Finding The Third Side

What to do when conversations turn into personal fights.

Late last year. One of my previous clients, a niche consulting firm led by three partners, was going through a rough transition period.

The business had grown by leveraging their personal network, but pipeline became an unpredictable rollercoaster - taking the team from being completely extenuated for a few months, to hearing crickets in the following quarter. This was stressful and started to psychologically affect the consultants.

They asked me for help. We had conversations about their goals and aspirations, and they shared with me their numbers. They were committed to change.

The diagnosis was clear: As is often the case, most lead generation problems are actually positioning problems. To fix the former, we needed to make some changes to the latter. The three partners agreed, happy to have finally identified the root cause that was blocking growth.

What they did not agree on, however, was how to solve it.

The conversations to define a new positioning for the firm started to turn into heated discussions. Each partner put their flags in the sand and refused to budge. Structured arguments were replaced with personal attacks.

Quickly, I saw myself in the middle of a war. It was not about business anymore, but their ego and relationships. There were clear divisions among the partners, with conflicting worldviews and personalities. I remember thinking: "It's amazing how people that different can come together to run a single business."

Have you been through a similar situation?

Most of my consulting peers have. And many don't know how (or even if) they should deal with it. A friend went through a similar experience last week and asked for advice, which is where the idea for this post came up.

The way I see it, we as consultants are responsible to address those kinds of conflicts - ignoring is not an option. Putting your clients first means helping them make the change they hire you to make. To do that, people need to communicate effectively, find consensus, and truly commit to a decision.

However - and this is important - the vast majority of us are not certified psychologists. You might use ideas and exercises that are supported by social science research in your work to support change. But you are not being hired to uncover why a given person has such a big ego, or to help two executives to revisit a traumatic event that happened 15 years ago and has been affecting their relationship since then.

I've once heard a quote that says,

"Whenever there is an argument between two sides, find the third side."

It's easy to lose perspective and react impulsively when we're locked in conflict. People say things that they will later regret. We're humans, after all.

It's our responsibility as consultants to be that third side. And we do that by reminding people what is really at stake:

"Why are we sitting here? Why did we get together to discuss this? I see there are some difficult personal conflicts popping up now, and take it as a sign that we can speak freely to one another. What we're here to do is not to talk about X or Y. We're here to see if we can find a middle ground to solve Z and ensure this company has a future."

When you find yourself in the middle of an unexpected ego-driven conflict, don't ignore or wait for the client to solve it. Own the outcome. Be the third side.

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