A principle that may have saved the world can save you grief.

This month of October brings back memories of a history lesson that is loaded with meaning for everyone who runs a business.

Our generation is the first in history to live with the capability of destroying all of mankind. Closest we came to doing just that was during the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. I was a lad of 15 back then, and remember absorbing every news story and broadcast I could during the tense 10-day period when our nation and the Soviet Union seemed headed toward nuclear war. I was so scared I could hardly sleep, and so was almost everyone else in America.

We dodged a holocaust largely because of deft crisis management by President Kennedy and his advisors. Since then, their deliberations have been detailed in numerous books and movies. One aspect of those negotiations always has stood out for me.

Our U-2 spy planes detected nuclear missile installations in Cuba merely 90 miles from our shores. President Kennedy insisted that the Soviets remove them from that island, and ordered a naval blockade to keep Soviet supply ships away. He contemplated air strikes to knock out the Cuban missiles, but demurred when our generals couldn’t guarantee 100-percent effectiveness. If even one of those Cuban missiles had gotten launched, it would have been bye-bye Miami.

The United States was firm in its demands, yet Kennedy kept probing for a resolution that would enable Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to save face while backing down. Kennedy feared that insisting on unconditional capitulation might cause the Soviets to do something rash.

The face-saving gesture that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis was a tit-for-tat, whereby we would remove our missiles from the Soviet border in Turkey in return for taking theirs out of Cuba, along with a promise never to invade Cuba. The  exchange enabled Khrushchev to claim that he had stood up to the United States and cut a deal with favorable terms for his country.

(Our generals regarded the Turkish missiles as of little strategic importance, and we always could’ve broken the promise if we felt a compelling national interest to invade Cuba, so we gave up nothing of critical value. Nor did the Soviets really need any missiles in Cuba. Their long-range bombers were quite sufficient to make us think twice about making war on them. So one might reasonably ask, wasn’t it monumentally stupid to bring the world to the brink of destruction over inconsequential military posturing? The only reasonable answer would be, you betcha. Which goes to show how silly little squabbles can escalate to the point of lunacy.)

Applied to Business

The same principle that went into ending the Cuban Missile Crisis can be applied to disputes with customers, employees, suppliers, vendors and other business associates. The stakes are nowhere near as large, but the underlying psychology is exactly the same.

Business disputes drag on longer and more ferociously than they ought to once people dig in their heels, defending themselves. In bringing things to a close, you would do well to ask what you can do to allow the other side to save face.

This has little to do with who’s right or wrong. In fact, when the other party is clearly in the wrong, that’s precisely the time to look for face-saving gestures. People don’t like to own up to mistakes. If you let them exit gracefully from a bad situation of their own making, it can help you salvage some important business relationships.

The alternative is to argue to the last drop of venom. Does anyone ever win these battles when the end result is a lost customer, terminated employee or an angry supplier never inclined to do you any favors?

Let’s take a look at some examples from the real world.

The Disgruntled Customer

Many years ago, an HVAC contractor sought my advice about a customer dispute. He showed me an exchange of correspondence in which the customer complained about being overcharged for some service work. In analyzing the contractor’s response, I noted that while it began with a polite and respectful tone, the letter turned sarcastic as it went on.

This is typical of arguments. You start out calm, but the more you present your side of the story, the more injustice you feel and resentment begins to rise. Something similar is happening with the other party who feels just as strongly about his/her point of view. Instead of moving toward compromise, positions solidify, and people degenerate into name-calling and rash behavior. Whether we are describing a customer complaint, a marital squabble or international diplomacy, this same component of human nature tends to manifest itself in all disputes.

The customer may not always be right, but s/he always is the customer, and customers are to be cherished. So you must look for ways to allow your customers to save face.

How do you do that? First, by acknowledging some legitimacy to their feelings. This is not the same as saying they are right. It is to say that you understand their feelings. Here are some face-saving statements:

“I don’t blame you for feeling that way.” You’d feel the same way if you were that person’s position and being fed the same information. It’s not the other party’s fault that s/he was misinformed. Now it’s up to you to explain how it happened.

“What you say certainly is true.” Maybe something isn’t performing the way s/he expects it to. About this there can be no disagreement. There may be differences of opinion about what is causing the malfunction and who is to blame, but if something isn’t working right, concede that point.

“I’m going to make sure this never happens to you again.” Never mind whose fault it was. If there’s something you can do to prevent it from occurring again, focus on that rather than waste time fixing blame.

“It’s my fault.” Never say, “YOU misunderstood.” Always say, “I’m sorry I didn’t explain that clearly.” This isn’t admitting fault for what happened, but for not explaining it so clearly that the customer would see it that way. You allow people to save face by shifting blame away from them and onto yourself.

Supplier Squabbles

Lingering disputes often arise over mutual finger-pointing between suppliers and contractors over defective products or billing errors.

“You’re the first person who’s ever complained about this!” is a common response by sales personnel to a customer with a gripe. It comes across as “something is wrong with you.” The customer interprets it as an attack on his intelligence or integrity.

The flipside of that coin is that it is a rare trade worker who ever will admit to making a mistake that ruins a piece of merchandise. Somehow it always is the product that is defective.

Where shall this twain meet? Business disputes tend to get out of hand when one or both parties resort to the following:

Questioning motives. An error on an invoice gets interpreted as intentional over-billing. Most people will accept being called to account for an honest mistake, because everyone knows that nobody’s perfect. People start to bristle, though, when you question their integrity.

It is simple to prove an error was made, but difficult to prove intent. Absent proof of purposeful wrongdoing, you can defuse arguments and enable people to save face by focusing on the error rather than assuming the worst of motives.

Confusing patterns with incidents. “You’re always screwing up!” Frustrated supervisors often say that to employees, but is it true? Do a handful of mistakes in a year constitute a pattern or isolated incidents? Again, most people will own up to mistakes, but nobody likes to be accused of general incompetence. Allow employees to save face by dealing with the problem at hand and not exaggerating their occurrence.

Of course, some employees do exhibit a pattern of unacceptable performance or behavior. At some point, it may make sense to dismiss them.

Ever notice how big corporations deal with this issue when it involves high-ranking employees? Except in cases of extreme malfeasance, they don’t fire the person. They allow the employee to save face by resigning (“to pursue other interests”).

What would be wrong extending the same courtesy to your workers?

Criticizing in public. A fundamental principle of people management is that supervisors must give praise in public, but criticism in private. Public criticism always results in resentment. Private criticism is the only kind that will ever be constructive. This principle is good to keep in mind not only with employees, but vendors, customers and other business contacts.

Allowing adversaries to save face is not something you do only for them. You do it to defuse situations that are unpleasant for you as well. This is a principle that may have saved the world from nuclear holocaust. It can save you a lot of business grief as well.