Turning Conflict into a Win/Win—an Entrepreneur’s Guide


At times, all businesses encounter conflict of some kind. As an entrepreneur, you then become a conflict manager—whether you want to play that role or not.  The alternative (just letting it go) is not a good one.  You have your choice of a win/win, lose/lose, or win/lose.  Most experts agree that win/win is best—because it is the only true long-term approach to a solution.  Let’s take a look at the best procedure for getting a win/win solution.

Begin by looking for underlying reasons, interests, and needs that both sides have. Once these areas are identified, try to get each side to list them, in order of importance.  The rest of the negotiation process is a series of exchanges, with one side giving up one issue in order to gain another from the other side. 

Concession bargaining is the process of getting each side in a conflict to make concessions willingly in exchange for concessions made by the opposing side.  Union bargaining teams use this technique frequently.  Of course, this process isn’t as easy as it sounds.  The conflict manager must take the group through a series of steps, following some important guidelines, before the win-win method can work.  

1.  Get emotions under control. If emotions are strong on one side or both sides, a conflict manager must put most of the creative effort into clearing the air, calming people down.  A good beginning might be, “Look, I know you’re angry. But if we’re going to resolve this, we need to put our feelings aside and try to work on some alternatives. Would you be willing to do that?”   The final question is crucial.  Press for a commitment to solving the problem, rather than placing the blame.  Also—be very sure that you can keep your own emotions under control. Your effectiveness will decrease as your anger increases.

2.  Agree on ground rules. Once the anger has been dealt with,  establish ground rules. Start by explaining that the rules are meant to keep the process running smoothly, not to force either side to conform.  Some of the basic rules could include these:
*Agree to listen as carefully as possible, without interrupting
*Agree to control anger, even if someone disagrees with your position.
*Agree to treat each other with the respect you would like to receive.
*Agree to try to put yourself in the other’s place.
Once ground rules have been established, they can be used as calming and disciplinary devices later, should the discussion threaten to get out of control .

3.  Clarify all positions. When emotions are dealt with and the ground rules are set, it is time to get all of the issues, facts, and opinions out for close examination. When both sides have seen what the problems are from the other’s perspective, they can move toward an understanding that makes both feel like winners.  Both sides will still push for whatever they want most, but they will also be listening to the needs the other side.

4.  Explore multiple needs and issues.  Begin this phase by allowing both sides to explain why they chose their position, rather than the other position.  Then find multiple interests in the issue; especially look for the ones that both sides share.

5.  Develop alternatives.  Based on the needs and issues you have uncovered, list each possible alternative, to be examined carefully later.  This can be done much like a brainstorming session.  During this step, don’t allow any value judgments or editorial comments by either side.  Strive for quantity of ideas, rather than quality at this point.

6.  Choose the solutions that are win-win.  Explain carefully what a win-win solution is: one that gives something of value to both sides.  Then go through each alternative, asking how it can be seen as a win-win solution.  Usually a list of acceptable solutions will evolve by consensus.  When that fails to happen, you will have to make the decisions alone, asking for a consensus of the solutions he or she selects.

For these six steps to work, several requirements must be met.  First, everyone involved in the conflict must be willing to go through the steps, desiring a long-term solution, rather than harboring a fight-to-win attitude.  Second, all must be willing to take the time required to carry the process out to its conclusion.  Win-win is often abandoned for lack of time.  Third, the conflict manager must be flexible, sensitive, patient, and calm under fire.  Try this method; it does work.

Lowell H. Lamberton is professor of business at Central Oregon Community College.  For more information, feel free to contact Professor Lamberton at 541-383-7714 or by e-mail at llamberton@cocc.edu


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Founded in 1994 by the late Pamela Hulse Andrews, Cascade Business News (CBN) became Central Oregon’s premier business publication. CascadeBusNews.com • CBN@CascadeBusNews.com

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