Want to make conflict productive? Focus on what really matters

Apr 01, 2023 | EDR Blog

by Danya Rumore

If you’ve been reading our recent blogs, hopefully by now you’re convinced that conflict “just is”: it is a healthy, normal, unavoidable part of life. Unfortunately, we tend to see the world through a win-lose, zero-sum mindset, which leads us to treat conflict as a threat. And when we do that, we tend to react poorly in situations of conflict, which leads to bad outcomes and reinforces our belief that conflict is a problem.

This is why I’m convinced that the most important thing we can do to get to a better place with conflict is to stop seeing conflict as a problem and to instead embrace the fact that conflict is unavoidable and, if skillfully handled, can be productive for everyone involved.

How can we be skillful and make conflict productive?

The good news: To make conflict not win-lose and to harness the co-creative potential of conflict, all we have to do is focus on what really matters.

The bad news: For most of us, this requires a rewiring of how we see the world and what we pay attention to, and that takes some serious commitment and effort.

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Let’s illustrate through the story of the orange

A mom came home and found her two teenage children fighting over the last orange in the house.

“Gimme that! I need it!”

“No way! I need it more!”

Frustrated by the squabble, especially since she was hoping to come home and have a pleasant Mother’s Day with her two kids, the mom charged in, angrily told them to stop fighting, and cut the orange in half.

“Look! I’ve solved your problem. Each of you has half—fair and square.”

To her surprise, the kids both got upset, threw their orange halves at each other, and stomped  out of the room. Even more frustrated, the mom also stomped out of the room. After taking a few minutes to calm down, she decided to check in with her kids.

“Kiddos, I’m sorry I got angry. I just hate it when you fight, and a fight isn’t what I was hoping for on Mother’s Day. What’s wrong? There was only one orange left, so clearly a half was the only fair solution.”

Her daughter replied, “Mom, I wanted to make Grandma’s famous chocolate-orange muffins to do something nice for you for Mother’s Day, and I needed the rind of a full orange! The rind from half of an orange just wouldn’t be the same! And now you’re angry and Mother’s Day is ruined!”

And her son said, “Mom, I wanted to make you this delicious marinated steak recipe for Mother’s Day, and I needed the juice of a full orange to make the recipe properly. I just wanted to do something special for you and now everyone is mad.”

Hearing this, the mom had a lightbulb go off in her head. If she had walked into the room calmly and asked each of the kids why they wanted the orange, it would have become clear that what each of the kids needed—the juice of the orange and the rind—weren’t mutually exclusive (and that half of an orange wasn’t a good solution for either of them). Even if they had wanted the same parts of the orange, clarifying why they wanted the orange would have allowed them to explore all sorts of other creative solutions. For example, the mom had long wanted to try making Grandma’s muffin recipe with lemon rind instead, and there were plenty of lemons. Even more importantly, what the kids really wanted was to do something nice for her for Mother’s Day—that was their real goal. It wasn’t even really about the muffins or marinade, and it definitely wasn’t about the orange.

Focusing on what really matters

I love this story because it is so simple and yet so illustrative of what often happens in reality: we tend to fight over the proverbial orange when the orange isn’t what really matters to us. In this story, the orange is what we call a “position”—it is one possible solution for meeting the key needs of the involved parties. What really matters, however, are the key needs and underlying concerns of the involved parties—what we call “interests.”

In the story of the orange, the kids have a fundamental and shared interest in doing something nice for mom for Mother’s Day. Making the muffins and marinated steak are ways they plan to achieve that goal. However, rather than discussing their plans and ingredient needs, both kids came into the kitchen focused on a singular solution for meeting their needs: the position of “I need the orange!”

In situations of conflict—and in life in general—we have a tendency to focus on positions. As in the story of the orange, often our positions are mutually exclusive; if there is only one orange, each of the kids cannot have the full orange to themselves. The mutual exclusivity of our positions make us think that the conflict is a win-lose situation. Either I get the full orange or I don’t.

In getting fixated on positions, we often totally lose sight of our underlying needs and concerns—what really matters to us. We also don’t explore what matters to the other people involved in the conflict. We just assume that what they want and what we want aren’t compatible. This creates a win-lose situation.

Ironically, even if one party “wins” in this positional fight (i.e, they get the full orange), they often don’t really get what they truly wanted (e.g, to help mom and family enjoy a special Mother’s Day together). Positional fights typically lead to lose-lose situations. In this case, the kids are so focused on getting the full orange that they don’t realize their arguing is negatively impacting their mom, when their real goal was to help their mom have a special day.

We humans are strange creatures and we do strange things.

This all leads me back to the conclusion that to make conflict productive, we have to focus on what really matters: our underlying needs and concerns, or our interests. This allows us to identify mutual gains strategies that create value for all parties involved.

In the case of the story of the orange, this could have been as simple as the kids engaging in a conversation to clarify why they wanted the orange.

Much the same, instead of charging into the room and cutting the orange in half (which, by the way, is what we call a “compromise” solution—a solution that doesn’t create value and usually doesn’t meet the core needs of each party), the mom could have instead asked the kids what they wanted to do with the orange.

Some effective dialogue could have revealed a number of easy solutions that would have created value for everyone: muffins, marinated steak, and a happy mom!

Simple, right?

Then why is this so hard? Why isn’t focusing on what matters just the way we operate, the norm?

I will explore that puzzle in future blogs. I will also provide insight into how we can rewire ourselves to focus on interests (and not positions). For now, I encourage you to check out our past blog Interests, positions, and conflict—Oh, my!, our Interests versus positions handout, and our short Interests vs. positions video.

I also encourage you to think about areas in your life where you might be focusing on positions (i.e., specific solutions), and what the underlying needs and concerns behind those positions might be. If you really engage with the question of what matters, you might be surprised by what you find!


Danya Rumore, a white woman with brown hair wearing a teal blouse and cardigan

Danya 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 edrblog.org.