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The best question to ask in the midst of ANY conflict

Mar 04, 2014 // By Marcus Brotherton

Don photo

Photo of ‘The path of the 40 scholars,’ Mauritania, by DAJ.

A while ago I bought new tires for my truck. The bill made me wince, but the one silver lining was the tires came with a seventy dollar rebate. Just fill out a form online, and in 4 to 6 weeks, a check was guaranteed to arrive in the mail.


To me, rebates are a mixed blessing. Sure, you get cash back. But if the rebate isn’t instant, then it’s often a hassle receiving what’s promised.


Sure enough, three months went by and I still hadn’t received a check.


I dug around and found the company’s website. I was positive I’d entered the information correctly the first time. But they reported that my rebate claim had never been received.




Have you ever been in a similar situation?


When you don’t get the results you hope for from a business (or from a friend, family member, or colleague) it’s easy to get irritated and disgruntled and then lash out.


You see it happen all the time. The other day I was in a sandwich shop and the guy ahead of me ordered his lunch without a tomato. When his order came, I noticed the back of his neck turn beet red. I guess his sandwich had a slice on it anyway.


It seemed like such a simple problem to fix, but to hear this dude launch into the poor girl behind the counter, you’d have thought she’d insulted his mother, kicked his dog, and spit in his French fries.


Back to my rebate check problem. I felt like phoning the company and giving them a piece of my mind. But I checked myself long enough to ask myself one key question: what was my real interest in this situation?


I realized it wasn’t going to do me any good to act all tough with a rebate clerk on the end of the phone. All I wanted to do was get the situation resolved in the quickest way possible. My real interest was receiving the assurance that my rebate was filed and that I’d soon get a check in the mail.


So I cleared my throat, dialed the number, and politely explained the situation.


To my amazement, the clerk apologized on behalf of the company, assured me that my business was appreciated, and promised to send out a rebate check that very same week.


Problem solved.


All without venting.


Checklist for success


The best question to ask before attempting to resolve any conflict is this:


What’s my interest?


In other words, what’s my real goal here?


It’s easy to forget the big goal—getting results—in the midst of any conflict. We get angry and sidetracked and launch into another person in an emotional firestorm. Or we want to somehow punish a person for not understanding us. Or in the case of a family member of colleague, we bring up a string of long lost conflicts that we think have been buried for years.


Yet our true interest always should be to work toward understanding and then to resolve a situation. Stick with the facts. Stay focused on the immediate problem. Keep the goal clear. Keeping the interest in mind helps calm and focus everything.


How do we define what our specific interests are?


That’s not always easy. But here are a few tools that can help. If we’re caught in a conflict and want to work toward resolution, it helps to work through this simple 3-point checklist:


1)Ask: What do I really want to happen?


Do we just want to yell and get things off our chest? Do we want the other person to know how much he’s hurt us? Do we want to hurt the other person back? Those are all seldom productive interests.


Or do we actually want to work toward resolving something? That needs to be the main interest to keep in mind.


2)Play a situation forward in your mind.


This is one of the most helpful mental exercises I know. Imagine you’ve gone forward in time and recorded on a camcorder whatever situation is about to happen. Then “watch” the tape in your head and imagine how things might be.


What do you hope will happen? How might you want a person to respond? What’s your goal in approaching another person?


This exercise of “playing a tape through” can be great in helping us imagine the consequences, either good or bad, of our actions. It helps us look past the transitory rush of yelling at a person and focus on the inevitable not-so-pleasant result. Or we can see the positive results of working through a problem calmly and wisely.


Picture a good end result. Then you can begin to believe it can happen.


3)Work to resolve the conflict only.


When working to resolve a conflict, keeping focused on interests helps contain the conflict to what it is, no more and no less. It’s not the end of the world. Neither is it something to be indifferent about. It’s just a conflict that needs to be worked through.


We can do this.


The next time you’re in a conflict, ask this one simple question before proceeding: What’s my interest?


It can help save you a heap of trouble.


It might even result in a rebate check.



Question: What’s an example of a recent conflict you had, and how did you work to resolve it?



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the bestselling author or coauthor of more than 25 books. Welcome to my blog. Thoreau pointed out how too many people lead lives of quiet desperation. Their lives are bland and meaningless, or they make choices that trap them in despair and darkness. By contrast, I want to help people lead lives of excellence. Meet here regularly for powerful stories and insight into how to live and lead well.