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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?



  • John McDougall

    I have to admit that this wasn’t the post I thought it was. I read the title and expected to hear something loosely tied to the nascent conflict in the Ukraine. However, I confess that your “three rules of thumb” apply to international conflict just as well as interpersonal disputes. Now, if only we can get politicians to read your blog!

    • Marcus

      John, good thinking–applications from personal to corporate to international. Thanks for surfacing this.

  • Scott Taber

    So I have been struggling with this concept for a couple of days now. It never ceases to amuse me how God uses you in my life to this day Marcus. I have a dispute with my employers. I have been treated unfairly and I want nothing more than to barge in the office and let me have it. In fact the situation arose on Friday and I was scheduled to attend a men’s retreat that night. I nearly canceled I was so “upset”. I ended up going and the whole weekend seemed to scream this situation to me. Monday came and I was definitely not ready to move on, so I contacted a friend for advice. You know what it was….the same basic principles you have laid out in your blog. I promised to think it through then this pops up in my inbox. I get it God. You can put the sledge hammer down now. 🙂

    • Marcus

      I swear I had no idea. But glad to hear the message came through loud and clear. 🙂

  • Hank

    Being married to a latino wife, things can get heated in our house. A wise man once gave me very similar advice, that I have often used. The question he challenged me with, in the midst of marital conflict was, “What’s your goal?”. I’ve realized how valuable it is to stop, ask that question, and gain a little clarity. Often, I need to clarify what’s my desired outcome from the … uh … discussion. Other times, I realize it’s something trivial and stupid we’re arguing about and we take a time out, grab a drink (no, that that kind of drink … that seldom helps) and promptly move on. I’m sure it’s saved me numerous drywall-patch jobs from flying pots and pans …

    So … I echo the value of this question, Marcus. And I definitely agree with John McDougall … this question has far-reaching value beyond the walls of the home.

    • Marcus

      Thanks Hank. You’re a wise man.

  • kirby white

    A wiseman told me long ago that you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

    • MB

      Nice. Thanks for posting.

  • Paula E

    Good stuff to think about! My job offers plenty of potential for frustration (as many jobs do). As a “specialist” in my field, I sometimes run into folks who just don’t seem to get it. My pride wants me to educate them, or rattle off my résumé, or do whatever it takes to get them to see my way of thinking. But if I step back a bit, I often realize that what I really want is to solve the problem and figure out what is best for my students. With one person in particular, my strategy as of late for responding to our conflict has been to ask, “How can I help you?” It’s really difficult for me to do that sometimes, but this person is much more receptive to what I have to say, less defensive, and I’m learning how to let go of some of my pride along the way. I agree that your three guidelines would be really effective for family conflicts as well…sometimes that’s the hardest place for me to keep my cool! I will definitely keep these things in mind as I continue to strive to be like Christ.

    • Marcus

      Paula, thanks for the comment. Great question to ask, “How can I help you?” Thanks.

      • Paula E

        And, as someone else mentioned, “How can you help me?” works well too,

  • Jeff

    I read in “The Golden Rule of Schmoozing, the Art of Treating others well” by Aye Jaye, to start every conflict with the phrase, “I hope you can help me”. It works. Most of us truly want to help others. This phrase puts people at ease. I recently used this phrase when discussing a claim with my insurance company and we were able to come to a quick resolution of a disputed claim. It allows someone to be a hero.

    • Marcus

      “I hope you can help me,” great phrase. Thanks for the tip, Jeff.

  • David Tindell

    In my job with a US Gov’t agency I hear from people every day who are upset about something or other and want their problem resolved and want it resolved right now. Usually this involves money so they can be especially, shall we say, insistent. A few years ago our office was visited by a gentleman who was an ex-Marine and a martial artist, and he talked to us about using “verbal judo”. For those unfamiliar with that art, judo teaches you to use your opponent’s strength to your own advantage. The founder of the art, Jigoro Kano, used the principles of seiryoku zenyo (maximum efficiency, minimum effort) and jita kyoei (mutual welfare and benefit). The point of verbal judo is to turn the situation around from one of hostile confrontation to mutual welfare and benefit, and you can do so without engaging the “adversary” at the same level he is on when he comes at you, so to speak. I have found it to be very effective. The great majority of people who see me are very concerned about their own welfare, or that of their families, and sometimes are quite desperate. (Why we have so many living-on-the-edge-of-disaster people in this country, and I can assure you there are a lot of them, is perhaps the subject of another posting.) Once I can show them that I am concerned as well and there to help them, and we can do it without getting in each other’s faces, 99% of the time we can resolve the issue amicably. For the remaining 1% we have an armed security guard. 😉

    • Marcus

      David, verbal Judo, great thoughts. Thanks.

  • gary sedgwick

    One of the areas in which I am very fortunate is with my wife as we have had very few conflicts and she is my best friend. No major conflicts.
    Working as a counselor or teacher for many many years has provided me with a variety of conflicts in administrative decisions but my main responsibility is to my students. Most conflicts passed in time and was replaced with another, but I have been very fortunate to teach in good schools. I will use an old example but will demonstrate my counseling. During the Vietnam war, there were 8 or 9 dependents from the Navy Base who were skipping school just to talk. I talked with the group and informed them that I would get them out of a class once per week to let them talk over their problems, no notes, and changed periods each week. It worked. They all passed, improved grades an graduated. Great young people. My most recent conflict is a decision at my college to register for summer, fall and spring 15 during the next registration. This is great for some, but will cause some problems for others due to VA guidelines. I made up 5 presentations last week and will probably have several more during the last week of March. I am a counselor for Veterans on campus and work with them for majors, careers, transfer to four year institutions, and we have a JOB Faire in April on or campus. I try to maintain good common sense.

    • Marcus

      Gary, good thoughts, thanks. ‘Maintain good common sense.’ I like it. –MB

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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.