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Winning at Any Conflict

Updated: May 19, 2020

Conflict comes our from differences – in needs, values and motives. Sometimes these differences complement each other, but sometimes they oppose each other.

Conflict is not a problem in itself – it's how we respond to it that matters.

It's important that we do something, because whether we like it or not, conflict demands our attention. Because an unresolved conflict takes up a lot of our energy. It can fester under the surface, create chronic anxiety, and build up over time. We all know how exhausting an unresolved conflict can be.

It's not always easy to fix the problem, but it's absolutely invigorating when you do.

It's A Skill You Can Learn

Resolving conflict requires certain skills. That's good news, because that means they're learnable. You don't need to be born with certain personality traits. Because no one comes out of the womb knowing how to resolve conflicts. And it's not a practice that's reserved for the Ghandi's and Mandela's of the world. It's available to everyone, at every level, in any situation.

Conflict skills help you work through personal differences in order to open to creative possibilities. The skills of conflict resolution draw you closer to other people, as you work together to search for - or create - fair solutions and balanced needs. It involves a huge relationship shift from adversaries to co-operative partners. In this shift, every person benefits.

These skills are important. Conflict is an incredible opportunity for learning. We'll recognize our personal baggage, biases, bottle-necks and inefficiencies. We'll also identify our passions, values, and areas of expertise.

But the learning potential of conflict often goes unrecognized when people react with “fight” or “flight”.

Conflict skills create a third way: “Flow”. "Flow" was an idea first coined by the pyschologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (cheek-sent-me-high), that describes a creative state of where challenge, talent, and problem-solving flourish.

A deeper trust develops as people realize that “we can work it out”. Relationships become more fulfilling and supportive. And you feel more confident, calm, and creative in the process.

The Winning Approach

The secret to success is asking yourself, "how can we solve this as partners rather than opponents?" This is a profound shift from "me" to "we".

The Winning Approach changes the conflict approach from combat (attack and defense) to co-operation (engage and create). It totally transforms the tone and direction of the communication. One person who consistently applies a joint problem-solving approach can make all the difference.

From now on, that person is you.

Therefore, the only person you need to change is yourself. Because let's face it, it's the only person you can. Until you pay attention, you'll stay blissfully oblivious to the way you argue. You might find you have a knee-jerk reaction in difficult situations – based on long-time habits combined with the passing mood of the moment. Our default setting is to assume that if one person is right, then the other person must be wrong.

But consistent winners never think of winning and losing; only winning and learning.

Start With Identifying Needs

It's about time to take a second to consider a new approach for sticky situations.

The most powerful win-win move you can make is to change direction of the conversation (or the lack thereof) by engaging, listening, and discussing.

Go into the conversation thinking, "I want to win, and I want you to win too. How can we make this happen?"

But don't get tempted to jump straight to solutions. Ask the questions, listen for answers, and uncover the needs. If you jump straight to solutions, you may completely miss the problem! Here's a great little illustration. You and I are in the kitchen. There is only one orange left in the fruit bowl and both of us want it. We don't discuss a thing. Normally I would arm wrestle you. But we decide to be civilized. What would you expect the solution to be? Compromise is one option. We "split the baby," as they say - and each of us gets half an orange. Let’s assume that’s what we do. You now go to the juicer and start squeezing a pitiful trickle of orange juice. I, with much difficulty and very little grace, begin to grate the rind to flavor my world famous cake.  If we had discussed our needs rather than jumping straight to solutions, we could have both had the equivalent of a whole orange. Our needs were, in fact, complementary and not conflicting. You could have had a thirst-quenching orange juice with a slice of my life-changing cake. But alas, not today.

Five Questions To Change the Game

Addressing each person’s underlying needs means you build solutions that acknowledge and value those needs, rather than denying them. Even where solutions cannot be as perfect as our orange story, people feel differently about the outcome.

To probe below the surface, redirect the energy of the conversation by asking questions like:

  • “Why does that seem to be the best solution to you?” 

  • “What’s your real need here?” 

  • “What interests need to be served in this situation?” 

  • “What values are important to you here?” 

  • “What’s the outcome or result you want?”

The answers can significantly alter the discussion. It digs up the raw materials for co-operation. It allows you to say what you need and for other people to say what they need too.

The Four-Step Formula to Win Every Time

In order to make sure you turn every conflict into a positive, productive experience, make sure you always:

  1. Go Back to Underlying Needs

  2. Recognize Individual Differences

  3. Adapt Your Position in the Light of Shared Information and Attitudes

  4. Attack the Problem, Not the People

This strategy works, because co-operation gives both of you more of what you want. The Winning Approach is conflict transformation for mutual gain.

"I defeat my enemies when I make them my friends." -Abraham Lincoln



We didn’t make this stuff up. The skills in this article are based on over 30 years of experience, and the curated tools made available through the Conflict Resolution Network (CRN). CRN is a resource center that offers high-quality free and low-cost training materials for educational programs that move people and systems away from adversarial approaches towards cooperation and sustainable solutions. For more information and access to their absolutely incredible (and extraordinarily accessible) resources, we recommend you visit

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