Conflict Resolution: What I Did Not Find

I’m taking a short time-out from business travel today to write about two books I read recently and found particularly insightful, with much overlap. Both promise to help with conflict resolution and problem-solving. Sign me up.

I dislike conflict, but I’m pretty determined not to avoid it just because it’s uncomfortable. So, how to handle conflict in a productive way — that’s the tricky thing. And I confess to picking up these books with a secret hope for a magic formula. I began by skimming, in search of this bulleted or numbered short list of solve-all advice. Not to happen. So, I dug deeper and began again to read from the beginning. Sigh.

The 3rdAlternative by Stephen Covey is simply brilliant. We all became devotees of Covey’s work in the ‘80s with The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and it’s well-earned its status as an enduring classic for big-picture productivity. Yet Covey considered The 3rdAlternative his most important, life-changing work.

The principle is simple: Problems are solved best when the two parties put their positions aside (not the same as compromise) so that a third, previously undiscovered solution can be developed together. This can be applied to conflicts within families/marriages, schools, companies and the world.

But the implementation is not simple.

I particularly loved Covey’s prompt for how to start such a discussion: Are you willing to go for a solution that is better than any of us have come up with yet? Try that line when facing your next conflict! I did, with great enthusiasm I might add, and I can’t say it was the magic bullet I’d hoped for. Eventually, we got there, but I can see that this process takes practice. And time. Yet, I am encouraged and inspired to make “a 3rdalternative, the cornerstone of my own conflict-resolution efforts.

I also very much liked Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, and Sheila Heen. I didn’t find a neat formula here either, but the principles are right on target, and I find the many “difficult conversations books” (it’s a genre!) helpful just in that they exist. They give support to the intention: Just having the conversations that are too-often avoided, is perhaps progress enough. Don’t get hung up on doing it perfectly. But some pointers, like those in this book, are always welcome and boost confidence.

The authors’ idea I found most helpful was this: Begin a conversation as if you’re a neutral third party. If a mediator or a counselor were to present the situation, what would they say? That way your own judgments will not trigger the emotions (especially defenses) of the other person right at the start. Present the difference, but without judgment. In light of this, I can see where I went wrong with one conversation this year, and I’m determined to do better now with this knowledge in my toolbox.

I promise I’m not holding out on you: There were not any magic formulas for successful conflict resolution in these books. But if this is a topic of interest to you, I’d highly recommend a thoughtful read to move you forward.

(Photo: Flickr/Kristin Wall)

Originally published at on March 20, 2015.