A chat with Stephen Covey on conflict vs. synergy

Yesterday I had the opportunity to interview Stephen R. Covey, the leadership guru and best-selling author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. If you haven’t read this book, you should. You’ll find it has application to many parts of your life as a founder.

Dr. Covey had a particular thing on his mind: conflict resolution. He offered two precise pieces of advice that I’ll pass on to you. Consider these the next time you find yourself trying to navigate a conflict with a peer, an employee, a partner-company or customer … even a board member.

To begin with, it’s important to understand that conflict is the opposite of syngery.

“Synergy happens when two people [or companies] with profoundly different ideas are able to listen to each other respectfully and with real empathy for the other person’s position, enough to let go of their own preconceptions. When they do this people become creative, rather than defensive. And this is when an elevated, third way, can be established that is better than what either party started with on their own. Synergy is not about compromise. It is about creating a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. It is about creating third ways.”

But getting two parties to reach the place where they can forego their own visions or demands and open up themselves up to the possibility that something entirely different might be possible is difficult. “It requires a great deal of confidence on each one’s part, and a willingness to be made vulnerable in ‘the letting go,’ ” Dr. Covey added.

OK, so how do you do that?
How do you establish respect, empathy and trust between yourself and another party that is strong enough to foster “synergy ” — especially when you’ve started from a point of conflict?

It’s simple (if not easy), Dr. Covey says, if you Make a Practice of Doing Two Things:

* “Before you begin, say to each other: ‘we agree that we will look for a new alternative.'” You must be willing to let go entirely of your position to make room for the creative conception of a third way. Declare that you are.

* “Always restate the other party’s position to his or her satisfaction before stating your own point of view.” You don’t have to accept it, just restate it until the other party is satisfied that you understand it. Comprehension seeds a sense of empathy. Articulating their view first defuses confrontation.

Of course this is only the beginning of conflict resolution, but if you do these two things, Dr. Covey says, you will experience “the speed of trust” — a term coined by his son, who is another best-selling leadership author. From trust comes openness, and from openness comes creativity. That not only resolves conflicts, it promotes synergy.