Anyone who runs a business is bound to butt heads occasionally with a vendor or business partner. Disputes can erupt over any number of business issues, including claims of unpaid bills, missed deadlines or work standards.
The important thing to remember in handling these conflicts is that most disagreements can reach a harmonious conclusion if they are approached professionally. Tackling difficult matters with aplomb keeps important business relationships intact. Leaving business disputes unresolved or poorly concluded can permanently damage your business's reputation.
Use these tips to maintain positive relationships with other professionals if conflict arises.
- Assume good intentions. The majority of professionals want to do a good job. If you're unhappy with a business relationship, use a non-threatening approach to explain why you are disappointed. Starting the discussion with a positive attitude increases the likelihood of quickly resolving misunderstandings and nipping conflict in the bud.
- Seek common ground. Try to gain a clear understanding of the other party's perspective and objectives. Pinpoint areas you both agree upon and the resolutions that each of you see as fair. If you are fuzzy on the other side's objectives, ask for clarification.
- Know what you want. Success in achieving your objectives will be impossible unless you know what you want and communicate it. Sometimes you may only want to vent, but in general, this is not as productive as having a suggested remedy.
- Be ready to compromise. The best negotiations result in both parties gaining at least part of what they want. No matter how angry you are about a situation, always work toward a resolution that will leave both parties feeling as though they gained something. Recognize that the other person believes as strongly in his or her point of view as you do in yours. To make the solution stick and to minimize bad feelings, be ready to acknowledge the other person's opinion and to bend on certain points.
- Communicate carefully. Verbal and body language can make a difference in how your negotiation progresses. Use the word "and" instead of "but" when you speak, make direct eye contact and spend more time listening than talking. These actions send the message that you are interested in the other party's opinions.
- Make up for imperfect communication tools. Miscommunications can occur when two people are not face to face because neither party has the benefit of interpreting facial expressions, vocal intonation and other cues. When using non-visual communication tools such as phones, e-mails or faxes, make your communications polite and concise. Be explicit about your determination to find a mutually satisfactory resolution and, if appropriate, voice your appreciation of the work the other party has put into fixing the problem.
- Consider an arbitrator. If your attempts to solve a problem do not get results, consider bringing in an arbitrator. This type of mediator is likely to be less expensive and less threatening than a team of lawyers. It's not uncommon for businesspeople to outline guidelines for arbitration in their initial contracts with new clients. To find out more about finding and using an arbitrator, contact the American Arbitration Association at (800) 778-7879 or online at www.adr.org.
- Follow up. After you've resolved an outstanding issue, follow up with the other party to point out the positive results of your agreement. For instance, if you worked to get a better price on a product, call the vendor after you receive the items and mention your satisfaction and your plan to continue the business relationship.
Alice Bredin is author of the "The Home Office Solution: How to Balance Your Professional and Personal Lives While Working at Home" (John Wiley & Sons) and host of The American Express Small Business Exchange Web site www.americanexpress.com/smallbusiness. You can e-mail her at email@example.com.
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