To make conflict productive, focus on co-creating mutual gains outcomes

Jul 02, 2023 | EDR Blog

by Danya Rumore

Blue lake with green grass and rocks oppositeThe mission of the EDR program is to foster a culture of collaboration around environmental, natural resource, and broader public policy issues. In other words, we strive to help people work together to create a better today and tomorrow. We believe that doing so is all about helping people be more skillful in dealing with conflict. That belief, which underpins the EDR program’s vision, is why I am working on a book on how to make conflict productive—and why I have been writing a series of EDR blogs sharing key ideas from the book. 

Thus far, I’ve made the case in recent blogs that a key reason conflict is so hard for us and why we tend to deal with it so unskillfully is because we tend to see the world through a scarcity mindset. When we apply this mindset to conflict situations, it is natural to default to the assumption that one of us is going to win and one of us is going to lose. We therefore perceive conflict as a problem and threat, since we are wired to fear losing. When we perceive conflict as a threat, our neurological systems step in to protect us; we get neurologically disregulated, we go into fight, flight, freeze, or fawn mode, and we default to protective behaviors such as attacking, accommodating, and avoiding. These behaviors reliably lead to poor outcomes, such as damaged relationships, hurt feelings, or even physical harm. This further convinces us that conflict is a threat—that it is bad—and the vicious cycle perpetuates.

To prevent this vicious cycle and to switch over into a virtuous cycle of making conflict productive, we have to shift our mindset around conflict: we have to embrace the reality that conflict just is, that the world and conflict are not zero-sum, and that we can create value through skillfully working with others to navigate conflict.

We also have to shift our behaviors. We need to put our energy into creating mutually beneficial outcomes and, to do so, we need to focus on what really matters to us and others (i.e., our interests). As I suggested in my last blog “The power of calm when dealing with conflict,” the first and most important step we have to take to be able to behave intentionally and productively when dealing with conflict is to maintain or regain our calm, neurologically regulated state. As soon as our neurological system goes into overdrive, our instincts (which were wired to help us survive rather than to thrive) are in the driver’s seat; our rational, intentional brain is relegated to the backseat; and we are almost certainly going to default to behaviors that are not conducive to productively working through conflict. 

Only through shifting our mindset around conflict to see it as a normal, unavoidable part of life  can we more easily keep or return to calm when dealing with conflict. And only when we keep our calm can we approach conflict with curiosity and creativity and work with others to co-create mutual gains outcomes.

What does it mean to co-create mutual gains outcomes?

As I’ve said in previous blogs, conflict is simply the intersection of different perspectives, ideas, wants, or needs that are in tension with each other and not easily reconciled. And not only is conflict a normal, unavoidable part of life, but it can be enormously healthy and generative if well handled. 

Just as estuaries, where freshwater and saltwater intersect, are some of the most fertile ecosystems on the planet, conflict—the place where different ideas, needs, and wants intersect—has the potential to be an enormously productive space. If skillfully handled, conflict presents a powerful opportunity to learn about ourselves, other people, and the world—and to create something new and better together, or what Steven Covey and others have referred to as the “third alternative.” 

To use another metaphor: many of us approach conflict as if one person has hot water and the other has cold water. If you have hot water, you want hot water. If you have cold water, you want cold water. When you approach conflict in this way (which is what we are doing when we approach conflict with a focus on positions), the only solution that seems available to us is to mix the two and get tepid water, which doesn’t really meet anyone’s needs (that is what we call a “compromise solution”). Since this is how we tend to approach our differences, it isn’t surprising that many of us have a negative perspective on conflict!

When we focus on what really matters in conflict—i.e., our interests and getting to a good outcome—we realize that we aren’t working with hot and cold water; instead, we are working with water and flour and salt and yeast and all sorts of other ingredients. This gives us lots of options to get creative and to work together to integrate or weave these different things we want and need into something that is innovative and works well for all parties—such as bread, or pancakes.

