It’s as inevitable as the sunrise and taxes. And it will happen regardless of the relationship and how close you feel to the other person. At some time or another, you’re going to find yourself in an argument.

“We all experience conflict at one time or another,” says Bonnie Wichtner-Zoia, Michigan State University Extension. “And when we do, it’s not necessary for both parties to agree for a resolution to be attained. But each person does need to know that their position is truly understood by the other party,” she says.

When conflict arises, the first step toward a mutual resolution is to identify these five items:

  • Facts – State only the information you know to be true, not your feelings, recognizing that your interpretation of the facts may not be correct.
  • Impact – Describe how the situation is affecting you. Avoid criticisms.
  • Desired outcome – Explain what you would like to see happen.
  • Question – Ask how the other person sees the situation, then really listen to their response.
  • Paraphrase, probe and reframe – Respond in your own words what you think they said and ask if you understand their perspective correctly.

Let’s make a deal

That process essentially involves negotiation. “The very thought of negotiating sounds intimidating, yet we are all experienced negotiators,” says Gregorio Billikopf, University of California Extension farm labor management specialist. “Anytime we come to an agreement on anything, we are negotiating. Some of it we may do somewhat subconsciously, such as taking turns merging into traffic or deciding who says hello first. Determining where to go out for dinner with your spouse, or asking your daughter for help in training a colt also involves negotiation,” he says. The greater the importance of the outcome, the more stressful or emotional the negotiation can be.

A typical approach is to either yield or compete. “We are most likely to yield if we feel there is little chance in winning, or if the outcome is more important to the other person than to us,” Billikopf says. “Yielding is not only noble, but often the best decision; but not always. If saying yes today means living with frustration or resentment tomorrow, yielding is not a virtue.”

Competing, like yielding, means one person gets his way. “Or at least it seems so at first. In the long run, both parties often end up losing. It does little good, for instance, to get a wonderful contract for your new barn if the contractor is not able to complete the project and goes out of business,” he says.

 Competition tends to focus too much on a particular episode rather than on long term viability. Also, the focus is more on the present goal than on the relationship. “I know a retired manager who brags that his subordinates soon learned he was not always right – but always the boss. Although this manager may have obtained worker compliance from his winning tactics, I doubt he got much in terms of employee commitment. Losers often hold grudges and find ways of getting even.”

Another Perspective: Employee Improvement Starts At The Top

Compromise is an alternative to either competing or yielding. Some types of compromises involve an arrangement somewhere between two positions; others may mean alternating the beneficiary. An instance of the latter may involve alternating who gets first crack at using the computer. Greater trust and maturity is often required by this second type of compromise.

“On the plus side, compromise takes a measure of goodwill and little creativity. On the minus side, compromise often involves lazy communication or problem solving. You may have heard the classic tale of two sisters who argued over who would get an orange. They compromised and split it in half. One sister ate her half and threw away the peel; the other, who was involved in a cooking project, grated the peel of her half and threw away the rest of the orange,” he says.

Creative negotiation

Creative negotiation involves looking for the hidden opportunities presented by challenges. An integral part of this creative effort requires that possible solutions meet the needs of each stakeholder. The task at hand involves overcoming at least four difficulties:

First, our natural tendency is to come up with stances, that is, we give our best solution to a given set of needs. A greenhouse manager may ask his production supervisor to review the color picking scheme with the harvesting crew. Pickers have been harvesting too many green tomatoes lately. The greenhouse manager’s need is to lower the number of tomatoes harvested that do not meet minimum color requirement. His stance, or position, is to have the workers re-trained by the production supervisor.

Second, we are inclined to focus exclusively on our needs and assume it’s the other stakeholder’s responsibility to worry about having her needs met. Ironically, by showing a sincere interest in the needs of others, we increase the chances to have our needs met. When interviewing the greenhouse crew workers we may find they understand perfectly well the correct color to harvest tomatoes. Yet, because they get paid a piece rate, crew workers find it difficult to meet their economic needs if they devote too much attention to quality. The greenhouse manager and crew workers can initiate problem solving armed with the combined knowledge of both of their needs.

Third, our emotions regularly get in the way. Nothing kills creativity quicker than anger, pride, embarrassment, envy, greed or other strong negative emotion. Anger is often an expression of fear or lack of confidence in our ability to get what we think we want. Anger is very much self-centered. Emotional outbursts tend to escalate rather than solve a conflict. If we can improve our ability to manage our emotions and respond without getting defensive, we have gone a long way toward creative negotiation.

Fourth, we frequently fail to explore beyond the obvious solution. It helps to validate the other stakeholder’s needs as a starting point in exploring creative solutions and as a way to reduce negative emotion. "You need to get home by four today. Let’s think of how we can get you home by four and get the animals fed, too."

“As we practice creative negotiation, faith in our ability to turn challenges into opportunities will increase. This self-confidence will help us focus on problem solving and reduce the chances of falling back on contention, negative emotion or competitive negotiation. So, next time you find emotions getting the better part of you, see if creative negotiation will not help to fill your needs as well as those of the other stakeholder,” Billikopf says.

Find more information on conflict management and interpersonal mediation here.
Read more on ag labor management and worker productivity here.