In a world of differing values, limited resources, and uneven access to power, conflict is an inevitable part of life. We are each called into situations in our day-to-day lives where our interests don’t align with others’. As we make our way through a world of conflict, many of us feel compelled to fight to achieve our desires and stand up for our beliefs, even at the cost of peace.
While some approach conflict raring for a fight, others avoid conflict, associating disagreement with pain and hurt feelings. Nonetheless, conflict is not inherently negative. Indeed in leadership and negotiations trainings, we learn that conflict can be a force for change and growth. That is why strong leaders embrace conflict. Experts show that having a diversity of opinions can lead to better decision-making. Testing our own beliefs against others’ ensures that our ideas hold up. If not, then conflict allows us to hear other views and create new ideas together.
If conflict generates growth and change, everyone involved ultimately benefits. However, conflict that is allowed to fester without resolution or is manifested through violence can have seriously damaging effects on relationships. That’s why you should learn the negotiation skills that will allow you to grow from conflict.
Moving Past Positions to Get Needs Met
Part of what differentiates a generative conflict from a damaging one is how parties go into it. If each side views the conflict as zero-sum — that is to say, any gain for the other side is a loss for your own — than the conflict will be violent by definition. Anything you gain will have been extracted from the other party, leaving one negotiator with a loss.
Experts at negotiations.com tell us that negotiation gives us the opportunity to creatively search for solutions that can meet all parties’ needs. Indeed, the goal of the negotiation should be to reach an agreement where everyone feels satisfied. However, as many locked in conflict know, it can be hard to imagine new ideas when you feel committed to your position.
When you have set your position, refuse to budge, and interpret any movement from that position as a loss, your zero-sum thinking has entrapped you. However, a position is nothing more than a strategy to get your needs met. That’s why, in negotiation classes, mentors encourage their students to view conflict from the point of view of needs, rather than from positions.
Know Yourself to Recognize Your Needs
To try to find a win-win solution, negotiation courses tell us we must understand what is driving people to enter the negotiation. You are one of those people! Ask yourself why you are in conflict. This reflection requires enough self-knowledge to be able to identify which of your needs aren’t being met. Understanding and naming your own unmet needs will help you understand what is leading you to conflict.
Knowing yourself also means knowing your limits — your BATNA (Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement). Reminding yourself that you have limits will help ensure that the agreed upon solution is still a win for you. When you reach a negotiated agreement, you will know that you haven’t just tried to conciliate or appease, but have achieved an agreement that you can stick by.
Develop Listening Skills to Hear Others’ Needs
Likewise, in order to meet shared needs, you must be able to identify what needs aren’t getting met for the other party. Your ability to recognize those needs stems from your ability to hear the other person. Most negotiations seminars call on participants to practice listening skills, with attention focused on hearing the other person’s needs, rather than on judging the story or placing blame.
For instance, instead of merely hearing that a coworker didn’t finish their work and judging your colleague as lazy and uncaring about the team’s success, a leader who has been through a negotiations course will try to hear what needs their colleague was meeting by avoiding work. Perhaps your colleague had a need for more independence, for rest, or for more support. By listening attentively to the larger story, asking for clarity, and checking in to make sure you’re actually hearing what the other person is saying, you can identify needs. Really hearing those needs allows you to connect on a human level, build trust, and have the opportunity to look for ways to meet them.
Reaping the Benefits of Generative Conflict through Negotiation
Given that we will face divergent interests with others in our life, we need to learn to embrace the opportunities conflict offers. Because people have been involved in zero-sum conflicts, many tend to regard conflicts with anxiety and get annoyed if someone disagrees with them. Nonetheless, if we bring the lessons from our negotiation classes into our own lives, we have the opportunity to use conflict to create mutual gain, encourage growth, and simultaneously protect and strengthen our relationships.