Winning vs. Resolving Conflicts

When you’re in a conflict with someone else, you want to define your goal clearly.

Are you trying to “win” the conflict, or to “resolve” it?

Although the words seem similar enough to be interchangeable, they couldn’t be more different.

When you “win” a conflict, you get the outcome that you want without regard to what the other person gets and how they feel about the process.

When you “resolve” a conflict, you get a solution that you and the other person can both live with. In addition, you and the other person both feel heard, understood, and acknowledged.

There are times it makes sense to “win” a conflict, and there are other times where resolving it makes more sense.

The two most important factors to consider are:

1) How important is the relationship to you?

2) How long do you anticipate your relationship with the other person to last?

Let's say you’re driving your car to the airport. You’re late for a flight.

As you pull into the parking lot, you realize the whole lot is full... except for one space.

As you turn the corner to pull into the space, you notice another car coming in the opposite direction trying to do the same thing.

You arrived at the parking spot a split second before the other person. Arguably, the spot should be yours.

However, the other person stops their car in such a way that you’re both blocked from parking your cars in the desired spot.

Now you have a conflict. You both want the same thing.

What do you do?

Do you give the other person a piece of your mind? Do you calmly explain you were there first? Do you insist on taking the space? Or do you let the other person take it?

Now here’s the kicker...

As you get out of your car to talk to the other driver, you look up and suddenly realize the other person is actually your mother-in-law.

Does this change how you approach the situation?

If you “win” the conflict, you get that specific parking spot.

If you “resolve” the conflict, you preserve and possibly enhance the relationship, and you solve the problem of needing a place to park.

RE-SOLVE = RE-lationship + SOLV-ing the problem at hand.

Here’s the tradeoff with “winning” a conflict.

If you win a conflict at all costs, often the other person loses. This typically damages the relationship, which ends up being a loss to you in the long run too.

This long-term loss often is not initially apparent to someone that’s focused on “winning.”

These relationship “injuries” accumulate over time and erode the relationship.

(Incidentally, this is why many divorces occur. If you always “win” your conflicts with your spouse, that’s going to damage your relationship.)

This doesn’t mean you should allow yourself to “lose” every conflict either.

(This too damages the relationship because you’ll be resentful of the other person, and that’s very damaging to relationships.)

Resolving a conflict means both people get most (but probably not all) of what they want most of the time.

Conflict resolution usually takes more time and work up front. It pays off enormously in the long run.

In any conflict, the most obvious solution to each person is usually the path that allows each of them to get what they individually want.

To get a resolution that works for both people, it usually requires using each person’s initial proposal as an opportunity to get curious.

Why do you like your proposal? What need does it address for you? If there were another way to address that need, would you be open to it?

If you and your partner are arguing over how you should split a bag of 12 lemons, it’s useful to ask, "WHY do you want the lemons?", rather than insisting each of you should get the whole bag.

If you want the lemon juice (from the inside of the lemon) to make lemonade, and your partner wants the zest (from the outside of the lemon) for cooking, you can come up with additional possible solutions.

In this example, you might propose getting the juice from all 12 lemons, while giving your partner the rind (skin) of all 12 lemons.

At a concrete, practical level, effective problem resolution involves being willing to move beyond the first solution that comes to your mind and to collaboratively explore 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and even 5th iterations of a solution.

With each iteration, you want to explain what aspects of the prior iteration didn’t work for you and ask the same of the other person. With each new iteration, you try to resolve the need that was uncovered in the last iteration.

These are the skills that VP and C-Level executives have that more junior (and often more technically skilled) professionals lack.

This is a category of skills that I teach the high achieving professionals in my Inner Circle mentorship group. Enrollment opens up just two times per year.

If you’d like to learn more skills like this to accelerate your career, submit the form below to be included when I send emails about my Inner Circle, and to be notified of the next enrollment period.

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1 comment… add one
  • John Dec 18, 2018, 4:05 pm

    Good article. When teaching project management, I show students five different ways to address conflicts depending on: situation, relationship, and expected duration of the agreement.

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