Conflict 101: Finding the Third Alternative

The number one mistake when there’s a conflict is acting as if we must pick one way or the other. The second most common mistake is assuming that we must compromise. 

As we will see tomorrow, nothing is worse than leaving a conflict unresolved or making an ambiguous decision. However, resolving a conflict doesn’t necessarily mean choosing; the resolution can be based on creating

As we uncover both sides’ underlying motives, we might discover some common ground to build upon. What seems to be clashing views on the surface can result from filters both sides apply — filters that mask what they really care about. When this is the case, the next step is to use this deeper understanding to create together a new option neither side had thought of initially. 

Consider a scenario where you are working on a new version of a product. The Support team is pushing to dedicate more development resources to fixing problems raised by customers. This is, after all, the most burning issue from their perspective — one that affects them (and obviously the customers) daily. On the other hand, the Development team pushes to develop new features. New features are the driving force of development teams; this is their primary source of pride and motivation. Fixing customer issues behind the scenes is mostly a necessity and rarely their passion. 

The underlying forces behind both these views are more similar than what seems to be on the surface. Both groups care about the customers and the product’s success. However, while the Support team is focused on what didn’t work in the previous release, the Development team is more drawn to adding new capabilities to the next release. 

Any decision that adopts one of these views will frustrate the other group. A compromise, in its classic sense, means finding some middle ground, but this approach will likely frustrate both teams. The Support team will remain with quite a few unresolved issues, and the Development team will not be fully invested in the cool, innovative work they are passionate about.

A third alternative is a path that leads to both destinations simultaneously. It is a solution that promotes the goals of the two teams — their deeper goals and not necessarily the concrete interpretations they have initially articulated. One such solution can be to develop an entirely new, innovative feature that addresses a common problem many users experience. From the Support team’s perspective, such a feature will reduce the number of support calls and increase customer satisfaction. From the Development team’s perspective, this could be an innovative work they can relate to. This third alternative is a new path both teams can happily walk in, each toward their goals. 

The third alternative is not always easy to define. Sometimes, the only viable options will not fully align with both sides’ goals. There are times when a compromise is necessary. However, even the mere attempt to find a different path that both sides can take together strengthens trust and helps each side relate to the things important to the other side. The search for this path is often a perspective-changing journey by itself.

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