HUGH CULVER

The five essential steps to resolving conflict and taming Tigers (before you get eaten)

Updated to Habits on December 14, 2022.

We all have them – they’re angry, they disagree, maybe won’t even talk with us. They’re Tigers.

Tigers on the savannah have two objectives: to eat and not be eaten. Tigers at work and in your life have the same objective. That makes them really, really, really, really hard to get along with. In a moment I’m going to show you how to tame a Tiger…..but before we get to that, a warning.

WARNING: YOU ARE IN BEAR COUNTRY

In my neck of the woods (Western Canada), we have bears. And the first thing you learn in bear country is: don’t run from the damn bear!! Why? Because if you run the bear sees only one of three things: breakfast, lunch, or dinner. Bad bear.

Back to my metaphor. It’s no different with Tigers in your life: run away and get eaten. They might not physically come after you, but you will be distracted, angry, blaming, pissed, and otherwise “eaten”.

YOU HAVE A PINCHpiss off the tiger

When my employee forgets to send a client their contract, I have a pinch. A pinch is the source of my conflict and it always starts from the same place. I have an unmet expectation. This is important: The employee DOES NOT have an attitude problem. Something happened (or didn’t happen) that did’t meet my expectations – that’s the pinch.

The golden rule with Tigers is this: don’t piss off the Tiger. A defensive Tiger is not pretty. It will lie, argue, manufacture, twist, obfuscate, or otherwise
manipulate the truth to avoid being wrong. Tigers like to defend their ass. Tell them they wronged you, or impacted someone else and watch their claws come out. Congratulations, you have a fight.

Before facing a Tiger it’s important to decide what pinch you’re going to talk about. The best pinch to talk about is: specific, recent, and a behaviour (not attitude, way of thinking, style, or anything else subjective). Here are some examples:

What you don’t want to say                                       A better version

“You are always doing this to me!”                      “Today you didn’t respond to my email”

“When you said that, you upset people”             “When you said that, I was upset”

“I can’t believe how stubborn you are!”              “When I hear you say that, I feel frustrated”

FACING THE TIGER

When I teach my Facing the Tiger seminar (hat tip to my friend Dr. John Scherer for this model) I remind audiences they have three choices:

  1. turn and face the tiger,
  2. let the Pinch go completely (see post “Before you put your foot in your mouth, count to three“), or
  3. seek help (your HR department, counselling, colleague).

If you choose door #1 (Face the Tiger), there is an elegant way to get your conversation off to a good start. Put a different way – don’t do this and you’re if you choosescrewed.

Here it is: five steps to an effective conversation with a Tiger (please note it cleverly spells “TIGER”. Thank you).

TELL – the tiger what happened. Be very careful: this is not about blame, or being right – you’re on safe ground if you simply report on facts.

IMPACT – using an “I” sentence, tell the Tiger how you feel about what happened (again, no blame).

GROW – use open-ended questions to explore what their intention is. Don’t overly focus on the Pinch – you want to grow the relationship by understanding the Tiger’s intentions better.

ENCOURAGE – a conversation about mutual purpose: what do you both want? Do you need to work together? Do you want this marriage to work?

RESOLVE – summarize what you understand to be true. Does someone need to react, speak up, avoid, or otherwise act differently next time? Or, maybe you need to agree to disagree?

Here are three sample starters that will help get you into the full meal:

“John, when you were 15 minutes late to the meeting this morning I was worried. We have a lot to cover and I’m wondering what’s up?”

“Joanna, I just heard from our client. They’re still waiting for your response. I’m worried about this. Can you explain what happened?”

“Sonia, I sent you an email yesterday saying I really needed your input about the new proposal. I haven’t seen a reply and I’m frustrated. Can you tell me what’s going on?”

PREPARE MENTALLY

Face the Tiger is not for the light-hearted – avoidance is easier. I find a little mental preparation goes along way to creating success, or, in the toughest conversations, survival.

A question that serves me well is: how do I want this to end? It’s no different than the last minutes before I step on stage for a keynote. When I focus on how I want a speech, or conversation with a Tiger, to end, I’m more relaxed and better prepared to recover from inevitable conversation detours.

BE HARD ON THE PROBLEM, NOT THE PERSON

A timeless tip from the bible of conflict resolution, Getting to Yes!, by Fisher and Ury, is to “be hard on the problem, not the person.” 

Position the Pinch as a third person, and the microscope comes off the Tiger. Now, both of you can turn to face the Pinch together. It can sound like this:

“It seems we both have a problem. How do you think we can solve this?”

“I know we both want what is best for the client. What can we do so this doesn’t happen again?”

“I know we’re all crazy busy right now. And I need to get this done. How do you think we can make that happen?”

SEEK FIRST TO UNDERSTAND

Tiger conversations are all about understanding intentions, not attacking positions. In a Pinch, my position might be I’m right. But, my intention is to get more respect, or feel understood.

When you seek first to understand by leaning in, asking great questions, and genuinely expressing deep interest, you can get closer to the coals that fuel the fire. My wife might be upset I was late picking up a daughter, but her intention is to regain trust in me – very different topics.

At work, a co-worker might challenge every idea, but their intention is to improve quality. It’s like your car: fixate on an irritating noise and you might forget it’s been six months since you had it serviced. 

THERE ARE NO GUARANTEES, BUT IT ALWAYS GETS BETTER

I have good news! When you face a Tiger, it always gets better. Really, you might be thinking, how could it possibly get better if my Tiger refuses to when you face the tigeragree? Or, what if my Tiger gets defensive and fights back?

Sure, it’s uncomfortable – talking about hockey and the weather is always easier. By taking the path least travelled and facing the Tiger, you win in two ways:

1. Now you really know the Tiger’s position. They’re interested in working this out – great! Plan a second conversation. They’re so entrenched there’s little hope of resolution – great! Now you know it’s time to move on. You might not agree, or even like, what the Tiger has to say, but at least now you know.

I was angry with my friend:

I told my wrath, my wrath did end.

I was angry with my foe:

I told it not, my wrath did grow. William Blake, A Poison Tree 1794

2. You worry less. Worry, doubt, and fear are big distractions. They are also sources of stress you don’t need. When you avoid the Tiger, it eats you. Should I talk with him? Will she still be mad? What if it gets worse? When you face a Tiger you remove doubt and worry – that’s healthy. 

That brings me to my final thought.

BE WILLING TO WALK AWAY

Tigers have teeth. They like to be right. They sometimes play dirty.  And you might have to walk away. 

You followed the model, did everything right, but, despite best efforts, you’re still looking at bared teeth and claws. Today might not be the today. Be satisfied you said your piece and (hopefully) were heard. Changing someone isn’t your job. Maybe time will heal. And maybe not.

Your job is to say what happened, be clear about the impact on you, stay away from blame, and be prepared to walk. 

WHEN IN DOUBT, DO SOMETHING

This post shares highlights from my six-hour seminar, Facing the Tiger, squeezed into 1,300+ words. Despite it’s brevity, I truly hope it serves you.

As I write this I’m recognizing my own failings with Tigers in my life (I’ve done my share of running away). I’m also reminded how important this lesson is. As random and unpredictable as humans are, sometimes a model here, or technique there, can move an impassive situation into motion again. That’s a good thing.

The rule I try to live by with Tigers in my life is simple: when in doubt, do something (don’t just worry about it).

Good luck with the Tigers in your life.