When Conflict Arises, Always Focus on Interests, Not Positions

Whenever you’re in a relationship, regardless of whether it’s a husband-wife relationship, an employer-employee relationship, an employee-employee relationship, a parent-child relationship, a friend-friend relationship, etc. conflict will inevitably occur. It’s not a question of “If it will occur …” it’s only a question of, “When will it occur.”


Why? Because, as you’ve heard me say many times before, we’re all afflicted with a sin-nature, which means we’re all hardwired for self-interest (i.e we’re all driven to do what we believe is in our best interest from the time we’re born until the day we die).


Because we’re all driven by self-interest, it’s impossible for any two people to continually be in a relationship with one another and not have conflict. Why? Because inevitably, your self-interest and theirs will, at times, be at odds (or at least appear to be at odds) with one another.


It’s impossible to take two people who have different personalities, different experiences, different goals, different interests, different socio-economic backgrounds, different families of origin, different relational experiences, different intellectual experiences etc. and not have conflict. 


So, if you can’t avoid having conflict with those with whom you have a relationship, what can you do to ensure that you have the best shot at creating a win-win for both of you? The answer to that question can be found in a great little book entitled, Getting to Yes, by Ury and Fisher—which is a lay version of the Harvard Negotiation Project which was used to create the Camp David Accord between Israel and Egypt during the Carter Administration.


I. Comprehend the Problem With Positional Arguing


To ensure that you’ll use this process over and over again, you have to come to the conclusion that positional arguing is not in your best interest. In fact, the basic premise of Ury and Fischer’s book (and the one that forever changed how I think about and deal with conflict) is that the reason most conflict doesn’t get resolved is because people continually fight about positions. For example,

A: I want to go out tonight. B: I want to stay in tonight.

A: I want to go to New York City for vacation. B: I want to visit my family for vacation.

A: I want a $5,000 raise. B: I’ll give you a $2,000 raise

A: I think we should raise the fuel tax. B: I’m against raising any taxes. 

A: I want a sports car. B: I want a minivan

A: I want you to do the dishes. B: I want you to do the dishes.

A: I want Italian for dinner. B: I want Mexican for dinner.

A: I want to save more money. B: I want to spend more money

As long as two people fight about positions, there’s no possibility for a win-win. If A wants to go to NYC and B wants to visit their family—and, eventually, both A and B go to NYC for vacation, then, by definition, A has won and B has lost—which isn’t necessarily great for that relationship. One person won. One person lost. And neither will forget that.

So, how do you find your way around conflict when it appears that there are only two positions?


II. Unleash the Power of Focusing on Interests

The way around the conflict between the two positions is to not talk about the two positions at all. Instead, you want to talk about each other’s interests. And the key question you need to ask to uncover each person’s interests is …


“So, what are you really interested in?”

That’s it! Seems so simple (and it is), but if you master asking that question all the time, you’ll be amazed at how quickly you’ll be able to solve conflict with both of you feeling good about it. For example, let’s say that you and your spouse are having some conflict over where to go for this year’s vacation. 

Let’s say your spouse wants to go to the mountains and you want to go to the beach. In positional arguing, both of you would keep fighting until either one of you gave up or both of you decided to go someplace different—a place that neither of you really wants to go (but at least neither of you wins). Not a great solution.


Fortunately, there is a better way. If you simply focus on interests—by asking one another the key question, “So, what are you really interested in?” everything will change and you’ll see that all kinds of options open up.

Let me walk you through what this might look like. For example, your spouse might say, in response to the interests question.

“What I’m really interested in is going someplace secluded, where there aren’t a lot of people, where’s it’s not too hot, and where I can get out and walk around in nature. I just need some down time to rejuvenate. I’m really tired”


Then you might say,


“What I’m really interested in is going someplace where I can sit in the sun, get a good tan, feel the sand in my toes, and have a couple of nice restaurants we can visit so we can have a few romantic dinners together.”


Hopefully, you just noticed what happened. By simply asking the “So, what are you interested in” question, you were no longer arguing about your two different positions. You started talking about interests. And once you did that, you were instinctively drawn toward wanting to find a common solution that makes both of you happy.


Moreover, what are “interests?” They’re simply the tangible expression of what your self-interests are (which means you’re now working with how people are, not how you’d like them to be).


Once you have each other’s interests on the table, it makes it infinitely easier to find a place where both of your interests could be met (and, the good news is that there are hundreds of locations all around the world that would meet both of your interests (but not necessarily your original positions).

I cannot overstate how powerful this concept is, nor how beneficial this one question can be to your life.


Whenever you run into a conflict with anyone that seems unsolvable, stop and ask yourself, “Are we arguing about positions?” The answer will be, “Yes.” At that point, all you need to do is stop trying to work around one anothers’ natural tendencies toward self-interest, and start working with them.


Ask the key question, “So, what are you really interested?” Listen to their answer. Clarify what their primary interests are. Then once you get each others’ core interests out on the table, you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to find a win-win solution quickly—and, in no time, you, too, will become a fan of the “So, what are you interested in?” question.

To your accelerated success!

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