by melody wilding

This is interview was originally published in Forbes on March 20, 2024. To read it on Forbes’ website, click here.

Does work seem to feel harder these days? Stakes are perpetually rising, demands growing, responsibilities multiplying.

It’s not just the workload that has intensified. There’s also been a surge in conflict. This added layer of stress can make any workplace feel like a minefield, where every conversation has the potential to escalate into a dispute.

Navigating this turbulent time requires a mastery of communication and negotiation skills, and globally renowned negotiation expert William Ury is here to help. Ury is the author of the world’s best-selling book on the topic Getting to Yes and co-founder of Harvard University’s Program on Negotiation. His new book is POSSIBLE: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict.

In this interview, he turns the traditional view of workplace conflict on its head, offering tips and strategies to embrace it rather than avoid it.

Melody Wilding: How have you seen conflict evolve – or increase – in today’s workplaces? What challenges has that presented?

William Ury: I regularly engage with business and professional groups to discuss the prevalence of conflict in the workplace. Recently, when I posed the question of whether conflict has increased or decreased over the past five to ten years, an overwhelming number of participants in a large group acknowledged an increase.

The essence of this uptick, I believe, is due to an increasing rate of change. We’re witnessing disruptions in the economy, politics, the environment, and technology—AI being a prime example—that are radically altering the landscape of our lives and work. As these changes occur, conflict naturally follows.

However, it’s crucial to understand that conflict is a fundamental aspect of growth. While previously I might have viewed conflict negatively, I now see it as an intrinsic part of organizational and personal development. The real question is not how to eliminate conflict—since it’s an unavoidable element—but how to transform it. Our challenge is learning to navigate through this age of persistent conflict and use it as a tool for progress.

Wilding: You argue that we need more conflict, not less. How does that apply to your most important relationships at work?

William Ury: Addressing persistent issues at work requires engaging in healthy conflict. Instead of avoiding tough conversations with your boss, which might lead to job dissatisfaction or even resignation, consider initiating a constructive dialogue.

Start by taking a step back to gain perspective, a strategy I call ‘going to the balcony.’ It’s about internal negotiation before external. Prepare by understanding your own needs and objectives. What do you really want beyond surface desires like a raise? Identify the underlying reasons for your needs, which could range from career growth to personal financial issues.

Prepare for this important conversation just as you would for a speech, perhaps with a friend or coach to role-play and provide feedback. To address power dynamics, develop your BATNA—your best alternative to a negotiated agreement. This is your backup plan, which gives you confidence and levels the playing field psychologically.

If direct negotiation seems daunting, consider forming an alliance with coworkers to present a united front. This approach can prompt the boss to acknowledge and address the issues. Remember, having an alternative isn’t negative—it’s a proactive way to secure your interests and approach the conversation with your boss confidently.

I often state, somewhat provocatively, that we actually need more conflict at work, specifically the kind that’s constructive—what you might call ‘creative friction’. The most robust ideas emerge from the melding of different perspectives. Just as in healthy marriages, where partners don’t shy away from issues, a productive work environment should not suppress conflict.

We tend to retreat from conflict because it makes us uncomfortable. I’ve noticed this in myself; we sidestep it. But avoidance doesn’t resolve the underlying issues—it often makes them worse. My suggestion is counterintuitive: lean into the conflict, embrace it, and transform it. Instead of meeting conflict with animosity, we should approach it with curiosity to foster better outcomes.

Wilding: What unsolvable workplace problems are really opportunities? Can you give some examples?

Ury: In my book, I recount a seemingly insurmountable boardroom battle between two shareholders of a major Latin American supermarket chain. The conflict was entrenched, creating rifts and threatening the business with endless lawsuits and public scandals. It appeared unsolvable; predicted to drag on for years, it cast a shadow over everything.

My role was to serve as a mediator, or a ‘third sider’, to facilitate a resolution. When I met with one of the shareholders, Abidio, at his home, I encouraged him to step back and consider what he truly desired beyond the immediate conflict. It wasn’t the stock options or company assets he listed—it was freedom.

