The meeting was nearly 20 years ago. I was 24 years old, a young non-profit director helping lead the formation of a large citywide coalition.
The tension in the room was thick. And it quickly boiled over.
After an increasingly acrimonious discussion, a leader in the group stood up and publically challenged me. I defended my position. He raised his voice, dug hard, and got personal.
I didn’t know what do to. And it didn’t seem like any of the 30 other people in the room did either.
Out of the silence, a local leader called out: “Conflict is good.”
I felt the truth in that statement. But I felt so angry, caught off guard and embarrassed, I stood up and walked out of the room.
For most of us, conflict is scary. It triggers a very real ‘fight, flight and/or freeze’ physiological reaction. That’s because it conjures up a host of fears: What if I harm this relationship by speaking up? What if they retaliate? What if I lose my cool and make matters worse? What if I was wrong all along? Our mind can’t tell these fears apart from the proverbial lion on the savannah, so a host of chemical reactions put us squarely at the mercy of primitive emotions – and squarely outside the realm of reason and calm.
Most of us want to avoid conflict. When it goes of the rails, the consequences can be uncomfortable at best and disastrous at worst.
Yet some level of conflict is inevitable in any relationship, both at work and in our personal lives. You want sushi for dinner, I want a burger. You think we need two weeks to complete the project, I think we need four. You think we should focus more on speed, I think we should focus more on quality. And the list goes on.
Not only is conflict inevitable, conflict can, to go back to those words uttered at that meeting nearly 20 years ago, actually be a good thing. Disagreements can lead to better ideas. They drive innovation. They generate commitment and buy-in, because we’ve all said our piece. They can even strengthen relationships – we build trust when we say what needs to be said, hash things out, and come to a resolution.
So how do we leverage the power of conflict while acknowledging the very real pitfalls it presents? The key is to turn conflict from a fight to win into a problem to solve, and then to work together for a solution that helps all parties.
Sounds great in theory, but how do you do that? We’ve drawn on the work of negotiation gurus like Bill Ury to develop a simple 4-part model you can use to work out any disagreement – with your boss, your coworker, your teenager, or your spouse.
We call this model SWOP, and we’ve taught it to hundreds of people in workplaces across the US and Europe. It stands for Same Side, Why, Options and Plan. Here’s how to use it.
Same Side is a foundational mindset, and it is essential. Instead of viewing conflict as a fight to win or a position to defend, embracing a Same Side mindset means viewing a disagreement as a problem to solve. Same Side means taking our energy away from trying to convince someone else or defend against them, and instead, directing that energy – ours and theirs - toward working something out. Same Side starts with a sensitive set up and solution-oriented, collaborative framing. “I know you’re upset. Are you up for trying to see if there is a way we can both get what we need here?”
The biggest mistake we can make in any disagreement is to focus on the requests and demands we and the others may be making, instead of focusing on the interests and needs that underlie them. If I know you have a vacation planned for two weeks from now, I’ll be more likely to understand why you want to speed up the project timeline. And if you know I just got some heat from a customer, you may be more likely to empathize with me about why I think we need to take more time. It may sound simple, but in our experience teaching this content over the past 7 years, we have rarely if ever seen anyone in our training sessions practice asking someone why what they want matters to them, without first being prompted from us. People also very often skip explaining why what they want matters to them. Try asking and explaining why — in that order — and we think you’ll notice a game-changing shift. The key is to ask with genuine curiosity and explain with calmly and objectively, rather than acting like a lawyer trying to interrogate a witness, or make his or her case.
You are focusing on listening, explaining why and problem solving. Now how do you find a solution? The key is to brainstorm options that can help both parties meet their needs and achieve their goals. The biggest mistake people make at this stage: offering a way forward. Instead, we suggest asking, “What do you think we can do to resolve this?” That helps generate buy-in from the other party, and generates a real, two-way conversation. If you avoid asking and collaborative problem solving and push through your solution instead, you risk alienating the other party and deciding on a plan they won’t follow through on any way.
All your careful work comes to naught without a plan. That means agreeing to concrete next steps that can be verified later through a simple SPOT check: Scope (what are we agreeing to, and how much), Process (how will we get it done), Owner (who will do what), and Timeframe (by when we promise to deliver). If the plan is a broad one, check in at key milestones. That way, you can course correct, celebrate the wins and hold one another accountable as needed.
Will following these steps always ensure a perfect resolution to any disagreement? Of course not. But in our experience working with hundreds of leaders, managers, employees and teams at dozens of companies, using the SWOP tool can help transform destructive conflicts into productive exchanges that build trust and generate better solutions – one disagreement at a time.