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Brain circuits

How to communicate with your adversaries

IbyIMD+ Published 13 September 2022 in Brain circuits • 3 min read

Most of us have someone in the office that we consider difficult to deal with or seem to be in constant competition with: perhaps for resources, recognition, or other issues. Often, we still need to work as a team with these people in order to accomplish our organization’s goals. So, how do you communicate with someone who may seem to be constantly working in opposition to you?

Step one: Recognize your mindset may be the problem.

You clicked on this because there may be someone you perceive as an adversary that you would like to learn to deal with on a more positive level. The first step is to stop thinking of the other person as an adversary. Let that sink in: even if this person is outside your organization and you are in a very tense relationship, you need to view them as being a Partner. This will enable you to find common ground and to separate the person from the problem.  Doing this and managing your underlying emotions are at the core of collaborating with someone whose interests are not aligned with yours.

An exercise to help: Sit down, take a breath, close your eyes, and use your imagination. Imagine the person in question is your friend, or a family member. Let go of anything you disagree about and think about what you agree with, even if this is initially something as basic as breathing common air. What do they want or desire? What do you want or desire? What motivates them? What is important to them? Then open your eyes and think about how you can help them get what they desire and where there is room to compromise.

To learn how to communicate with someone you are in conflict with, you need to retrain your mind to view them as a friend and not an enemy. This is necessary to take the next step: forming a bond.

Step two: Form a bond.

If this seems like a Sisyphean task, you probably need to go back to step one. It is easier to form a bond with someone you view as a friend. Remember, you don’t need to like someone to form a bond with them. As a hostage negotiator, I’ve had to form bonds with people whose behavior is pretty horrible, or people who have done terrible things. This does not mean I like those people or the things they did; it means we needed each other to reach a shared goal. It is about the bond that allows you to find a common solution when you haven’t been able to do so in the past. Once you can picture the person in a positive light and understand their motivations and desires, you can identify common ground with them. This will enable you to move forward.

Step three: Remember the golden rule.

Many of us forget the most basic tenets of communication when we are in a tense situation: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. No matter what your disagreement is with someone, remember to treat them the way you would like to be treated. In other words, speak to them with respect, help them maintain dignity and be kind. If you manage this, you will find that you will be able to communicate with them.


george kohreiser

George Kohlrieser

Distinguished Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behaviour at IMD

Professor of Leadership and Organizational Behavior at IMD and Director of the High Performance Leadership program. He serves as a consultant to several global companies including Accenture, Amer Sports, Borealis, Cisco, Coca-Cola, HP, Hitachi, IBM, IFC, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Morgan Stanley, Motorola, NASA, Navis, Nestlé, Nokia, Pictet, Rio Tinto, Roche, Santander, Swarovski, Sara Lee, Tetra Pak, Toyota, and UBS.

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