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Possible: How to Transform Any Conflict


CONFLICT will always be with us. We’re human. William Ury says, “We actually need more conflict, not less—if we are to learn, grow, evolve. The problem is the destructive way we handle conflict—destroying relationships, lives, and resources. Thankfully, we have a choice.”

In Possible: How We Survive (and Thrive) in an Age of Conflict, Ury explains how to embrace conflict and transform it constructively to bring out the best in us—not the worst. From his own experience dealing with eminent civil war, coal strikes, boardroom battles, Cold War nuclear tensions, and his own family feuds, Ury has developed a framework to help turn challenge into opportunity.

Many conflicts seem impossible. But if you start from that assumption, that is most likely where you will end up—it’s impossible. But if you start from possibility, you might just end up with a practical solution to de-escalate the conflict. You become what William Ury calls a possibilist.

One of the problems we face when in conflict is that we get caught up in the past instead of focusing on what is possible—what the possible future could look like. We attack one another instead of the problem.

Possible does not mean a neat resolution. More often, it means gradual improvements in relationships that, over time, can make a difference. Relationships can be messy. Possible means finding ways forward where there seem to be none. It means creating little breakthroughs that can build into bigger breakthroughs over time. Possible means gradual transformation.

The core principle of possibilists is humble audacity. That is, the “audacity of our goals needs to be balanced with the humility of our approach.” Humility is important because, in the heat of conflict, it is exceedingly hard to be calm, patient, and listen. Humility helps us to learn and be creative.

The Circle of Possibility

Ury has developed a model that can, over time, help us develop a mindset for navigating conflict. It is a way to see, create, and act on new possibilities. It creates a circle of possibility around the conflict. It begins with the balcony and moves clockwise to the bridge, then to the third side, and around again until the conflict is transformed.

Circle of Possibility

Going to the balcony unlocks the potential within us. Building a golden bridge unlocks the potential between us. Taking the third side unlocks the potential around us. We need all three working together synergistically.

The balcony is first-person work; it focuses on I—the self. The bridge is second-person work; it focuses on You—the other. The third side is third-person work; it focuses on Us—the community. In difficult conflicts, we tend to skip over the necessary work on the I—the self—to point fingers at the You—the other: “You are the problem, and you must change.” We also often neglect to seek help from the Us—the community.

Ury carefully explains each section of the path with engaging and detailed examples. I will provide a brief overview here, but by reading it, you will discover a powerful tool for taking on your toughest issues and revolutionizing your interactions.

Go to the Balcony

Rather than reacting to difficult situations, we first go to the balcony. “The balcony is a place of calm and perspective where we can keep our eyes on the prize.” We go to the balcony by exercising three powers that we all have: the power to pause, stop, and reflect; the power to zoom in and focus our attention on what we really want to achieve (the interests that lie underneath our positions – the why versus the what), and the power to zoom out and keep our focus on the big picture.

The biggest obstacle to getting what I want is not the difficult person on the other side of the table; it is the person on this side of the table. It is me. When I react without thinking, I become my own worst enemy. I am the one who keeps getting in my own way.

Build a Golden Bridge

A golden bridge is a compelling invitation for the parties to cross the chasm of conflict. It begins with listening and discovering what the other party really needs and what they are most worried about. It is detective work. Listening for what is behind the words. Ury importantly notes:

In conflict, we naturally start with where our mind is, what our position is, what we think is right. Deep listening means leaving where our mind is and starting the conversation where their mind is. It means listening from within their frame of reference, not just ours.

Listening shows respect, and it is the greatest concession we can make, and it costs the least. We easily get confused about respect, often thinking that others have to earn our respect. Not so.

Showing respect does not come from weakness or insecurity but rather from strength and confidence. Respect for the other person flows directly from respect for yourself. You give respect to the other not so much because of who they are but because of who you are.

Building a golden bridge is where we get creative and turn an either-or dilemma in a both-and outcome. This is where listening becomes critical. “By delving deep into what people really want, we may discover that although the parties’ positions may be rigidly opposed, their interests may not be.”

From what we have learned, we make it easier for the other party to say yes. “Our job in difficult situations is to make it easier—more attractive—for the other side to make the decision we’d like them to make.” You want to construct a narrative that makes both sides appear to be the heroes to the people that they care about.

Engage the Third Side

We are all connected. We are part of a whole—a community. The third side is the side of the whole. It is each of us working together for the good of the whole. Instead of us against them, if we take the perspective of the whole, we use the power of peers to transform a conflict. The third side unlocks the potential around us to transform.

The third side involves three powers. “The first is the power to host—to welcome and connect the parties. The second is the power to help—to help the parties go to the balcony and build a golden bridge when it is not at all easy to do. The third is the power to swarm, which brings the full influence and leverage of the community to bear.”

To help, we begin by asking clarifying questions. Often, they will persuade themselves. Advice is different from counsel. Ury adds, “To offer counsel is different, in my experience, from simply offering advice. Advice starts from the advisor’s perspective. Counsel, by contrast, starts from the other person’s perspective.”

To help, you need to understand the local knowledge or context. It is easy to take what we have learned and impose it on the situation in the form of advice. General knowledge, if it is applicable at all, is sometimes hard for people to apply to their specific situation. “The trick is to blend general knowledge with as much local knowledge as possible.”

“To swarm a conflict means to surround it with a critical mass of ideas and influence. Swarming integrates the balcony, the bridge, and the third side.” The community can often persuade and influence a situation better than any individual can. Swarm is the power of the community acting together.

It is amazing to think of how many bridges we have seen burnt as a result of not applying these principles in conflict situations. We tell or demand rather than attract and guide. We go to the gutter instead of the balcony. We burn rather than build. We reduce everything to either-or rather than making room for the whole. Be a possibilist

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Posted by Michael McKinney at 10:46 AM
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