In conflict, each side may have different and even opposite positions, but what is their interest? By asking ‘Why do you hold that position?’ or ‘What do you need?’, sides may find a resolution that benefits the long-term relationship.

Misha Glouberman, who teaches conflict resolution, says conflict has to be solved together with a vision to protect the long-term relationship.

Position versus interest

What can we learn from two sisters fighting over an orange? Misha Glouberman, who teaches conflict resolution, tells the story.

Two young sisters want the same orange. Dad comes in and listens for a bit, then cuts the orange in half and gives half to each girl. The next day he asks how it worked out.

“I see how what you did seemed fair,” one sister said, “but I wanted to make orange juice. With only half an orange, I could only make half as much juice.” The other sister said, “What you did seemed fair, but I wanted the orange because I needed the rind for a cake recipe. Because I didn’t get the whole orange, I could only make half the recipe.”

Clearly the father had overlooked the obvious solution. The sister making the cake could zest the orange peel to get what she needed and the other sister could get a whole orange’s worth of juice. Instead, the father focused on the superficial “position” of each daughter: “I want the orange.” He didn’t ask about their “interest”, as in: “Why do you want the orange?”

“Unfortunately, in a lot of conflict, this important first question of interest is never asked,” Glouberman says. “Instead the negotiation is all about positional bargaining – half versus 60 per cent or whatever. It’s like moving the knife over the orange and fighting over where it’s going to cut.”

If you win, do you really win?

People often come into a negotiation with the mindset ‘I know what I want and I’m going try to get that thing’. But the other party may have the same approach, and the two sides don’t get anywhere. “If you ask about the underlying reason why it matters, you might work toward a solution,” Glouberman says.

The old saying ‘Put yourself in the other person’s shoes’ is helpful but tough to do without asking some of those ‘why’ questions.

Whether in business or with family, it can’t always be about winning. The long-term relationship, if it matters, has to come ahead of winning. “Paradoxically, a lot of the ways to get what you want out of the situation is actually to give up a little control and not try to control the outcome directly,” Glouberman says.

Take the relationship between farmer and buyer. When working out a price, the two sides are working on two things at once: the price and the relationship. “One side may push hard to get a good deal, but if the other side feels taken, this can be damaging for a long time to come,” Glouberman says. “The long-term cost is higher than short-term gain because you’ve damaged the relationship.”

Conflict within families or between neighbours can stem from misunderstanding of the position. “When someone has a desire that seems unreasonable to you, your first response is to say ‘No’. But if you’re trying to problem-solve, you need to know why the person holds that position,” Glouberman says. “ A lot of time when you hear a person’s reasons, the position doesn’t seem as crazy and you can find ways to satisfy it.”

Another common mistake is when one side decides to ‘fix’ the conflict alone. They think of a solution and present it to the other side. “That is opposite of what you want to do,” Glouberman says. “You have to resolve it in partnership.” That starts with an agreement of what the conflict is. What are we fighting over? Surprisingly, each side might not even be arguing about the
same thing.

Glouberman recommends two books: Getting to Yes by Roger Fisher and Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton and Sheila Heen.

“Watch for people who say the solution is easy, because it isn’t,” he says, “or for people who say the solution will be magical and always help you get your way, which it won’t.”


Misha Glouberman presented at the Canola Council of Canada convention in San Diego in 2016. Find more about him and his course at mishaglouberman.com. For a Canola Watch podcast called “Conflict resolution” with Jay Whetter and Misha Glouberman, go to canolawatch.org and select “podcasts” under the “Tools & Resources” tab.

Listen to the podcast “Conflict resolution” at canolawatch.org