By H. dennis beaver, esq.

This is article was originally published in Kiplinger on February 6, 2024. To read it on Kiplinger’s website, click here.

Conflict is part of life. Just ask any divorce attorney, bankruptcy lawyer or lawyer who represents employees in wrongful termination lawsuits, “What is the common denominator that brings clients to your office?” They will tell you that it is more than simply an unresolved conflict, but their clients also doing things that stand in the way of a resolution.

Harvard anthropologist and negotiation expert William Ury, author of the bestselling Getting to Yes, gives us a road map of how to approach conflict resolution in his new book, Possible: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict (coming out on February 20).

I discussed these issues with Ury and Dr. Luis Vega, social psychologist and interim dean of the School of Social Sciences & Education at California State University, Bakersfield. Here’s how not to approach a conflict at home, at work or anywhere people disagree.

1. Fall into the ‘three-A trap’ — attack, avoid or appease.

Ury: The best way to not resolve a conflict is to fall straight into the “three-A trap.” Either go on the attack, thinking, “I’m going to win this,” or do the opposite, which is to avoid. Or appease — just give in. But that doesn’t resolve it either, because we’re not happy, and it probably isn’t going to stay resolved for very long.

2. See the world as having only winners and losers.

Vega: An “I win, you lose” attitude robs others of their humanity and feeds the virus of bigotry and vitriol. Self-focus deprives us of the need we all have for connection and community. Conflict becomes circular — they attack us, we attack them, and we all lose. Marriage counselors see this a great deal where one partner insists on always being right and can’t find their way to compromise. The next step is obvious.

3. React out of fear and anger.

Ury: Don’t give in to your initial emotional reactions of fear and anger and then dig in, refusing to budge and thinking, “It’s them vs us.” You will destroy all trust and almost all possibility of agreement if you:

  • Focus on your problem alone, not their needs.
  • Just talk at people, or don’t talk with them at all.
  • Cut the phone line with your neighbor as a way to deal with your differences.
  • Reduce it all to a zero-sum proposition where one side wins, and the other side loses.
  • Just keep pushing them to do what you want and treating them with disrespect.
  • Make it harder for them in every possible way.

Also, discouraging help from anybody — “stay out of it; it’s none of your business” — won’t resolve anything.

And, if you’re a third party watching this going on, you can ensure nothing works out by doing nothing. Or worse, taking sides and escalating the situation. Or getting discouraged and giving up very quickly.

4. Overly rely on intuition and experience — fail to listen or pause.

Vega: You may know yourself, the other party, even relevant stakeholders, but vigilance of your own emotions is critical. And it is tricky because of tribal impulses imbued and influenced by primal emotions processed in the lower brain. This often funnels myriad factors into negative feelings that add fuel to conflict — anger, fear, distrust, contempt and jealousy. This is why, before reaching a conclusion or speaking out, we need to pause and listen, thereby calming our reactive emotions.

5. Fail to ask, “How can I help?”

Ury: Asking an open-ended question like, “Can you help me understand what happened here? How can I help?” is an essential tool. Suddenly, in that moment, you are putting yourself on the same side as them, searching for a way to resolve the issue instead of coming in as an adversary. This simple question often changes everything.

Vega: Asking, “How can I help?” gets a reflexive, or programmed, response that creates familiarity with a task — or muscle memory. It hardly matters what the issues are: When someone says, “I need your help,” the reflexive answer is, “Sure, how can I help?” This suspends biases — for a moment — creating a focus on common interests and an opening for dialogue. It is a truly powerful tool.

6. React to sarcasm with sarcasm.

Ury: Either in a meeting or in written form, if you meet sarcasm with sarcasm, attack with counterattack, distrust with distrust, you end up getting into a fight that no one comes out winning.

When putting things in writing, ask yourself, “Who else will see my sarcastic reply?” and “Can this harm my credibility?”

So, just ignore the insults and deal with the issues — you will come out of this looking far better.

The takeaway

Possible makes readers a fly on the wall of Ury’s incredibly accomplished life. Conflict resolution, as readers see, so often comes down to one person who radiates that “we can resolve this together” attitude. It is a terrific read, and he wants the reader to become that person.