How to Handle Conflict without Giving In:  The Art of the Deal

How do you handle conflict without getting angry or giving in? Let’s make a deal.

This morning, my daughter Zuzzy told me that she was deeply hurt by some things her friend at school is doing to her.  She wanted me to text the other parent to tell her daughter to stop it.

“No,” I said.

My daughter will need to learn to handle conflict on her own.  We talked it out and I framed some things for her to consider, and I had Zuzzy pray for the other girl despite everything in her heart telling her to shut down.  Even worse, to match misdeed with misdeed.  I also emphasized something I always say to my kids:

“Make a deal.”

(I might give the other parent a heads up as to what’s going on, but nothing more.  I won’t be asking that she speaks to her daughter.

Sometimes we meddle too much.)

At my board meeting tonight, I will have the privilege of debating and voting on one of the most consequential matters in the history of this particular organization.  It would reset the course of this organization and affect thousands of people.  With so much at stake, I’m expecting a vicious fight.

We’re all so angry with each other.

And what happens when we take a position out of anger is gridlock and rising hate.  Or, some of us just think it’s better to give into whatever the other person wants to preserve peace.  That also leads to a lot of anger.  Making progress despite opposing – and what you feel are hurtful – views is an important skill to learn, it seems now more than ever.

So, how do you handle conflict without giving in?  And how do you emerge from conflict better?  I like making deals because it means progress and a strategy forward, rather than seething in your differences.

8 Tips for Handling Conflict and Making Deals

Full disclosure:  I’m still learning.  I wish I mastered all of these things, but I’m a faulty human subject to the whims of the moment, the heat of the battle.  I think it’s ok to acknowledge that we’re not where we want to be but work hard to get better.

What I can say is that I’ve been in my fair share of meetings where people berate and belittle one another.  Where people purposely embarrassed you.  Where f-bombs drop and explode in your face.  I negotiate deals for a living when there’s millions and millions of dollars on the line.  (“Negotiating” is just a euphemism for arguing, you know.)

Here’s a mix of what I do and what I’m trying to do more with work, marriage, and what I try to teach my kids:

1. Prepare Mentally:

I’ve found that walking into a meeting having not fully prepared never goes well.  I might agree to deal points despite not having thought it through in 3-dimensions of implications and risk.  If I haven’t thought through the points from the other perspective, I could also be unfairly and unnecessarily trying to get my way.  And creating enemies.

2. Prepare Physically:

a. Dress the Part:  Ok, I admit.  I have an outfit for these occasions.  A game uniform, if you will.  How you present yourself physically will say a lot even before the meeting begins.  I usually take the opposite approach of what you would think.  For example, tonight, instead of a navy power suit and tie, I’m wearing a pink gingham shirt and sweater.  I’m showing up early to talk to the stakeholders and chat them up about how they’re doing and their vacation.  I’ll make jokes.  All before the meeting begins.  It’s harder to argue hotly against someone smiling and wearing a pink shirt.  You’re trying to disarm them with your casual appearance and likability.  They’ll be surprised when they realize that you came to play.

b. Exercise:  You’re going to be a spaghetti of emotions and anxiety.  It’s impossible not to feel that if the stakes are high or if it’s something that matters to you.  Best to work out your anxiety on your run or your dumbbell than on other people.  Keep your cool.

3. Start with Your Commonality, Not Your Differences:

I go by the assumption that you and the other person both want what’s good, but have a different worldview in what “good” might look like.  This makes me empathize with them, and when I have an empathetic heart, I listen better.  You might be surprised that you like each other and want the best for the other person.

4. Argue as if You’re Right but Listen as if You’re Wrong:

Wharton Professor Adam Grant’s Times op-ed couldn’t have been more timely.  He discusses the necessity of arguing in our society, but to “have a good argument that doesn’t become personal.” And the way we do that is to not assume we have a “monopoly on truth.”  Listen and have an open mind – you just might be wrong.  Tonight, I will be listening as intently as ever.

5. Keep Calm and Carry On Thinking:

We often give ourselves over to our emotions in these moments.  And people feed off one another – if they get sparked and you react with emotion, then they react to your emotion.  This cycle can spiral out of control.

But when you keep a calm face and an even voice (even when everything inside of you is SCREAMING!), you break the cycle.  What helps me is to focus my attention on the issue being debated and not the emotional fury before (and inside of) me.  In Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher and William Ury remind us to separate the people from the problem and to deflect the blows by focusing on the problem (also known as “Negotiating Jujitsu”).

6. Ask Questions More than You Answer:

This is a trick from Ben Franklin.  As a key figure in the debates that helped form this nation, Ben would gently lead someone to their logical fallacy by asking them questions.*

This is powerful because the other person feels like they come to this conclusion on their own rather than submitting to it.  And when they feel they come to it on their own, it preserves their dignity, they become a believer, and even advocate for the position they once fought against.  (What’s really fun is when you switch sides!)

7. Think 3-Dimensionally:

This is a lot of mental balancing, but it takes staying present and listening very intently while analyzing the situation.  This is hard to do but key to thinking critically and keeps us focused, because often times the conversation can get thrown off track and perspectives obfuscated.  So what helps me is to lean on these questions:

a. Focus on the outcome:  “What problem are we ultimately trying to solve and how is what we’re discussing helping us make progress toward that goal?”

b. Broaden your thinking:  “By what criteria/data will we use to make our decision?  What perspectives do we need to consider and how will we get those perspectives?  What could we be missing?”

c. Deepen the thinking:  “If we agree to this, what are the consequences?  What would the company/marriage/people affected experience day-to-day?  What are the assumptions underlying the different points of view?”

8. Invent Options:

Oftentimes, we think that it’s binary: “I win, you lose.” But that narrow thinking isn’t productive or helpful.  After you’ve listened well, asked the right questions, and thought it through together 3-dimensionally, then you can create better options that offer mutual gain.

Can You Always Get What You Want?

“You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometime, you just might find, you get what you need.”  — The Rolling Stones

Let’s be real.  Good negotiation is about compromise.  If you get your way every time, your relationships will begin to dry up.  No one wants to be with or do business with someone inflexible and unimaginative in resolving conflict.

But if we listen better, if there’s mutual thoughtfulness in exploring the differing viewpoints, and creativity in offering solutions, then while you might not get everything you want, you might get something even better:

A society based on mutual respect and love.  An organization that isn’t scared to make hard decisions for the long-term goodwill of the people it employs and serves.  And for my daughter, a friend.

*Ben Franklin would also pretend to fall asleep so that he can hear what others gossip about.  Silly guy.  Don’t fall asleep during your meeting!


  • Lauren Fortenberry November 8, 2017 at 8:25 pm

    When I began to read your list, I thought “time to make some additions to my own approach”. But, by the end, I felt inspired to rewrite the whole thing. Conflict, I tell my students, is what makes the story worth reading. Thank you for sharing a piece of yours!

    • JT November 11, 2017 at 8:59 pm

      The lack of conflict tells me that we’ve stopped really talking as a society. Conflict, if done well, helps us progress. Plus, life without conflict is kind of boring. I hope your conflicts are healthy and fun 😉


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