by kathy caprino

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

As many of us are seeing firsthand, we’re living in a time of divisive politics and widespread conflict, and this strife is impacting how we’re showing up in our jobs, careers and with colleagues. Leaders and businesses are increasingly concerned about the toll this division will take in their workplaces. According to a new study from employment and HR consultancy firm WorkNest, conflicts among coworkers make up approximately 50% of all grievances raised in the workplace, and workplace conflict is unfolding across industries as employees experience more stress and become less tolerant of others.

While these conditions present difficult challenges, it’s also an opportunity for growth and transformation, if we can find the courage and strength to engage in conflict in new, more productive ways. In my former work as corporate director and VP, then as a family therapist, and now in coaching hundreds of mid- to high-level leaders across six continents, it’s become clearer than ever that if we don’t shift how we view ourselves and others, and the way we approach and engage with “conflict” and disagreement – in our families, careers, and organizations – we’ll lose countless potential opportunities for achieving the very growth, success and collaborative innovation we’re seeking.

To learn more about how to negotiate divisiveness and difference and thrive amid conflict, I caught up with William Ury who has dedicated his life to transforming conflicts from destructive impulses into opportunities for collaboration and growth.

Ury is a leading negotiation expert and co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation, helping people, organizations, and nations transform conflicts around the world. He is the co-author of world’s top negotiation book with 15 million copies sold – Getting to Yes – and a half dozen other books, including his latest, Possible: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict. The book shares a new approach to conflict with an actionable framework to navigate our differences (from personal discord to boardroom battles to intractable wars)—and a range of personal stories and practical takeaways.

In his career spanning 45 years, Ury has consulted for the White House, the State Department, the Pentagon, and many Fortune 500 companies.

Here’s what Ury shares:

Kathy Caprino: William, why did you feel compelled to write this particular book at this time?

William Ury: If I were a Martian anthropologist looking at us now, I would say we are living in a time of great paradox.

Never in human evolution, thanks to our inventive technologies and ability to cooperate, have we enjoyed such an abundance of opportunities to solve the world’s problems and live the life we want for ourselves and our children.

Yet at the same time, with all the disruptions brought about by the same forces of technological, economic, and social change, we face a wave of destructive conflict that’s polarizing every facet of our lives from family to work to community to our world—and paralyzing our ability to work together.

“Are you an optimist or a pessimist?” I am often asked after forty-five years of working as a negotiation advisor and mediator working in some of the world’s toughest conflicts.

Actually, I’m a possibilist.

I am a possibilist because I’ve seen with my own eyes the seemingly impossible become possible—whether it was the end of the Cold War, the end of apartheid in South Africa, the end of the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland, or the end of boardroom battles, lawsuits, and strikes in the business world. I believe strongly in our human potential to transform conflicts for the better.

I wrote Possible to pass on key lessons I’ve learned that can enable us to navigate today’s challenging conflicts – at work, at home, and in the world.

Caprino: Most of us consider “conflict” as something negative or destructive that we often are afraid of or try to avoid. Can you explain why you believe we need more conflict, not less of it? And what is “good” conflict?

Ury: As an anthropologist and negotiator, I have come to appreciate how much conflict is natural, part of life itself. We may actually need more conflict, not less — and by that, I mean the healthy conflict that allows us to engage our differences, grow, and change what needs to be changed.

The best decisions result not from a superficial consensus but from surfacing different points of view and searching for creative solutions. Healthy conflict lies at the heart of the democratic process. In the form of business competition, it helps create prosperity. In our personal lives, we learn and grow through the challenge of healthy conflict. Many psychologists argue that marriages benefit from healthy conflict. It makes us come alive.

Healthy conflict means openly discussing our differences, respectfully listening to one another, and engaging in collaborative negotiation to find mutually satisfactory agreements.

Caprino: If conflict is important and even vital to growth, why (and how) do leaders so often fail as conflict negotiators? What gets in their way?

Ury: All too often, when faced with conflict, we fall right into the “3-A” trap. The first A is attack which usually provokes a counterattack — an eye for an eye and we all go blind.

The second A is avoid — we just ignore the problem which doesn’t solve anything. The third A is to accommodate or appease — we give in. Often, we do all three things. We avoid for a while, we even accommodate, and then we lose it and go on the attack.

What’s the way out of the 3A trap? It is to do the opposite. Instead of avoiding, lean into the conflict with curiosity. Instead of attacking, embrace the conflict with creativity. Instead of accommodating, transform the conflict with collaboration.

