In Part I of this two-part series on Difficult Conversations, I introduce the concept of “Interest-Based Negotiation” and discuss techniques for surfacing underlying interests through intentional meeting design. Below I discuss two techniques for managing conflict if and when it arises including asking “why?” and “what if?”

Asking Why

I was recently part of a strategic meeting with an asset management firm whose new CEO wanted to radically shift the companies’ direction. One of his goals: streamline funds. This new directive, led to heated conversation between the groups responsible for selling and designing funds. While the sales folks asserted that customers were confused by similar funds each of which performed differently, the fund designers argued that streamlining would reduce customer options. The key to breaking through the stalemate was to shift from a positional to an inquiry based conversation. I spearhead this shift in by asking “why” participants held their views. People responded by saying things like: “If we reduce options, I will feel like I am taking things away from my customers” or “I will feel I am overtaxing my team.” As these underlying concerns surface, I summarize them back to build alignment at the interest level by offering up statements such as: “It sounds like it is really important to you that whatever changes we make here don’t negatively impact the client.” As the group validates and builds on these statements, we begin to have productive dialogue.

Asking What if…

Asking the group “what if” is a way of surfacing the fears of those stakeholders who feel most threatened by a proposed solution. In the scenario above, the group (and new CEO) agreed that it was in the best interest of the organization and their end customers to streamline funds. However, many of the fund designers were still concerned that it wouldn’t be possible to communicate this change to customers in a way that didn’t make them feel they were losing out. Rather than dismissing these misgivings, you provide an opportunity for these stakeholders to play out their concerns. For example, what if you present to the client they still have questions and concerns or what if the clients threaten to leave…As the group discusses how to solve for or avert such scenarios, the resistant parties begin to buy-in to the change and the proposed solutions become more viable.


Conflict isn’t going away, but you can learn how to unearth underlying interests and manage tense moments in team meetings, company offsites, or other group settings in highly productive ways. Don’t be afraid to give it a try and let us know how it goes.

Gordon Eby holds a Masters in Dispute Resolution from the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Prior to becoming a facilitator he worked in mediation in the Boston court system, Harvard Law School’s Program on Negotiation, and United Nations Office of the Ombudsman. For additional reading on Gordon’s thought regarding marrying facilitation and mediation tools, check out