” (I don’t do this enough with my kids, but after writing this blog post, I think I will. They are old enough now to tackle advanced problem solving.)
I did not sign up in life to be a judge. Or a ref. I don’t want listen to both sides, and try to figure out what really happened. Instead, I want to be presented with ideas on how to solve the problem, not focus on the problem.
The ref was 100 percent right. It could have been a foul. But he didn’t see it that way and he called it like he saw it. The game had to move forward: next game, next play. Cultivate an attitude of bypassing the realities to the people involved in the conflict, and move forward to solving the problem.