Caprino: When we’re dealing with conflict and strife in our own careers, leadership, and personal lives, what is the “Path to Possible” as you see it and what are the three keys to achieving it?

Ury: The path to possible got crystallized when I was out for a hike in the mountains a few years ago with my friend Jim Collins, the author of leadership classics like Good to Great.

He suddenly turned to me and asked an unexpected question:

“William, our world is in turmoil. You’ve worked in some of the world’s toughest conflicts from the Cold War to the Middle East, from bitter strikes to boardroom battles. Do you think you could sum up the essence of all you’ve learned in a single sentence?” 

I thought about it for a while. As I see it, the path to possible is made up of three great openings – three key human strengths or superpowers that we can unleash to address and transform any conflict. Each opening changes our perspective on conflict.

All too often in conflict, we react out of fear and anger. We end up getting in our own way. We need to do the opposite. We need to get out of the bunker and go to the balcony—a place of calm and perspective where we can keep our eyes on the prize. It’s a way to more directly and quickly access the answer to the question, “What do we really want?”

We frequently dig into our positions and build walls. Again, we need to do the opposite. We need to build a bridge—I call it a “golden bridge.” Instead of making it harder for the other side, we need to make it easier— easier for them to make the decision we want them to make. 

Typically, we tend to reduce the conflict to just two sides, us against them, battling it out for a unilateral victory. We often forget that there’s always a third side: the people around us who can help us (and who are impacted by our behaviors and decisions)—our family, friends, neighbors, colleagues. They can help us go to the balcony and get some perspective. They can help us build a golden bridge.

So the one sentence I offered my friend Jim on our next mountain hike was: “The path to possible is to go to the balcony, build a golden bridge, and engage the third side–all together, all the time.”

Caprino: What has been one of your most memorable negotiations and what did you learn and witness from it and how can we learn from it?

Ury: I learned the balcony lesson most dramatically when, in the midst of mediating an intense political crisis, I was furiously attacked by the president of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, in front of his entire cabinet. He had asked me how things were going, and I had made the mistake of saying there had been some progress.

“Progress? What are you talking about? Are you a fool not seeing the dirty tricks those traitors in the opposition are up to?”

And he leaned in so close to my face that I could feel his hot breath as he shouted at me. I felt embarrassed and flustered and was about to react defensively when I caught myself and thought:

“What am I trying to do here, to calm the situation? Is it really going to help if I get into an argument with the president of Venezuela?”

So I pinched the palm of my hand—to keep myself alert—and listened to him instead. After thirty minutes, I saw his shoulders sink and he asked me in a weary tone of voice:

“So Ury, what should I do?”

That was the faint sound of a human mind opening.

So I said: “Señor Presidente, it is almost Christmas. People are exhausted from the conflict. Why don’t you call a truce over the holidays?”

He was quiet for a moment, then looked at me and announced, “That’s an excellent idea! I’m going to propose that in my next speech.”

He clapped me on the back. His mood had completely shifted.

I learned then that the greatest power you have in negotiation is the power not to react (or try to “fix” in the moment) but to stop and go to the balcony instead.

Caprino: That makes great sense, but so often, we’re not in control of our emotions and reactions. The self-mastery just isn’t there. How can we better manage our own stress and anxiety in high-stakes, high-stress negotiations?

Ury: Take a pause and remember to breathe—and to take frequent breaks if possible.

Everyone has their favorite way to pause. It might be to talk with a friend, pet the dog, or meditate. Mine is to go for a walk, preferably in nature—or sit quietly in a garden.

The more stress in the situation, the more you need to ‘resource’ yourself – engage in those activities that regulate your nervous system so that you can then bring your best to the challenge at hand.

Negotiation, it turns out, is an inside job. If we want to influence another, we need to start by influencing ourselves.

Caprino: What can anyone start doing now to transform a challenging conflict into creative negotiation?

Ury: Take these three critical steps:

Go to the balcony

Instead of reacting, how can I go to the balcony—a place of calm and perspective where I can keep my eyes on the prize? 

Build a “golden” bridge

Instead of pushing, ask “How can I build a golden bridge?”—which is a mutually-appealing, attractive way out of this conflict? Instead of making it harder for the other side, how can I make it easier for them to make the decision I would like them to make?

Engage the third side

Instead of reducing conflict to just two sides—us against them—how can I activate the third side—the engaged community that can support a creative negotiation?

It is not easy to transform a challenging conflict, but if I have learned one thing in all my years of experience, it is possible. And if we can transform our conflicts, we can transform our lives.