I illustrated this concept through the story of the orange in my past blog on “How to focus on what really matters in conflict.” To provide another real world example, let’s look at a common type of conflict I hear from my students: conflict between roommates. 

The roommate conflict example

Let’s imagine a situation in which two roommates live together. One roommate, whom we will lovingly call the “messy roommate,” keeps leaving the kitchen a mess. The other roommate, whom we will call the “clean roommate,” comes home from class and work exhausted and just wants to be able to make dinner in a clean, orderly kitchen. And this has become a source of major conflict.

More often than not, this situation leads to heated arguments along the lines of one person barking “I have asked you ten times to stop leaving dirty dishes in the sink! Why can’t you just do that!” and the other person snapping back, “Why are you such a neat freak!” Or this situation might lead to the roommates getting into a silent standoff, with the clean roommate being clearly but silently peeved at and resentful of the other for not keeping the kitchen cleaner, and the messy roommate getting peeved and resentful as a result of the unspoken but clearly communicated negative feelings being directed at them (for, as Susan David says in her book Emotional Agility, if we don’t speak our feelings, we will act them out). We all know from experience that either option doesn’t tend to turn out well and leads to all sorts of other roommate issues and negative feelings.

What if instead the clean roommate focused on what really matters? 

Let’s spin out one possible scenario of what this could look like. As soon as the clean roommate realizes the messy kitchen situation is really bothering them, a great first thing to do is to sit with and really ponder the question “Why is this bothering me? What is really going on for me?” with a calm mental and emotional state. If they do so, they might realize that their life feels very chaotic and overwhelming and that having a quiet, clean, neat home to return to is really important to help them feel calm and grounded. This line of inquiry might lead them to realize that it isn’t really the messy kitchen that is bothering them; that is just a symptom of a larger concern, which is that they would actually really like to live by themselves. If they arrive at that realization, they might realize that it makes sense for them to start looking for a studio they can have all to themselves. This isn’t really about this particular roommate; it is about the fact that they really need their own space right now, and no roommate (not even a really clean one) is going to meet that need. If this is the case, they can communicate this to their roommate in a way that focuses on what matters and makes clear this isn’t personal. 

Alternatively, the clean roommate might realize that they were raised with a very strong message that you do your dishes right after dinner, and failing to do so always led to strong, arguably overly strong, punishment, such as a week of being grounded or even verbal attacks. As a result, dirty dishes in the sink stirs up strong, deeply seated feelings of anxiety and fear. Every time the clean roommate comes home from work or school already maxed out, seeing the messy kitchen leads to an understandable but out of proportion embodied response of stress and anxiety, which then gets projected on the messy roommate. The clean roommate might also realize that their messy roommate is a good friend that they otherwise really like living with, and they would like to find a way to live together peacefully and to maintain the friendship. 

If something like this is at play, and if the clean roommate can do the self-work to illuminate this for themselves, then they can approach the conflict calmly, curiously, and creatively and in a way that is centered around what really matters. A calm conversation in which the clean roommate shares their realization about their emotional trigger could lead to both a deepening of the friendship and the messy roommate, of their own volition, trying to be a bit cleaner to avoid creating that uncomfortable situation for their friend (which will likely set them up for success in their current or future relationships).

There are hundreds of other potential stories of what might be going on for each party and how this could play out—and I can say with confidence from lots of personal and professional experience that if all parties approach conflict skillfully, there are immense opportunities for personal growth and many opportunities for mutual gains solutions.  

In future blogs, I will explore some important techniques that can help you and others get creative when dealing with conflict and work together to co-create mutual gains outcomes. For now, I want to emphasize that the most important overarching things are to stay calm and accept that conflict just is; to approach yourself, others, and the situation with curiosity and a desire to understand what is truly going on and what would be a good outcome; and then to get creative in exploring solutions that would work well for all parties and meet their key needs and interests. 

In other words: Be calm, curious, and creative. 

It is that simple, and that hard.


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