Tug of war

Resolving those conflicts even when everyone is right!

By Steve Header

“Connect the dots,” we hear it often. In the classroom, in the workplace, and even in the oval office. But what exactly does it mean?

To understand dot connection, we first need to have a look at what “dots” are. Dots are experiences, events, learned behavior, and beliefs bestowed upon us by our parents and peers.

We have many dots, and each of us have our own distinctive dots, like no one else. Our dots help us to form and distinguish our individual sense of right and wrong, including our moral compass.

When we connect dots, our minds begin grouping them, i.e., experiences, behaviors, and beliefs into categories and patterns, and placing value on them.

Our dots and how our minds connect these dots determine how we approach life, and form our individual perspective; and subsequently, the positions we generally take on issues. Every day as we receive new dots, we align the new dots with already established patterns and slowly build our perspectives. Our pre-disposition automatically designates all new dots as good, bad, indifferent, interesting, and so on.

Our perspectives – our truths 

IMG_3541As we can see, each of us have many different dots, and each of us also have different amounts of dots, and they are constantly increasing albeit at different rates for each of us. For example, a child by default will have fewer different dots and fewer amounts of dots. This limits their perspective, but only in relationship to those with more dots. To themselves and to others with similar dots, their perspective is their truth. It has to be. Similarly, you and I, will have perspectives representative of our truths or else it would not be our perspective.

When a child believes in the magic of the holidays, that belief is not pretend. From their perspective, it is as real as the tree we see outside our window. As a child receives and connects more dots, their perspective most likely will change, and it will continue to change and evolve throughout his or her lifetime.

Our perspectives, our truths, will continue to mature and there are no limits. Perspectives are dynamic, ever changing, and are also the source of all conflicts. Humans form societies, we are social creatures, we want and need the closeness of others. The young, the elders, and in between are all welcomed and needed in our society, and each represents a unique perspective.

When everyone is right                        

Problems occur when our perspectives are not aligned with each other. PinterestNow, that is not to say some folks may not try to influence the masses through forwarding, and sometimes mandating, dots for a particular agenda. However, it is impossible to control all dots that an individual receives. Every single conflict will have it bases in the dot connection of the individuals or the parties involved.

People will align with others who have similar dots, and we know according to their perspective their ideas and thoughts are true. It is quite feasible to assume there are infinite levels of perspectives in society, and based on their truths, each level forms a position on issues.

Why conflicts arise so readily is now very understandable, we have several different levels of perspectives holding different positions on issues. These positions can be yes or no, right or wrong, and even life or death; and they are all correct!

 Classic Scenario

To demonstrate we’ll have a look at a common issue, minimum wage, that surfaces every so often. We have a perspective that takes a position minimum wage should be raised to provide an adequate standard of living. We also have another perspective that takes a position minimum wage should be lower or removed as it hampers business and adversely affects the fixed income population.

The above positions are 180 degrees opposed to each other, yet both are right. If we leave the discussion here these two positions will be in contention forever. There can never be a resolution. How could there be? Both positions are correct based on their perspective, their connection of dots.

We see this butting-of-heads about many issues in the news and on social media.

“I’m right, you’re wrong, “no I’m right and you are wrong.”Psychologist World

“Why don’t these people understand?”

“Why can’t these people see the truth?”

“Wake up!”

Or sometimes it becomes a contest of who can bash the other side more. “You’re a fool, “no, you are an idiot.”

I believe it to be a universal truth that we will never convince someone with a different perspective to join our perspective, by bashing or belittling their position.



Will this scenario play out over-and-over again? Like Sisyphus, are we doomed to an eternity of rolling this boulder up a hill, just to watch it roll down again? Or possibly until society can be mandated and manipulated enough to where we all have been indoctrinated into one universal perspective, and cease being individuals?

Thankfully, no. The study of leadership has given us several wonderful tools to use to break the deadlock associated with opposing positions. One such tool is ‘Principled Negotiation.’

Principled negotiation directs us to:

  • Separate the people from the problem – No more name calling, badgering, or personal attacks on our fellow brothers and sisters
  • Stick to using objective criteria – Use facts, precedence, and moral standards recognized by all positions
  • Focus on the interests, not the position – the reasons why a certain position is held
  • Create options (New Dots) with mutual gains – knowing the interests behind a position, we have a far greater understanding of the elements involved, and this allows us to work toward and conceive more and higher quality resolutions

Once we understand why someone holds a particular position, their interests, their dots, that gives us not only more information to create viable solutions, it also expands our own perspective. We now have an opportunity to experience a small window into their position, and this gives us an opening to apply empathetic reasoning, knowing from their perspective their position is right.

If I win, must you lose

photo of two red dices

I would like to note, finding the optimum resolution is not a zero-sum equation. If I win, does not mean you have to lose. Also, I am generally opposed to the use of compromise. Compromising purely makes both positions give up something they hold to be true; and thus, both sides lose.

A much better approach, though it may take a bit more time and energy, is what Mary Parker Follet termed, ‘Integrative conflict resolution.’ A philosophy of conflict resolution where the solution can and should produce a win-win for all positions. If we apply Principled Negotiations to our earlier example of minimum wage, we’ll need to separate the people from the problem, and we are not going to attack someone personally for a position they hold. We will use only objective criteria, and will look at the interest behind the position, the dots. With this greater understanding more information will be opened for us to explore.

The first position – minimum wage should provide an adequate standard of living suggesting the interest behind the position is that many people are stuck at a particular level of marketable skills and due to circumstances cannot readily change their status. All while being tasked with providing for themselves and their families. From this perspective this position is correct.

Now the second position – minimum wage should be lowered or removed as it hampers business and will adversely affect older folks and others on fixed incomes suggesting the interest behind this position is many struggling businesses cannot afford to pay more for services that don’t require higher skills. If forced to do so, it may cause businesses to close, leading to higher unemployment. Additionally, if wages are increased without being based on merit, consumer prices will need to be raised to offset the increase in wages. This will adversely affect those who are on a fixed income. From this perspective this position is also correct.

Our new understanding

IMG_1490With our newfound understanding of the dots contributing to both positions, one viable solution, without one position winning and the other position losing, and without compromising, would be to subsidize head of household low skilled workers. Living expenses and specialize job training are provided for a period of time. The outcome being the head of household now has the skills required to earn a higher wage based on merit and no longer requires assistance in the form of an inflated wage. It is a win for the interests behind both positions, and just one of many similar solutions.

When we put forth the effort to understand the opposing interests, and truly become empathetic toward that position, we have expanded our own connection of dots to allow a greater range of options that will lead to a win-win resolution. The possibilities are endless.


Photos sources: Psychologist World.com/ Pinterest/ brainpicking.org/ The geekyleader.com/ Jonathan Petersson on Pexals.com/ LuciditySBM.com

Steve Header is a Professor of management-leadership/Consultant/Speaker