When You Need to Get to "Yes"

July 08, 2020


Whether you’ve been assigned to a team project or are learning how to negotiate a workspace that unexpectedly is also inhabited by parents, siblings or a roommate, this year’s summer hires are bound to become expert negotiators because of the small and large conflicts that are inevitable in such environments. To resolve conflicts and move everyone to “yes,” keep the following in mind.


Understand what the “issue” really is 

Most conflicts are the result of one of three issues, each of which requires a unique response:
1.) Missing or misunderstood information - Conflicts often emerge when one person has incorrect information or when everyone involved does not possess the same information. To resolve this type of conflict, take responsibility for ensuring that everyone possesses the same information and the correct facts. Because some people may not automatically reveal the information that they have, you may need to bring the team together and ask participants to disclose relevant information ... a “let’s place all of our cards on the table” moment. Keep everyone focused on “what is right” rather than “who is right.”
2.) Opinion differences - These conflicts are more challenging than missing-information conflicts because everyone possesses the same information and they view it differently. Workers assigned to team projects often encounter this type of conflict when dealing with deadlines—some prefer to push hard at the project’s beginning with the goal of finishing early while others say they work best when the pressure of an impending deadline looms before them. 

You can resolve an opinion-difference conflict by simply agreeing to disagree. However, such agreements are neither practical nor wise in many work scenarios. While they may help keep everyone’s egos intact, they will not move a project forward, and project progress must be your primary goal. Manage these conflicts by encouraging a thorough airing of opinions. Then, work to develop a consensus as to the best course of action that will advance the project.

Read also “Why We Should Be Disagreeing More at Work,” Harvard Business Review (2018)

3.) Actions and behaviors - Conflicts of this nature arise when someone does something with which you disagree … strenuously. To resolve this conflict, you will need to separate the person from the action. 
In Getting Past No, William Ury, co-founder of the Harvard Program on Negotiation, describes a technique whereby you imagine yourself as on a stage and then mentally “go to the balcony.” This effectively removes you from a specific action or behavior and allows you to gain perspective. While you’re on the balcony, become super curious. Study your reaction to the offending act and discern the underlying causes of your feelings. Are you angry at what this person just said and did, or did it evince something in your prior experience unrelated to this event that still causes anger whenever you think about it? Additionally, examine the actual act or behavior. Is there more than one way in which the behavior could be interpreted? Challenge your initial conclusion. Then, descend from your balcony and restart the conversation by saying, “Help me understand why you did (said) this.”  

To learn more about this technique, view an excerpt from the 57th Annual John R. Coen Lecture at University of Colorado Law, "Getting to Yes in the World: Reflections 30 Years Later" by William Ury.


Manage negative emotions while addressing conflict

All conflict will trigger a fight-or-flight response, during which emotions will take over and interfere with your ability to maintain focus on the issue that is at the heart of the conflict. The following strategies can help you switch from an emotional reaction to rational problem solving:

  • Take a time out; practice deep-breathing exercises; draw on any mindfulness techniques with which you are familiar. Use this time to allow your brain’s amygdala to calm down and your prefrontal cortex to take over.
  • Once you’re calm and prepared to focus on problem solving, schedule an in-person conversation. If social-distancing requirements make a face-to-face talk impossible, pick up your phone and call or schedule a Zoom meeting. Avoid emails, texts and tweets to resolve conflicts. Because these forms of communication are incapable of communicating nuance, they are more likely to exacerbate disagreements than to resolve them.
  • Make a decision to speak professionally at all times. A violent outburst or the use of obscenities will offend many and leave others feeling that you are unpredictable at best and unstable at worst.
  • Throughout any conversation, frequently say, “I understand.” This will help you establish some common ground. To the extent that you mirror the language of the other person involved—literally repeat what he or she said—you may acquire a better understanding of his or her point of view.
  • Take responsibility for your own feelings and avoid blame-shifting. It’s perfectly appropriate to say, “I’m frustrated that this project is due tomorrow, and we still haven’t pulled together a final document.” It is not okay to say, “You’ve failed the team.”


When a conflict involves roommates or family members

With so many people working from home, conflict among roommates and family members has increased. The following recommendations, developed by Bruce Feiler, New York Times best-selling author of The Secrets of Happy Families, may help:

  • Avoid sitting either above or below your counterpart, where you may be perceived as either attempting to dominate or utterly passive. Instead, sit beside one another.
  • Focus on moderating the tone of your voice … not too loud, not too soft, just right.
  • Take a break. In almost all negotiations, parties benefit from breaks. In fact, a recess can be essential when a participant becomes agitated or when it appears that the discussion may totally derail. Unless a decision needs to be made immediately, summarize any agreements that you’ve reached thus far and agree to return to outstanding issues in the near future. 

Read also “Being a Good Roommate During Coronavirus: Dos and Don’ts,” New York Times, April 21, 2020, or “>How to End Pandemic Fights with Your Partner,” New York Times, June 8, 2020.



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