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Learning to Resolve Conflict for the Best Possible Outcome

Let’s be real, the news has been bleak when it comes to the opportunity for reconciliation and resolution around harassment, discrimination, and abuse. After the 2016 presidential election, many of us took a step back in disbelief, realizing how polarized the United States has become. We’ve seen protesters on the side of white supremacy and protesters on the side of feminism and gun control. Sometimes these protesters are in the same family circles. Throughout the country, people are shouting loudly to have their voices heard in ways that sometimes seem irreconcilable.

Many of our workplaces are microcosms of this larger picture, which can create intense and even crisis levels of conflict. If you are a boss who genuinely wants to create an inclusive, healthy environment, this puts you in a difficult position. Do you just fire everyone who disagrees politically or ideologically with you? That would be contrary to the ideals of inclusion, but unless you have a system implemented in your business to resolve crisis level conflict, sometimes it feels necessary.

Unfortunately, we look around at the current systems implemented in the United States and they are less than effective at truly resolving conflict. Sometimes, we see great politicians able to speak to both sides of the divided country and bring us together with a common goal, but seeing one person who is exceptionally good at resolving conflict doesn’t help the rest of us. It is too person-specific. Barack Obama is unlikely to drop into your staff meeting to help everyone see things from another perspective.

The good news is that really anyone can learn to resolve conflict, and it starts, again, with understanding the root cause of conflict: our thoughts. What we are thinking that motivates conflict and what we actually say to engage in conflict are often different. The way we communicate our thoughts is inaccurate even with people who generally understand us and believe the best about us.

An example of this problem looks like this:

On both sides of the conflict, we expect that the thought motivating what we are saying is completely obvious to everyone around us. We believe that all we need is for everyone else to see that we’re completely reasonable and agree with us, and that will resolve the conflict.

The trouble with that expectation is that there can be multiple, reasonable interpretations of any given circumstance. If you look at the conflict example above, no one would say that either person’s worry about their own position in the business was unreasonable. Fear over failing clients or losing a job can feel very real and important in the moment. But both thoughts are contributing to conflict, rather than contributing to fixing the letter problem.

This is always true in conflict. When we are focused on being right instead of getting our best outcome, we contribute to more conflict. This is because there can be multiple reasonable perspectives about any neutral circumstance. Both people become committed to their one right perspective, missing that their perspective is only one reasonable option among many. This turns into a spiral of increased, dramatic clashes, like this:

The illustrations represent an example of how in conflict we are having two completely different internal conversations that so strongly filter our experience of the external conversation as to almost make it irrelevant. If you look at this example, there is actually no problem other than a letter that could be fixed. Both parties are diving into an internal conflict spiral, though, based on their own thought about what the conversation means. Both people have reasonable motivation – the boss wants to serve her clients and the employee wants to keep her job. But they are seeing the external circumstances very differently.

In traditional Western conflict resolution processes, this is similar to considering the Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement (BATNA), described in the book Getting to Yes. A BATNA is somewhat self-explanatory, but it basically asks each person to consider whether it would be better to compromise their position or to go forward with the conflict. For example, if an employee wants a promotion, a boss has to consider her BATNA. Two alternatives to agreeing to the promotion are (1) say no and risk the employee leaving or (2) make a counter offer. At each stage of the negotiation, both parties need to consider whether their best alternative is better than the offer on the table. We often use BATNAs in traditional legal settlements, where a mediator walks between two rooms, encouraging one room to lower their offer and one room to raise their offer. Each side has to consider the costs and stress of walking away and going to trial versus making a new offer or accepting the offer on the table.

Parents I know often use BATNAs as an effective parenting tool. For example, they offer to their child that she can get into her car seat and be allowed to have her applesauce pouch or she can choose not to have an applesauce pouch and stay outside of the car. Parents will offer a child two options for lunch (say, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich or a cheese sandwich), rather than asking the child the open-ended question, “What do you want for lunch?” because giving alternatives allows the child to consider the best alternative.

Considering a BATNA is a basic negotiation and conflict resolution principle, but the traditional Western conflict resolution processes have failed at resolving highly-charged emotional disputes because they do not consider the thinking and feeling components to the conflict. We even see this with children when the option the parent offered becomes unavailable. If a parent offers a PB&J and then can’t follow through, the process of negotiation through alternatives has essentially failed and a tantrum may be reasonably expected, even if a parent wants to go back to offering other alternatives.

Talking about negotiation with children is a simple way of looking at this, but in truth community reconciliation processes used outside of Western culture have addressed some of the deepest cultural wounds we have seen in history. Reconciliation processes such as the Hawaiian Ho’oponopono reconciliation process or the community storytelling process used by the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission to heal the cultural wounds of apartheid have been shown to be incredibly effective, but often feel inaccessible and overly ceremonial in Western businesses. The Western negotiation model tends to focus on the individualized success of a negotiation process, while the community reconciliation model focuses on the community’s bonds. Both are important in deciding what the best outcome to a conflict is, and for each person a best outcome may look different and put more weight on one or another. Sometimes an individual’s best outcome includes community bonds and reconciliation.

When true cultural or personal divides exist in a conflict, one person may prefer a reconciliation model and another a negotiation model of responding. This can overly complicate the conflict and create even more division. If one person is focused on the bonds of the community, and the other is focused on external success of a negotiation, the two people often talk past each other.

For example, Grace asked me to talk with one of her employees about high-conflict behavior the employee was having and whether she could keep working for the company. In talking with the employee, it became clear that the employee wanted to do whatever it would take to keep her job (not because she needed the job, she explained, but because she did not want to be fired). But she was not willing to acknowledge her high-conflict behavior, such as yelling and talking about other employees negatively behind their backs. Grace wanted her employee to be able to engage in a restorative process to acknowledge her problem behavior and rejoin the bonds of the group. The employee, however, wanted to keep her job in order to avoid what she perceived as the humiliation of being fired. The employee was negotiating, while Grace was attempting to reconcile. They were at an impasse, and Grace ended up deciding the employee needed to be separated from the company.

Sometimes, separation is the best, most loving option in a dispute (or even without a dispute). Separation is the best option when it is a positive growth step. Other times, we feel it is our only option because of communication breakdown. Where the latter is the case, differences of communication do not need to undermine the process.

If the employee is so committed to proving that she was not at fault with the letter (that she was right), she will continue to engage in the conflict. Likewise, if the boss is so committed to proving that the employee needs to take responsibility (that she is right), she will also engage in the conflict. Instead, if both people focus on the best outcome and allow the other person to have a different perspective (even one that seems wrong), they will bypass the conflict.


This is a selection from The Inclusive Leader's Guide to Healthy Workplace Culture. For a free copy of the book, visit Or you can purchase online via Amazon.

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