Applying Conflict Resolution Skills in Health Care PART IV: Invent Options for Mutual Gain


By Holly Hayes

Conflict in health care differs from conflict in other arenas because it can result in significant negative outcomes – in some cases, life or death.

Part IV in our series on applying conflict resolution skills in the health care setting follows the Principled Negotiation techniques described by Roger Fisher and William Ury in Getting to Yes with a focus on “inventing options for mutual gain”. Part I in the series can be viewed (here), Part II, (here) and Part III (here).

Why do we want to take the time to invent options when we disagree? Often conflict appears to have only one solution – split the pie in half — and people usually believe they know the correct answer – their answer is the right answer.

Four major obstacles typically inhibit the invention of more than one option for consideration in a negotiation:

  1. Premature judgment
  2. Searching for a single answer
  3. The assumption of a fixed pie
  4. Thinking that solving the problem is “the other party’s problem”

We can imagine a typical health care conflict between the Emergency Department (ED) Manager and the Manager of Environmental Services (Housekeeping) in a hospital could look like this:

Emergency Department (ED) Manager: I am glad you agreed to talk with me about the housekeeping problem we have had in the ED. I think you know that I am short staffed right now and my staff cannot keep up with the minor cleaning after a patient discharge we have been doing up to now. I need your staff to take over all of the cleaning in the department. We have to take care of the sickest, most urgent patients in the hospital.

Manager of Environmental Services: Well, I understand you are busy, but my department hasn’t added any new staff, why do you think we could pick up the slack for your staff?

ED Manager: Well, let’s just split the jobs then, you do half of the work and we will do our best to do the other half of the cleaning.

Manager of Environmental Services: I guess we can try to make that work.

The managers did not “expand the pie” before dividing it – they did not invent options for mutual gain before reaching a solution. Let’s look at some other approaches where the managers take the time to invent creative options:

  1. Separate the act of developing options from the act of judging the options – brainstorming is a fairly common exercise where parties produce as many ideas as possible without considering their merit until a complete list is made.
  2. Broaden the options rather than looking for a single answer – one example of this is to invent options of different strengths, some weaker options, some stronger options for consideration; another example is to look through the eyes of someone else, for example, look at the problem through the eyes of the patient or a family member, what options would they suggest?
  3. Search for options that present opportunity for mutual gain – the secret here is to look for joint gain rather than a winner and a loser by identifying shared interests or dovetailing differing interests.
  4. Invent ways to make decisions easy for the other party – a painless choice for the other side that advances your interests is a win-win for both parties.

Let’s try the conversation with the two department managers applying the techniques above.

Emergency Department (ED) Manager: I am glad you agreed to talk with me about the housekeeping problem we have had in the ED. I think you know that I am short staffed right now and my staff cannot keep up with the minor cleaning after a patient discharge we have been doing up to now. We have to take care of the sickest, most urgent patients in the hospital. What do you suggest?

Manager of Environmental Services: That is a problem. I wonder if our departments could split the cost of a temporary staff member to help in the short-term?

Emergency Department (ED) Manager: That’s a thought. What if we spent some time streamlining the cleaning process to make the best use of the staff’s time. Your department must have a lot of ideas you could share with us.

Manager of Environmental Services: We do have some ideas that have worked in other departments that could be applied here as well. Let’s form a group of your staff and my staff to look at how we can work together to solve the problem.

By working together, the two managers invented options that will likely result in even more options for consideration that will benefit the departments, the hospital and ultimately the patients. The key is taking time to explore those options for mutual gain that advance the interests of both parties.

We welcome your comments and invite you to share other examples of conflict in health care.

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Holly Hayes is a mediator at Karl Bayer, Dispute Resolution Expert where she focuses on mediation of health care disputes. Holly holds a B.A. from Southern Methodist Universityand a Masters in Health Administration from Duke University. She can be reached at: holly@karlbayer.com.

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