Collaboration: Interest Based Conflict Resolution

Interest Based Conflict ResolutionI love this statement from Radical Collaboration:

If your relationship[s don’t] bump up against some conflict every once in awhile, you’re either in complete denial or overly medicated.

Conflict at work is not inherently good or bad. It’s just a situation. It’s also an opportunity to grow.

Healthy conflict can ensure that multiple ideas are polished against each other, or combined to catalyze a more powerful reaction, through an expanded perspective.

Yeah, but THEY are Just Nuts…

(When the meds have worn off) have you ever been engaged in an argument where the other person seemed irrational?

Could it be because you didn’t understand their underlying interests, nor they yours?

Take a Stance, not a Firm Position

When you find yourself in a disagreement – what’s it really about? Is it their interests or their position? What’s the difference you may ask?

Conflict at work is not inherently good or bad. It’s just a situation Share on X

From Radical Collaboration: “Interests are the wants, needs, and desires that underlie the problem-solving efforts in the first place. Contrast that to a position, which is simply one way of fulfilling that desire or meeting that need. An interest reflects an underlying need while a position reflects a favorite solution.”

Positions are clung to, things to be defended, rigidly. People spend lots of energy trying to convince others (and often themselves) of the “rightness” of their own position while they point out all the fallacies of the other’s. (/me hand raised, guilty) People often don’t even realize they are doing so, which then creates an adversarial situation. Things then easily escalate beyond disagreement to a crusade.

Reconcile Interests Instead of Positions

It is usually easier to approach resolution by examining interests, not positions, (and definitely not by defending solutions.) Why?


  1. Almost always there are multiple interests involved.
  2. Interests themselves may not be in conflict even though positions are.
  3. There are usually several ways to go about satisfying a single interest.

Getting Started with Interest Based Conflict Resolution

If you are seeking shared resolution of conflict, it is crucial that you develop a good understanding of the interests of all the stakeholders involved.

  1. Set the tone. Be open and direct about your intentions to solve the conflict thru collaboration. Good starts make for good endings.
  2. Define the problem and develop a statement of issues. Make sure there’s a mutual understanding of the problem to be solved. “If you can’t agree on the problem, you’re unlikely to agree on the solution.”
  3.  Reach agreement about your decision making process. (See Decision Making Patterns on Teams)
  4. Gain understanding of the underlying interests of all parties involved. Often in conflict each “side” will only have a vague sense of the interests of the other. A surprisingly large number of participants in the debate don’t even have a good understanding of their own interests.
Healthy conflict can ensure that multiple ideas are polished against each other Share on X

Tools for Understanding Interests

  • Role reversal – Put yourself into the place of the other side. How might they describe the situation? Try to articulate what they are seeking from the negotiation and, more importantly, why they are seeking it.
  • Worst critic analysis – With this approach you focus on the worst criticism the other party will have to on your interests.
  • Pay attention – To your internal chat, the energy of the discussion, body language.
  • Forgive quickly – Yourself as well as others. Holding a grudge never does much good.
  • Don’t shame or blame – Take the high road, particularly if someone you’re conflicting with has ineffective communication skills.
  • Ask questions – We all make assumptions, it is near impossible to escape that. But you can use questions to probe, to confirm your understanding.  (See Powerful Questions)
  • Keep things simple – problem statements, issues, interests need to be described in short concise language.
  • Consider cultural differences – The impact of culture on conflict is deeper topic than the space of this post will allow. Suffice it to say stay attuned to underlying cultural differences and how they will affect communication
  • Don’t ignore history – The past will influence current interactions. Explicitly acknowledge any old baggage. If there’s any elephant in the room, put it on the table.
  • Intrinsic motivators – These are easily overlooked, until they are not being met.
“Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.” Bertrand Russell Share on X

Now We can Work Toward a Solution

Once there’s a good understanding of interests, you’ve removed a huge roadblock. Now there’s the opportunity to work towards a solution.

  1. Invent creative solutions. Work jointly to create a large number of potential solutions to meet as many interests of all the parties as possible.
  2. Evaluate possible solutions against interests. Narrow the possible solutions and reach clear commitments and agreements. And if you can not, well, see Contingency Plans below.

And all along: Plussing – No one says, “No, but…” only, “Yes, and…”

Guidelines and Methods for Inventing Creative Solutions

In Radical Collaboration, the authors provide a great list of guidelines:

  1. Be firm that you get your interests met, but flexible about how.
  2. Always look for mutual gains.
  3. If interests are not mutual, try to have them dovetail or get them met without damaging the interests of the other side.
  4. Separate the process of inventing options from judging or evaluating those possible solutions.
  5. Invent as many options as possible.
  6. Do not assume a fixed pie.
  7. Put as much energy into solving for the other side’s interests as you do your own.
  8. Look to objective standards for potential solutions.
  9. With equally legitimate and competing interests at stake, look for fair procedures.
  10. Be willing to negotiate over process-related criteria as well as substantive criteria.

And a summary of methods for generating solutions:

  1. Brainstorming
  2. Approaching the problem from a different perspective
  3. Alternating between general and specific views
  4. Dividing single issues into their various parts
  5. Reframing
  6. Reorganizing from the start
  7. Making wish lists
  8. Changing the starting point or working backward
  9. Playing “what if” games
  10. Looking for differences

And if you’re feeling really stuck, explore some Oblique Strategies, courtesy of Brian Eno.

When you find yourself in a disagreement - what’s it really about? Share on X

Contingency Plans – When We Agree to Disagree

“Ok,” you say, “This is all well and good. But what if, in spite of all of the above advice, we can’t come to an agreement?”

Well, what would you be able to do (without the help or permission of the conflicting party) if you couldn’t come to a resolution?

That’s your contingency plan. And you evaluate if that plan is better or worse than the what’s currently on the table.

Depending on the situation, you might want to develop your plan in advance. If that’s not possible, don’t agree just to stop the conflict.

Ask for time. And regroup later.

Good luck and here’s to some healthy conflict!

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