I know a couple engaged to be married. We’ll call them Jane and John. The date has been chosen and the dress has been purchased. They live together in an apartment in the downtown of a small city, close to where they both work. They love riding their bikes to their offices and walking to the grocery store. But John sees their mid-town life as temporary and dreams of owning a home away from the city core where he can have a yard and children playing in it one day. Jane doesn’t want a house or a house-sized mortgage. She would rather spend her savings on travel and education and her time on making memories instead of mowing lawns. Here we have a classic example of inter-personal conflict.

What Conflict Is

As I’ve written before, conflict is just a word that means differences are bumping up against each other. These two may have completely opposite cooking styles but if that’s more of a complementary fusion no conflict exists. However this difference is one that prickles; John and Jane’s differing ideas about homes do NOT make them feel as if they are part of a dynamic medley. It’s closer to a tug of war. This is usually your first clue about a conflict: the way you feel. You might notice physical sensations that resemble a stress response like an increased heart rate or headache. Or maybe you notice you are angry or self-righteous or you’re interrupting the other person or your voice is getting louder. These are all signs of defensiveness; a natural response to feeling threatened.

TO RE-CAP: some differences between people are interesting to us and we feel curious and some differences between people are scary and we feel threatened. The interesting kind of difference is attraction; the scary kind of difference is conflict.

Identifying the Issue

In conflict resolution ‘issue’ is the term for the thing to be discussed. It’s the topic of conversation. It’s most productive when naming the issue to name the thing that a decision has to be made about. This must also be a topic that works for both people, so it has to be neutral.

For example, John might suggest the issue to address is ‘saving for a house’ or ‘moving to a house’ or ‘getting a mortgage’. Do you think Jane wants to have a conversation about any of those topics? Probably not. Immediately if John is trying to pull Jane into a negotiation about any of these issues she could be on the defensive. On the other hand, all those ideas John has for a discussion are framed as topics that they could make decisions about so that part is good. It wouldn’t be useful for John to propose an issue like ‘housing in our city’ or ‘houses vs. apartments’. Even though it might seem that these topics would be less offensive to Jane, they aren’t actually ‘issues’ because they could talk for a week about these two topics but not get anywhere.

If Jane was to decide the issue, she might similarly propose they negotiate the issue of ‘staying where we are’ or ‘buying a condo’, but to truly design a conversation that will allow both parties to participate we want a neutral issue. For these two people that could simply mean they negotiate about ‘where to live’. This is a topic they need to make a decision about, they are capable of making a decision about, and it is relevant and important to both of them equally.


When two people (or more sometimes) need and/or want to make a decision about something it can be called a negotiation. Negotiations can be long and complex but they can also be as short as this:

A: Where should we go for dinner tonight?

B: I don’t know. Why don’t you choose.

A: Okay then. How about Sushi Express?

B: Works for me!

Whenever Jane and John have conversations about where to live they are negotiating. It might be a string of conversations that take place over many weeks or months. If the conversations become increasingly emotional and tense (turn into arguments) AND they don’t seem to be getting closer to making any decisions, they are probably getting stuck in the conflict. For John and Jane the closer they get to their wedding the more stress they are likely to experience, and the issue of ‘where to live’ could loom larger and darker over their relationship.

Following are some hypothetical scenarios. Jane and John may agree they currently have different points of view, but that they will remain at their downtown apartment for their first year of marriage while researching options and seeing how things go for them as newlyweds. Or if one of them is uncomfortable with this lack of direction that person may push to resume negotiations soon after the honeymoon once the stress of the ceremony, etc. are behind them. Perhaps to either Jane or John it seems like if they can’t decide on where to live then they are getting ahead of themselves by planning a wedding. The worst case scenario would probably involve one of them giving the other one an ultimatum about how the decision has to be made right away.

If the negotiations deteriorate into blaming and screaming I would say their chances of resolving the conflict are desperately low (not to mention their chances of a happy marriage).

Our ability to successfully negotiate depends on a lot of factors, but in my mind it almost always comes down to emotional intelligence. How willing are you to question yourself? To be curious about the other person’s point of view? To live in uncertainty? To feel uncomfortable? We don’t all need to be trained in conflict resolution to reach agreements with other people in difficult circumstances.

Negotiation is different for every person in every situation. Each of us has unique (and changing) levels of patience and self-awareness, as well as our own particular hopes, values, fears, beliefs, and concerns we bring into every discussion that has even a hint of emotional charge. If we are willing to explore this inner landscape while communicating openly the process can lead to increased connection with others and greater personal satisfaction.


Let’s say that John and Jane have hit a wall with their negotiations. They are clear that they want to be together for the long haul and they love and respect each other, but they just can’t figure out how to decide on a place to live that will please each of them. This conflict may be driving a wedge into their relationship and so they decide they want to see if someone on the outside of things could give them a hand. They could consult with a mediator or conflict coach.

Mediation is a type of negotiation. It is essentially an assisted negotiation process, or what we in the field call ‘facilitated negotiation’. Since the mediator doesn’t know Jane or John, he or she will have no emotional connection to the issue of where they will live. In this way the mediator can provide a curious and open attitude, something the two parties are unable to do anymore, and initiate conversation about each of their dreams, their desires for their home, and goals for their future.

Mediation doesn’t guarantee that a relationship will be repaired or even that a decision will be reached. It is simply and profoundly a communication tool. Mediation can be applied to all sorts of people in all sorts of conflicts to help broaden the parties’ perspectives and enhance their curiosity and creativity for solving problems.

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