Conflict Management for Musicians Part II: Getting Past Difficult Personalities

As a musician, how often have you found yourself thinking along the following lines when you have encountered a conflict in dealing with your colleagues?

  •   “She is so unreasonable.  She always wants us to conduct rehearsals according to her plan.”
  •   “He is so disrespectful of my ideas and will not accept my input on this project.  It is impossible for us to collaborate.”
  •  “How can I teach with someone who sticks to her lesson plan and does not give me enough time with the students.”

It is tempting to write off these people as difficult personalities and avoid confronting the problem, only to see it escalate and erupt or cause deep-seated resentment that threatens the group’s work.

Fortunately, there are solutions here! In my recent training with the Advisors at The Academy, we built on the skills of choosing the right conflict management strategy in order to get past difficult personalities and onto the road towards finding a solution. 

Let’s start with emotional intelligence.

Emotional Intelligence in Conflict Management

Emotional intelligence is a behavioral model that rose to prominence in 1995 when psychologist Daniel Goleman published his work Emotional Intelligence. This “revolutionary, paradigm-shattering idea” (Harvard Business Review) is strongly correlated with success, as Goleman observed in Working With Emotional Intelligence (1998).  And conflict management is one of the key relationship skills that Goleman includes in his work.

Emotional intelligence involves four underlying sets of skills, two having to do with your own emotions and two having to do with the emotions of those around you:

YOU (Personal competence):
1.    You are aware of your own emotions; and
2.    You effectively manage your emotions.

OTHERS (Social competence)
1.    You are able to sense the emotions of and empathize with those around you; and
2.    You know how to interact with, influence and work effectively with other people. 

It is easy to see how emotional intelligence comes into play in managing conflict.  Conflict necessarily brings up strong emotions so if you want to be an effective conflict manager, you need to understand and control your own emotions and then figure out what your counterparts are feelings so that you can work effectively with that person to resolve the problem.

Using Emotional Intelligence to Get Past Personality Differences

In my conflict management training at The Academy, we focused on two concepts that can go a long way to helping musicians  overcome personality difference and refine their conflict management skills in order to arrive at optimal solutions:

•    Separate the people from the problem
•    Focus on interests, not positions

These concepts are at the heart of a brilliant work on conflict management called Getting to Yes, by Roger Fisher and William Uhry, two researchers who founded The Harvard Negotiation Project, who introduced the concept of “principled negotiation” in 1981. The underlying premise of their work is that the best solutions to conflict come about when the parties negotiate a collaborative  or “win/win” solution (the fourth of the conflict management strategies). The book outlines a conflict management process that seeks to achieve win/win solutions based on 4 principles, two of which we will take a closer look at now.

Let’s start with the first concept:

1. Separate the people from the problem

One common conflict scenario for musicians is the ensemble that is having a conflict over a matter of interpretation.  There are two factions and they cannot come to an agreement and it is starting to affect the way that the members of the ensemble are treating each other.

In the situation of the two factions, it is easy for easy side to write off the other as “unreasonable”, “disrespectful”, and “harsh”.

The problem with framing a conflict as a personality issues is this:

You cannot control or change other people, their personalities or their character. 
You can only control yourself (notice the use of Emotional Intelligence here!).

This is where Uhry and Fisher come in.   In order to resolve a conflict, you frame the conflict in terms of the behaviors at issue and not the personalities or the character of the people involved. Emotions and attitude drive behavior.  Behavior is more objective.  And it is something that can be dealt with.

In this way, the conflict becomes a problem to solve.  That takes a lot of heat out of the situation. It also reduces the chances of making personal attacks which inflame the emotional aspects of the situation and make it much more difficult to resolve the issues.

In order to separate the people from the problem ask yourself the following question:

What is the difference that is bothering you and why does it bother you?

Make sure that it is a behavior and not someone’s emotions or attitudes or character.  Then, once you identify the behavior, ask yourself:

If this behavior changes, will that fix the problem? 

If the answer is yes, then you have the problem.

Let’s take the situation of difficult personalities in rehearsals.  What if someone is repeatedly insists on having his interpretation of the piece?  He inflames the situation by dismissing their point of view and then yelling at them so as to intimidate some of the other members.  He also comes into conflict with several other members of the ensemble who have their own ideas about the piece.  The first impulse might be to say that the person is disrespectful of the members of the ensemble.  But this is not a problem because it is not a behavior.

The behaviors are:
•    Insisting on his viewpoint and exhibiting an unwillingness to discuss the point of view of the other players;
•    Using inflammatory language and raising his voice.

Viewed in this light, the parties can focus on changing the behavior and ask the person to do the following:

1.    Please listen to the other members of the group.
2.    Please use a respectful tone of voice and stop using inflammatory language.

Our Advisors agreed that if the “difficult” person would change his behavior in this way, it could solve the problem.

That leads to the second proposition from Getting To Yes:

2. Focus on interests, not positions

The problem in most stressful conflicts is not that there is no acceptable solution. It is that one person has already figured out the solution that she wants and she often tries to intimidate the other person into accepting it.     What tends to happen in aggravated conflicts is that people get locked into their stand and therefore cannot back off.  They made DEMANDS, either in words or in their conduct, and refuse to back off.  Not surprisingly, this leads to an impasse and makes it very hard to discuss a solution.

In our situation, where one member of the ensemble insists on his interpretation and demands that the others listen to him, what can you do get past this impasse?

Think about the interests at stake behind the problem as you have defined it: the need, desire, concern, or fear that drove your desire for the outcome you chose. Good conflict management starts with examining the interests of both parties and seeing how both of these interests can be met through discussions.

Here is how it works.

The person who is upset with the other member of the ensemble can ask herself:

What do I want and why am I asking for this?

She might say that she wants an excellent performance and she feels that she has a good idea for how to achieve that goal.

Then, ask the same question from the point of view of the other person:

What does he want and why is he asking for this?

By asking this question, you are using emotional intelligence because you are putting yourself into the other person’s shoes and imagining how he would perceive the situation.  In essence, you are able to see the other person in a more reasonable light because you are asking:

Why would a reasonable, rational, decent person be acting like this?

In our situation, the person who is insisting on his interpretation of the piece also wants an excellent performance and feels that his interpretation is the best solution.

This was a true “aha” moment in our training because the Advisors realized that the two parties actually have the identical interest:  an excellent performance.  They have a disagreement about how to get there.  And that becomes the problem to solve.

Here is how you would analyze the situation using both your perspective and that of the other person:

1.    What is the problem according to you? According to the other person?
2.    Are there any common interests? Could there be?

By examining a problem from both points of view, you can start to understand the other party a lot better.  That “disrespectful, unreasonable harsh” person may be coming from a good place.  You both have the same interests.

By seeing the other party as resonable, rational and decent, you can begin to envision a way to go about solving your problem, rather than writing that person off and foreclosing the possibility of a solution to the problem.

With these principles in mind, you are now ready for action. For more information, here is how  to prepare for a conflict meeting and conduct a conflict negotiation.