This desire for freedom was deeply personal for Abidio, stemming from a harrowing experience of being held captive years before. Understanding this, we focused on crafting a ‘golden bridge’ for both parties, prioritizing dignity and mutual benefit over victory. Remarkably, within a week—and only four days after meeting with his rival’s representative—we had both shareholders sign a peaceful agreement.

Abidio expressed profound relief, having regained not just his goals but his life, to the joy of his family who noticed his newfound presence. What was deemed an impossible situation was resolved by identifying the core needs and creating a space for reconciliation. They even rekindled their friendship eventually, a testament to the transformative power of addressing the deeper human elements in conflict.

Wilding: What are some of the biggest mistakes you see people make when it comes to navigating conflict at work? How can these pitfalls be avoided?

Ury: The key mistake people make when navigating conflict at work is not taking the time to negotiate with themselves first. We live in reactive times, where it’s all too easy to make a move in anger—like sending an email you might regret. That’s why the internal step, getting to ‘Yes’ with yourself, is crucial. It’s about taking a moment to go to the balcony for clarity and calm.

We often oversimplify the situation to just two sides—ourselves and the other. However, we overlook the ‘third side’—the larger social context which includes colleagues and the community. They’re a resource we fail to tap into.

We should remember that for most of human history, in many cultures, conflicts were addressed not just by the individuals involved but by engaging the larger community. This approach creates a safe container where even tough conflicts can be worked through.

Wilding: What are your favorite tips for controlling stress during intense work conflicts?

Ury: Controlling stress during intense work conflicts is crucial, and it begins with us. How can we tap into our best selves in these moments? Personally, I find that nature walks are my sanctuary—they recharge me, especially before critical meetings or negotiations. Being amidst nature has a way of soothing your nerves and clarifying your thoughts.

Many people have their unique strategies, like working out, practicing yoga, or meditation. The important thing is to have that go-to method to stop and recalibrate. If you’re caught off guard in a meeting, a few deep breaths can make a world of difference by supplying oxygen and settling your nerves.

When it comes to difficult conversations or conflicts, think about the setting. It may be more productive to step outside the office. Perhaps suggest a walk or a coffee outing—walking alongside someone aligns your paths, both literally and metaphorically. It’s about finding and utilizing those modalities within our environment to create the best conditions for handling the inevitable stresses and conflicts of work life.

Wilding: You say conflict can make us think small. Can you talk about your strategies of building a golden bridge and harnessing the third side? How might you apply that to a conflict with your boss, for example?

Ury: Navigating conflicts, especially at work, can often lead us to narrow our perspective. The strategy of building a ‘golden bridge’ and harnessing the ‘third side’ is about broadening this view. If you’re in conflict with your boss, for instance, the first step is to engage in self-reflection—going to the balcony, as I like to say. This is where you pause and consider not just your desires, but your underlying interests—the ‘why’ behind what you want, which can often be deeper and more complex than it first appears.

Building a bridge to the other—your boss, in this case—starts with understanding their perspective. You may be focused on your need for a raise, but your boss might be juggling budget constraints and the precedent it sets. It’s about listening, asking for advice, and framing your request in a way that also addresses your boss’s concerns. Building a golden bridge is making it easy for them to say yes, crafting a solution that works for both of you.

For example, if your raise is declined due to budget issues, rather than accepting a ‘no’, use it as a starting point for exploration. Offer alternatives like earning a bonus based on new sales, turning the conversation into a collaborative search for solutions.

The ‘third side’ is about looking beyond the dyad of you and your boss and considering the broader social context. This includes other colleagues and the wider community within your workplace. Engaging the third side can shift power dynamics and help in finding solutions that are not only mutually beneficial but also serve the larger group’s interests.

As an anthropologist, I’ve observed that many indigenous cultures approach conflicts within the context of the entire community. They don’t view them as isolated issues but as part of a larger web of relationships, balancing power more evenly and reminding everyone of shared goals and values. This way, conflicts are not just personal standoffs but opportunities for community strengthening and collective advancement.

So, it’s not merely about finding a compromise; it’s about transforming the conflict into a win not only for both sides but also for the whole, making it a less personal issue and reminding us that what unites us is greater than what divides us.