Conflict management as a design skill

Susana La Luz-Hawkins, Research Department Director of Design & Customer Experience at J.P. Morgan Chase, shares some best practices for managing conflict. 

Susana La Luz-Hawkins is the Research Department Director of Design & Customer Experience at JP Morgan Chase. Susana gave a talk at the Epic Conference 2015 titled “The Missing Tool in the Design Leadership Toolbox: Integrating Conflict Management into Collaborative Design.” As design and UX teams continue to grow, managing conflict might be even more critical today, and in this episode, Susana shares some best practices for managing conflict.


Alfonso de la Nuez: Welcome to UXpeditious! A show that brings you quick, insightful interviews with design, product, and UX leaders.

Dana Bishop: In each interview we dive into how UX research impacts user insight; shaping the design and business strategy of some of our favorite tech tools and products.

Alfonso de la Nuez: I’m Alfonso de la Nuez, Co-CEO and Co-Founder of UserZoom.

Dana Bishop: and I’m Dana Bishop, VP of Strategic Research Partners at UserZoom.

Alfonso de la Nuez: And we are your hosts.

On this episode, we are talking with Susana La Luz-Hawkins. Susana is the Research Department Director of Design & Customer Experience at JP Morgan Chase. We’re discussing conflict; it’s unavoidable especially when collaborating with various teams and stakeholders to make great digital experiences.

Dana Bishop: Yep, that’s right, conflict is part of the job. Susana is joining us to talk about how designers and researchers can get better at managing those moments of disagreement.

Alfonso de la Nuez: Hello, Susana.

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: Hello.

Alfonso de la Nuez: How are you today?

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: Good.

Alfonso de la Nuez: Can you please introduce yourself?

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: Yeah. My name is Susana LaLuz Hawkins. I am the department director for research here at J.P. Morgan Chase in our design and customer experience department. And I also oversee a couple of teams of researchers focusing on banking and channels.

Alfonso de la Nuez: You gave a talk about how design leaders need to have better conflict management skills. Can you please tell us a little bit more about that?

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: Absolutely. So the talk actually came out of my master's thesis and as most academic research is, it was incredibly granular, very specific. My thesis was about integrating conflict management and conflict negotiation skills into the convergent stages of the design process because I recognized that when we are trying to make decisions, that's when tensions get high. That's when it's really most critical for conflict negotiation skills to come into play.

And so as leaders of these collaborations, we need to recognize that there's some power in that role, but there's also a huge responsibility to take care of the people that we're facilitating and make sure that all voices are heard and that we are allowing everybody to have a voice in the process and contribute to the process.

So, as I was looking through all the literature, there was an instrument, it's called the Thomas Kilman instrument and it's sort of like one of those personality surveys and it helps you understand what your conflict management or conflict negotiation style is. So when you confront conflict, are you an avoider? Are you an accommodator? Are you a collaborator? And by understanding how you approach conflict, you can help that or use that to help you think through how you want to work with other people better.

So there are a lot of skills that we can leverage in all of that throughout the entire design process, not just during the convergence stages.

Dana Bishop: Tell us more about why you feel design leaders are that bridge between the business and the people that they're trying to serve?

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: I think this has evolved for me to be specific to research, but it's true for all designers, all of us in the design profession, that we are working in service of solving people's problems and at the heart of everything we do, we are trying to find the most appropriate solution for this given group of people within a certain context.

It's our responsibility to make sure that we understand the people that we're trying to solve for and understand the context that we're trying to solve within. So we can develop the most appropriate solution because what would work in one place may not work in another. but it is so incredibly important for designers to have an appreciation for not only the audiences they're designing for, but also the people they're designing with, which I think is where conflict management really comes into play.

Alfonso de la Nuez: When you're thinking about design leadership, you're not just the creative here. You're a problem solver, right?

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: We're not just a wizard behind the curtain. We don't just go and make things pretty behind a screen. And then ta-da, here's this magical solution. It really is about understanding people, understanding context and driving for a solution. And I think my favorite analogy or visualization of the design process is, it starts off with a single dot and that is the idea. And then you have another single dot and that is the solution. And people like to think of design as drawing a straight line between the two, but really it's this big, hairy mess.

And we have to figure out how to untangle that great big squiggly line that really looks like a tangled ball of yarn. That's design, that's the design process. And there are a lot of people involved in that, both who are designing for and with, and a lot of them are nondesigners who don't understand the process and honestly don't care.

Dana Bishop: There are a lot of tools out there to help manage and work through conflict. Tell us about how UX research can be used to help with conflict management.

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: There are so many tools for everything under the sun. There's an app for that or a process for that. And I don't think we have to get that complicated. It's not that difficult. There is one very basic principle in my mind. And there are a couple of really amazing books that articulate those. "Getting To Yes", I think that's been around for, I don't know, 30, 40 years, it's a classic in the field of conflict negotiation. And "Crucial Conversations" changed my life. That book fundamentally got me to understand how to have really basic everyday conversations in a more effective way, let alone the difficult ones. And what both of those boil everything down to is one key idea.

