Perhaps the most stressful part of Board service is dealing with confrontational situations. Few people are professionally trained to deal with a screaming irate person, so how do the rest of us cope?
The key is letting the upset individual see he (or she) is being heard and that his concerns are being taken seriously. This requires Board members to develop the habit of approaching situations in a calm, measured and seeking manner. You can avoid jumping to incorrect conclusions by:
- Resisting the surge of instant irritation when someone suggests you are wrong.
- Thoroughly exploring the issue and waiting until emotions have settled.
- Using impersonal phrases. Instead of saying “It’s obvious to me that…” say “One possible position is that…”
- Avoiding an opinion on anything where you don’t know the other side’s argument better than they do.
- Engaging those of contrary opinion, tactfully encouraging their objections. Resist the instinct to ignore or argue. Instead rephrase these objections to be sure you understand them.
- Striving to test or “prove” the opposing view, rather than just looking for ways to defend it.
- Walking in that other person’s shoes. Actively play devil’s advocate and argue against yourself as strongly as the unhappy person would.
- Abstaining from forming an opinion where some information may be missing. Be comfortable saying, “I don’t know.”
- Avoiding absolute certainty by indicating the degree to which you are certain about an issue. Most decisions should be provisional, based on what information is available at the time. If circumstances change or new information comes to light, be open to revision.
- Challenging what is generally accepted or assumed as true. Core beliefs help provide identity and the comforts of clarity and certainty, but these can limit the exploration of solutions.
- Asking “What other options are there? What have we missed? As opposed to/compared with what?”
- Being selective or strategic in questioning, targeting claims or positions that are worth challenging, whose rejection may have important or useful implications.
- Putting extra effort into searching for courses of action outside the standard or obvious ones.
- Developing new, mutually acceptable solutions rather than haggling over existing positions.
- Asking, “What’s the worst thing that could happen here? What’s the best thing?”
- Looking back from an imaginary future, having discovered that your current position was wrong. What do you see then that you are missing now?
- Admitting past errors. Sometimes we’ve painted ourselves into a corner with a previous decision, and pride gets in the way.