How to focus on what really matters in conflict

May 01, 2023 | EDR Blog

by Danya Rumore

Over the last few months, we have published a series of blogs that start to explore why conflict is so hard for us, why it so often results in negative outcomes, and how we can make conflict an opportunity for positive change. Our past blogs have made the case that:

Shifting to focusing on what really matters when dealing with conflict is so simple in theory. So why is it so hard for us? Why isn’t it just the way we operate? Why isn’t it the norm? 

The answer to that question comes back to our tendency to see the world and conflict as win-lose. This mindset leads us to approach conflict with a goal—whether explicit or implicit—of winning, or at least of not losing. When this happens, we tend to get positional and to focus on specific solutions or outcomes and, in doing so, we often lose sight of our underlying interests.

To illustrate through the story of the orange that I shared in my last blog: When the two kids realize that they both want the orange, they default to a “one of us is going to win and one of us is going to lose” mindset. As a result, they become so fixated on winning the orange that they lose sight of the reason they wanted the orange in the first place: One kid wanted the orange so they could make muffins; the other wanted the orange so they could marinate steak; and the main reason each of them wanted to cook those things was to do something nice for mom on Mother’s Day. Paradoxically, by trying to win the orange, they ended up fighting, and they ultimately had a negative effect on their mom—the total opposite of what they were hoping to achieve.

This is pretty typical in conflict situations: we become so focused on “winning” our positions that we disregard the things that really matter to us and, as a result of our unskillful way of dealing with conflict, we ultimately act against our own self interest.

To be more skillful in dealing with conflict and to focus on what really matters, we have to move away from our win-lose mindset to instead ask ourselves “What would be a productive outcome in this situation?” 

Truly answering that question in conflict situations typically isn’t easy, and it requires exercising real curiosity, self-awareness, and openness about what is going on for us and others. We may need to ask ourselves repeatedly “why would that be a good outcome?” to peel back the layers of the onion to get to the heart of the matter.

To illustrate through the story of the orange: Rather than squabbling over the last orange in the kitchen, the kids could ask themselves and ask each other, “What would be a productive outcome of this situation?” An initial, reactive response to this question, especially if emotions are running high, might be “for me to get the orange!” or “for you to not get the orange!” or even “for you to get in trouble!” That said, if the kids could calm themselves and think about this with a quiet, open mind, they could explore what really matters. For example, they could work through a process along the lines of “A good outcome would be for me to get the orange. Why would that be a good outcome? Because then I can make the muffin recipe I want to make. Why would that be a good outcome? Because then I would have made muffins for mom for Mother’s Day. Why would that be a good outcome? Because then mom would feel loved and appreciated on Mother’s Day—that is what really matters to me.”

To explore what truly really matters to us and what would be a good outcome in a conflict situation, we have to let go of our “win-lose” mindset. As soon as we think of the goal as being to win, or at least to not lose, we basically create a self-fulfilling prophecy: we get neurologically dysregulated because we are afraid of losing, we go into defend-and-attack mode, this puts everyone on the defense and/or offense, and voila—we get negative outcomes (often, as in the case of the story of the orange, lose-lose outcomes).

Through moving beyond our win-lose mindset and the fear and dysregulation that comes with it, we can approach ourselves, each other, and the situation with openness and curiosity. This allows us to explore what really matters for us and others, and to really think about what a good outcome would be.

As we’ll explore more in future blogs, when we clarify what really matters to us and others and what would be a good outcome, it often becomes rather easy to create “mutual gains”—i.e., to work with others to create an outcome in which all involved parties meet their key interests and do better by reaching agreement than they would have if they had not reached agreement.

To illustrate one more time through the story of the orange: If both kids can focus on and engage in effective dialogue around what really matters, then they will likely quickly realize that one kid needs the rind of the orange to make muffins, the other needs the juice of the orange to make marinated steak, and they both ultimately want to do something nice for mom for Mother’s Day. Once this all becomes clear, it also becomes clear that they can both get what they need without the other losing. They may also realize they can create additional value through working together, such as by helping each other with their cooking projects or pooling their money to buy their mom some flowers.

Many things become possible when we get out of a win-lose mindset and instead focus on what matters—mainly, getting to a good outcome.

An important note about terminology: some people say this is about getting to “win-win” outcomes. I intentionally choose not to use that language because the idea of “winning” inherently implies others must “lose.” Words have power, and “win-win” framing reinforces the insidious win-lose mindset that I am suggesting is, in many ways, at the root of our problems with conflict. Therefore, I find it much more accurate and helpful to think and talk in terms of seeking mutual gains outcomes.

Letting go of our win-lose mindset to instead approach conflict openly, with curiosity, and with a focus on what really matters is simple but not easy. In future blogs, we’ll explore ways of being and techniques that can help us make this critical shift.

In the meantime, I encourage you to become a little more mindful in how you approach conflict situations. When you encounter conflict, take a moment to pause and ask yourself and others “what would be a good outcome here?” You might find it helpful to ask why that would be a good outcome repeatedly until you get to what feels like the heart of the matter. If you find yourself focusing on winning (or just trying not to lose), be compassionate with that very understandable tendency—and see if you can shift your focus to what really matters.


Danya Rumore, a white woman with brown hair wearing a teal blouse and cardiganDanya Rumore, Ph.D., is the director of the Environmental Dispute Resolution program in the Wallace Stegner Center at the University of Utah. She is a research professor in the S.J. Quinney College of Law and a clinical associate professor in the city and metropolitan planning department at the University of Utah. She teaches about, practices, and conducts research on conflict, negotiation, dispute resolution, leadership, and collaborative problem solving. She is also the founder and a co-director of the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region (GNAR) Initiative.


About the EDR blog: Hosted by the Wallace Stegner Center’s Environmental Dispute Resolution (EDR) program, the EDR blog shares ideas, tools, and resources to cultivate a culture of collaboration and help readers be more skillful in working through conflict. Read additional blog posts at