- Chapter 23 -
SOLVING THE PROBLEM ONE ON ONE
olving a problem involving people is difficult to do at a public meeting, especially if emotion is involved. Posturing and posing take place, and because there is the opportunity to play to a larger audience to advance one's cause, drama enters the picture, and people tend to make more forceful, and perhaps extreme, statements. Polarization often results, and solutions become more difficult than ever.
A good rule in life is that, whenever possible, meet individually with a person with whom you have a difficulty and try to solve it. The approach should be non-confrontational, and a good opener is, "I have a problem, and I would appreciate your help in solving it." Of course, the natural tendency is to think of it as being the other person's problem; he or she caused it. But the fact is that it has become your problem, too, and now both have a problem to work on solving together. The non-accusatory, non-confrontational opening eases the situation, and people do tend to respond to an appeal for help.
An invitation to lunch is a good way to start. You have made the first friendly gesture, and the luncheon table is a good neutral ground. It is more difficult to be antagonistic face to face, especially as the luncheon table is associated in people's minds as being a friendly place. (The luncheon table has other good uses: to cement relationships, to present new ideas, etc., but here we see it as a problem-solving arena.) Of course, if the relationship is such, or the conditions too tense to issue such an invitation, the only alternative is to ask if you can call on the person involved. The advantage of a meal -- it might be breakfast -- is that there are no phone calls and other interruptions, and there is likely to be more time available than is the case when meeting in an office.
An example of this took place when I flew to Houston and invited a potential adversary to lunch. I had bought an apartment house from him, and after the purchase, we found evidence in the files that his resident manager had faked some leases indicating there were more people renting apartments than was actually the case. This, of course, meant that the income was less than had been stated in the presentation to us. I believed I had cause for a legal action against him and so indicated. We both retained attorneys.
He agreed that it was a good idea to discuss the matter before going to court. As is so frequently the case, he was a reasonable sort of person and just as eager as I was to avoid a problem. He fell in with my idea and it was he who said, "My lawyer says I can win. Your lawyer says you can win. What can we do about it?"
I made a proposal. As part of our original sales agreement, we held a second mortgage on the property to be paid off in five years or sooner if we sold the apartment. I suggested that he reduce the second mortgage by $50,000, that is, reduce the amount we would eventually have to pay him. Since this would not mean any immediate outlay of cash for attorney's fees and court costs and for any settlement I might win, he liked the idea. Practitioners like him in the real estate business are always short of cash and any way of deferring an obligation is welcome. Of course, my partners and I benefited to the extent of $50,000 at the time of the sale.
We settled the matter over a lunch in an hour. (The question never came up as to whether he knew about the fake leases, and I certainly wasn't going to bring it up as it would have ruined the spirit of accord.) It is important to add that if we had tried this through our attorneys, rather than face to face, it would have taken weeks and cost a bundle, to say nothing of the fact that the attorneys in their confrontations might have blown the compromise. It is quite likely that each attorney might have tried to persuade his client that he could do much better. But the former owner and I were both happy with the plan we had devised and to which we both agreed.
Beneficial ways to express ideas can be learned and practiced to make meetings, such as I have described, less confrontational and therefore more effective. So much depends on one's attitude and desire to solve the problem, not to win an argument. I have asked on occasion, "Do you want to solve the problem or do you want to show what a jerk he is?"
"I WANT BOTH."
"You can't have both. Take your pick."
More acceptable ways of expressing things involve forethought and restraint but are more successful in the end. For example, a person might say something like, "I want to get this straight in my mind. Let me see if I understand the situation....." rather than, "You didn't explain that well. What did you mean by.......?"
About 300 BC the Chinese warrior Sun Tzu wrote a book called The Art of War, which is very much admired in military circles today, and is even read in the Marine Corps. He pointed out that you can gain a diplomatic victory or a victory in battle, but a third way to achieve results is working with both factions to solve the problem - exactly what I am calling the luncheon-table technique. A diplomatic or military victory brings glory to the achiever whereas the third technique is hardly recognized or admired. However, either of the first two, as would be the case if you get your opponents voted down in a board meeting or defeated in some other way, causes your opposition to be losers, and there can be unfortunate results from the enmity generated. They might win against you next time.
At the church school which my children attended, there was a woman who was the Playground Director. She was very much admired and did a great job. However, in her zeal, she sometimes became too ambitious. It was her plan to pave the grassy church yard with asphalt so that the children would not kick up so much dust, and she was determined to present the concept for approval one evening at the Board meeting. I knew that it would cause great acrimony, and that it would never pass anyway. I spent the day calling on some board members and church administrators, and late in the afternoon I went to see the Playground Director and recounted what various people thought. It had particularly upset the women of the committee devoted to beautifying the church yard. There being no need for me to argue with her, I did not express any opinion of my own, just quoted others. She could see that it was hopeless, so she abandoned the plan.
Was the Playground Director grateful to me? Certainly not. I was the bearer of bad news. Did others appreciate the fact that there had been a solution? No. They never knew about my efforts. The matter never came up at the Board meeting. Don't expect appreciation. Work for results.
So, meet with the person with whom you are having difficulty and try to solve the problem in a non-confrontational way. Although this has been described in organizational and business terms, it applies to families, friendships, and other relationships as well.