And that is that you need to understand the underlying need that is driving someone's arguments, no matter what you're debating, no matter what you're arguing about, disagreeing about, or even just having a casual conversation about. There is always something underneath what the person is saying that is actually driving it. What is that motivation, that unmet need, or that underlying interest that you need to actually respond to and understand? That is the key linchpin to all things negotiation, all things conflict management.

And as soon as you understand what really matters to this person, that's when you can start responding to it. And when you can empathize it with it, that's when you can start making them realize that you see them as a human being. And that opens up everything that really starts all conversations.

Dana Bishop: So a couple of C words are kind of standing out to me. So there's conflict, obviously, there's compromise, there's collaboration, right? So can you talk about, how to navigate the how and the when to compromise, when to hold your ground when you're collaborating with business leaders, and you're representing again, the people you're serving.

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: Yeah. So I think first of all, let's recognize the word conflict. I think a lot of people hear the word conflict and get scared. Conflict has a really negative connotation and it shouldn't. Conflict can be healthy. And here at Chase, we talk all the time about healthy conflict. And healthy conflict is simply any time people have differing viewpoints. And we want that diversity of thought.

So inherently we are saying, we want conflict. We need conflict in order to challenge ourselves to move towards better solutions. And so when we start recognizing that difference of thoughts or difference of opinions is nothing more than adding diversity of perspectives, then we can start appreciating it and stop being afraid of it. So recognizing that conflict is a good thing. That's the first step.

And then the collaboration versus compromise. I think, you know, I'm of mixed minds here. In my most purest idealistic self, I would say we should never compromise. So going back to Thomas Kilman Instrument or "Crucial Conversations", the concept of compromise is I have a pie and we are going to split it in half. On the surface of it, that seems like a really great notion. We each get half of a pie. But when you think about it, we may not be answering or addressing the underlying needs or interests.

And so when we start looking at the underlying needs and interests, maybe we'll realize I've got a sweet tooth and I really want that pie. And maybe you're just hungry and I've got a peanut butter and jelly sandwich that I'm not super excited about, and I can give you my peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And so now we've collaborated towards a solution where we're actually both more happy than if we had just split the pie to begin with. So now I get my whole pie and you get your meal.

I recognize though that within corporate context, within real life, that may not always be possible. And I think we always want to push towards the ideal of understanding the underlying interests so we can solve for the needs rather than just what people are declaring that they want. But sometimes we have to recognize there are variables that we can't do anything about, and it's in those times that we acknowledge those and those become our designed constraints and we have to work around those constraints towards whatever solution is the most appropriate within the context of those constraints.

Dana Bishop: I love that explanation and I love the metaphor you use for the difference between you know compromising. That's a far shout from design by committee, right? A phrase we all cringe.

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: Exactly, exactly. I just, I think we should all cringe at the concept of design by committee.

Dana Bishop: You talked about methodology before, and I'm curious from your perspective, how sort of quantitative and qualitative research kind of enters into the picture and sort of what that, how that gets brought into the conversation about conflict?

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: I think, a lot of times people looking at research seem to think that quantitative and qualitative are an either/or, or are at odds with one another, and that's not at all true. I think quantitative research is really amazing for understanding the what. What is happening? What is it that people are doing? What are they saying? We can start to understand how people aggregate around certain sentiments. Qualitative research can really help us dig into the why and the how.

So qualitative we can get into the emotions, the underlying behaviors, the reasoning behind why we establish mental models the way we do. And through participatory co-creation methods, we can also start to get into how. We can really understand for any given person how would they like to see that brought to life? What is that process they want to go through? Or what does that solution look like? What specifically are they looking for out of these examples? And so I think the two go hand in hand.

You can start with qualitative and get some really juicy ideas and validate it through quant. Or you can start with quant to look at what people are doing today and then use qualitative to understand why, but they really are two methodologies that are of equal value in the toolbox. And it's incredibly important to use both of them in the most appropriate times.

Alfonso de la Nuez: Yeah. So thank you so much, Susana, for your thoughts and for sharing your experience around conflict management, which is, again, there's more design leadership out there than ever before.

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: Absolutely. Yeah, and I think it's really critical that we start teaching conflict negotiation and conflict management in schools, in design schools as a basic skill that designers need to become the leaders facilitating the design process. It’s so important.

Dana Bishop: And love your perspective. I know Chase is quickly becoming one of the largest UX teams out there.

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: It is.

Alfonso de la Nuez: True.

Dana Bishop: Thank you for being here. It's been a pleasure.

Susana La Luz-Hawkins: Absolutely. Thank you.

Alfonso de la Nuez: That's Susana La Luz-Hawkins, Research Department Director of Design & Customer Experience at JP Morgan Chase.

Dana Bishop: Thanks for listening to UXpeditious. Make sure to continue listening to our new episodes each week for quality insights from UX industry leaders. If you like what you heard, help us out by rating and reviewing the show on your favorite podcast platform.

Alfonso de la Nuez: UXpeditious is produced by UserZoom in partnership with Pod People. Special thanks to our production team: Christopher Ratcliff from UserZoom; and the team at Pod People: Rachael King, Matt Sav, Aimee Machado, Hannah Pedersen, Colleen Pellissier and Jason Mack.