I love conflict.

I know…many people think I’m broken for this.

But let me tell you why...

In the early 1980s, the book Getting to Yes came out of the Harvard Negotiation Project.  Honestly, reading this book changed my life.  My orientation to conflict changed dramatically.

It became less scary and something I cherished rather than something I tried to avoid. 

Try this on in your brain: 

The more conflicted two parties are, the more passionate they are about the issue.  People usually do not bother to get angry or express huge unwavering commitment to things they really don’t care about.  So, conflict is really about passion.  (Side note – what really scares me and what I really try to avoid is apathy).

My current orientation to conflict means that when people are in that highly emotional place of being dug in, angry, and frustrated, I see it as the best time to figure out what’s really going on.  While I used to try to find a “compromise” that both parties could live with, I now approach it much differently.

My first question is “Why is this so important to you?”  Sometimes the answer is directly related to the position they’re defending but more often than not, the position they’ve chosen is actually a solution to a specific interest rather than the actual interest itself.


For all my skeptics out there, let me give you an example.

Here’s how this scenario could play out:

The staff proposes to the Board of Directors that the organizations should close the office every second Friday.

The Board shoots down this proposal.

At this point, there is serious risk of a divide between the staff and the board.  In the worst case, this will result in a less functional worksite, increased sick-time, and eventual loss of key employees.  At best, it will result in a whole bunch of grumpy employees for awhile.


Now, let’s look at the same scenario, but with an interest-based negotiation.

Staff present proposal.

Board asks some key questions: Why is this important to you? Why do you need that?

Staff asks some key questions: What are your concerns, fears, hopes?

Staff answers:

People are currently taking holiday or sick time to attend appointments during the work week. Friday is the slowest day at the office so it sometimes feels like a waste of time to be there. Staff are burning out quickly.

Board answers:

Customers/clients expect the office to be open Monday to Friday.  Want to maintain levels of service. Staff are being paid based on an expectation of 5 days a week at the office. People will still take sick time and holidays so now they will be in the office even less and work output will suffer.


So is there a strategy that would work for all the interests expressed?

One client I worked with settled it quite elegantly:

Staff alternated flex Fridays so there were always 50% of the staff in the office on Friday to maintain levels of service for customers/clients.  Necessary cross–training was implemented to ensure that clients were well served (this had an added benefit for sick-time and contingency planning).  Monday to Wednesday staff added ½ hour onto their day so they made up the hours for their flex day (this meant that the hours were consistent with the pay and work output was maintained for the missed day).  There was a clear company policy that staff were expected to use their flex day for appointments whenever possible (they recognized that occasionally the scheduling of appointments was not in the control of the staff member).

And – here’s a big one…they agreed to pilot this for 6 months to see if it had the impacts they were hoping for.


If the board had just said no, it would have created positions and animosity (and a difficult working environment).  Because they were willing to dig deeper and look at the “why”, it created an even better working environment without sacrificing some really important criteria.


So what can YOU do when conflict on your board arises?  Try this process:

1. Ask everyone to express the interest behind their position

E.g. it’s important to keep our staff happy so they don’t leave, we need to make sure we have enough money in an emergency, our clients/customers have told us they want something specific.  Sometimes it helps if you let people take some time to write this down so they don’t feel put on the spot.

2. Write all the interests down in one place

A flipchart that everyone can see works well.

3. Ask clarifying questions so that you get at the actual interests

E.g. the interest may not be the expressed client need…it may actually be about the reputation of the organization as one that responds to clients.

4. Brainstorm additional ideas to address the interests

Often there are only two solutions presented. This is where the initial conflict arises.  People line up behind position A or Position B.  The purpose of this step is to explore the possibility that there is a Position C (and maybe D, E, and F).

5. Work through the solutions

See if there is something that can address the interests of all parties.


Remember, conflict gets uncomfortable when it becomes about winning and losing.  As soon as you can put everyone on the same team and have them all figuring out how to craft a solution where everyone wins it becomes a passionate discussion rather than a scary conflict.

May you have many passionate discussions!